British indie darling Ben Wheatley has made a living for himself electro-shocking the ostensibly comatose world of cinematic death, parceling out and sowing the seeds of a strip of filmic land that is necrotic and cadaverous but never embalmed or lifeless. His films are death-marked but not deadened. Now on his fifth film, his masterpiece remains his 2011 effort Kill List, a modern reworking of the quintessential British horror film The Wicker Man. Until this point, that 1973 work has doubled as a sort of spiritual guiding light for Wheatley, who has by and large drawn himself to the lurking terrors in the pastoral rather than those which creep into the mental cogs and emotional rivets of automatized modern society.
His latest, High-Rise, is something of his breakthrough into the mainstream, and it links its British influences both high and low, fiery and icy, like Ken Russell cross-dressing as Stanley Kubrick, infecting a Machiavellian frost with a more hysteria-fraught kind of holocaust. Fetishistically aestheticized (arguably even more-so than Wheatley’s last film A Field in England), this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about class conflict in the titular monument to megaton malaise is a centrifugal, chaotic haunted-circus of a film that wears its new-cult-canon aspirations on its sleeve. It doesn’t replicate Ballard’s melancholic, vampiric croon as a wordsmith, but Wheatley’s brutalistic architecture and feverishly kaleidoscopic photographic negative energy inject the film with enough hedonistic anti-matter to function as a liminal space between hot-headed horror-show and atomized social parable of the fifteen-minutes-in-the-future variety.
It’s undoubtedly a mid-century science fiction tale, and Wheatley borrows the ‘70s filmmaking influences that were inspired by Ballard’s blend of the prophetic and the agitated in their day; in addition to Kubrick and Russell, the plague-dog terror of a Nicolas Roeg is all over the film. Russell, I suspect, is the most undying infection the film suffers from, colonized as it is by disco-fried French aristocracy parties as gaudy displays of wealth curdled into a sort of alien-chic that vividly sabotages the aimlessness and detachment of the upper class. Everyone in the film, especially main character Robert Lang (Tom Hiddleston, flexing his black-hole-in-the-frame muscles most dynamically), is encased in a gulag by the very orgiastic hedonism that superficially liberates them from the doldrums of existence. Anyone for whom that doesn’t conjure images of Russell would behoove themselves to seek out a crash-course in one of the most devilish British genre auteurs immediately.
Despite its impressive stylistic achievements, High-Rise isn’t admittedly the most pliable or textured exegesis on any of its subjects. Less thought-provoking investigation than barrel-chested inquisition, it capably marries form to content in a sensually provocative way but is slightly less adept at fermenting a legitimate vision of oppression on its own. Not unlike A Field in England, it has the lexicon without the argument, the cadence without the poetry. Its observations can border on trivial, not unlike a more self-serious version of 2014’s Snowpiercer but without that film’s go-for-broke Looney Tunes sensibility to set dressing, costuming, and general tonal askew-ness. The film’s outré sensuality can approximate overbearing self-awareness as much as genuine creeping insinuation, leading to a film perpetually capped by the nagging suspicion that it is, however intelligently crafted, too cottoned to its own intelligence to ever surpass it (to this extent, one suspects Wheatley has seen a few of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films). Almost all of what Hiddleston says about the wealthy in the film – that they are uncommonly arrogant and prone to bouts of narcissism – might be applied to the film itself.
That said, the peculiar mixture of drunken stupor and hot-flashes is undeniably bewildering and unique, a bold cinematic statement even if it isn’t saying much we don’t already know about the suffocating distance of the rich from the (in this case literal) under class. Certainly, the film’s structural gamesmanship is enticing, recreating, with a more psychotropic demeanor, the editing rhythms of Lucio Fulci’s fellow tale of demon-crazed entropy overtaking a single building, The Beyond. Like that 1981 classic, High-Rise slowly slides from the relative stability off continuity editing to a more hallucinatory, disturbed style that rejects contiguous physical space and temporal linearity for something more abstraction. The style doesn’t tumble, nor does it slither; it arhythmically lurches as a reflection of atemporal flickers of human energy jutting against the torpor of human ennui. It’s an able, moderately provocative trip from somewhat crystalline social order toward an anarchic breed of chaos that the film visualizes as both a natural outgrowth of this repressive order and a cleansing, almost liberating process (thereby stepping up to the abyss of nihilism inhabited by Snowpiercer’s ending, if not actually diving into it). You’d be hard-pressed to write a political thesis about the film, but an aesthetic one is certainly plausible.
Still, effective though it may be, one wishes that a film with this broad and baroque an idea about how to frame class structures might have carved out a little room for a wink or a nudge toward reflexivity. Organizing his film as a demented desert-trek rather than a Marxist carousel like Snowpiercer fits more snugly within Wheatley’s wheelhouse. But he’s more notable for his vigor than his polemicizing, and High-Rise is a smidgeon too predetermined to truly feel fully unhinged and vigorous in comparison to Bong Joon-ho’s superior slice of politically-conscious B-cinema. However minor a difference, Snowpiercer wore its vigor with an open-hearted head-first plunge into full-on white-hot screed, while High-Rise is decidedly more grey-haired and sober, and not always to the benefit of a director for whom restraint is not a natural inclination.