Saturday, April 30, 2016

Review: High-Rise

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel "High-Rise" is an unsettling dystopian vision of how an enclosed environment - in this case, an apartment building where the social classes are kept separate with the rich on the top floors and lower class on the not-so-well-maintained bottom floors - can wreak havoc on the psyche. I read the novel a few years ago and found it to be, much like his disturbing "The Atrocity Exhibition" and "Crash" (I haven't read the book, but am a big fan of David Cronenberg's brilliantly warped film), an unnerving depiction of a society on the brink of collapse.

Ben Wheatley, the British director responsible for the creepy "Kill List" and the trippy "A Field in England," has adapted the book into a new film that is stylish and visually impressive, but seems to be missing an ingredient that made the novel so effective.

In the film, a medical school lecturer named Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has moved onto the 25th floor, which puts him below the super wealthy who live at the top and the poorer classes who dwell in the building's lower depths, of the titular building, which includes enough amenities - a grocery store, swimming pool, etc. - that its residents would likely rarely have to ever leave the property.

He meets and gets involved with a single mother named Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and sort of befriends a documentary filmmaker named Wilder (Luke Evans) and his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), but is also sought out by the building's designer and penthouse resident, Royal (Jeremy Irons, doing that creepy thing he does so well), who has taken an interest in him.

Some minor power failures and grievances among the residents - such as a group of kids from the lower floors being kicked out of the pool by the rich denizens - leads to further tension, which then erupts in a smorgasbord of violent behavior, suicides, sexual assault and other horrific incidents.

Laing is stuck in the middle, while Wilder attempts to play revolutionary and Royal's thuggish security team struggles to keep everyone in check. For a novel, this material resulted in a compelling - and often disturbing - narrative, whereas Wheatley has mostly mined it for stylistic flourishes and the occasional sex and violence.

The director certainly has talent. His debut, the gritty crime drama "Down Terrace," had a sense of dread that expertly ran throughout it, while "Kill List" - his best, in my opinion, effortlessly jumped from genre to genre, culminating in a shocking ending. His "Sightseers" didn't do it for me and "A Field in England," although visually stimulating, was a mixed bag. "High-Rise," although an independent film, finds the director working with a name cast and, seemingly, a higher budget. But there are times when it feels as if he's too willing to borrow visual cues from other filmmakers, such as Stanley Kubrick or Cronenberg, who have handled this type of material much more successfully.

Something has been lost in translation from page to screen and while it's difficult to pinpoint what exactly is missing, one of my problems with the film is that it never feels as if it's more than just a series of events taking place. The characters are thinly drawn, despite the performances being good, and their motivations are rarely clear. Also, Ballard's book does an excellent job of the slow decay of societal mores that leads to the orgy of violence that overtakes the building, whereas the film's depiction of it is sudden and less convincing.

Thematically, the concept of a caste system in a tight-quartered space that results in resentment and revolt should lead to an intriguing execution - and, in fact, it has: Bong Joon Ho's "Snowpiercer." Although Wheatley's picture is more a science fiction story of the mind - as is much of Ballard's work - and Ho's is a straight-up futuristic action thriller, the latter is an example of how well a story of this type can be translated to film. Alas, "High-Rise" is a mediocre adaptation of a powerful novel.

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