In an audience empathy test, killing the dog is perhaps the most capital of movie-crimes. Here is gleefully committed in the opening minutes, as a bellwether for the casually curious to beware. Several other canine-murders are peppered throughout the film, each more grim than the last, lest you miss the point. Subtlety of course is not aim here, the films central and titular edifice is a super-sized, dangerously insular apartment building where the floors at the top are bent both figuratively, and literally. Society in microcosm.
And we arrive at the point where the long juggled adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, High Rise, makes it to the screen. At one point director Nicolas Roeg was scheduled to make it, at another Vincenzo Natali was attached. Ben Wheatley (and his writing partner, Amy Jump) deliver a retro-futurist grotesquerie of hate and suffering. A cinematic endurance test as it were. Wheatley has never been one to let a lot of empathy get in the way of his comically brutal style of filmmaking, and he has managed squeezed every last drop of it out of it, here. This is triple distilled satire, to be served cold with a garnish of mania.
Tom Hiddleston, here a lean but blank slate, plays Dr. Robert Laing. A successful neurosurgeon recently recovering from an vaguely alluded to family tragedy, he is looking for both anonymity as well as a way to move up the socioeconomic ladder. This disturbingly massive condo tower is built on the edge of nowhere. Seagulls cry desperately on the soundtrack, often, but are never seen. We see only their shit dropping from the sky onto the endless field of 1970s automobiles and parking-lot skirting the building. It is a recognizable kind of addled future-version of Britain along the lines of Brazil, only with far more smoking, and sideburns (courtesy of an unrecognizable Luke Evans). Wheatley has set the film at about the same time as the publication Ballard’s novel. An interesting choice, because the promise of future looks stale, ugly and dank.
Being the first of many such buildings under construction, which we see in wide, slightly dodgy CGI inserts, early adopters of various social strata get to participate in the process of working out the bugs. Of which their are many, including wonky elevators, thermostats and the occasional brown out. The architect of the project, Mr. Royal (wobbly played by Jeremy Irons), resides in a verdant, almost medieval idyll at the top with his crazy wife who holds Marie Antoinette by way of Gatsby parties for the residents of the upper floors. His vision for the project is “a crucible for change.”
And that it is.