High-Rise, adapted from the novel by J.G. Ballard, begins as its story ends — with the handsome, introspective lead character (Tom Hiddleston) picking through the rubble of a broken building, finding a dog, bringing it back to his ruined apartment, then slaughtering it and roasting its hind leg on a spit while cheerful classical music streams from the record player. Then it cuts to three months earlier, as the same man arrives in his pristine new home inside a sleek concrete high-rise. Now that you know how things begin and where they’re headed, you can pay closer attention to the details along the way.
For the most part, that makes for a queasily delightful exercise in noting significances. Oh, look, the woman in the penthouse populates her rooftop garden with characters from nursery rhymes, while the pregnant woman near the ground floor is long overdue. Ah, the trash chute is clogged with dirty diapers. My, my, the rich are looking to hold onto power by lobotomizing the media. Well, of course, the crusading journalist winds up shouting his own name into his tape recorder. But however apt the imagery, and however convincing the devolution into decadence and chaos, there’s only so much fun to be had in watching things fall apart, especially since director Ben Wheatley hews close to Ballard’s practice of strewing the narrative with banana peels. If the characters don’t have sure footing once the social order crumbles, why should you? For example: Hiddleston is certainly the star, but he’s hardly the hero. Insulted when he shows up improperly dressed for a top-floor party, he retaliates with a nasty prank that sends more than one thing crashing to earth. Handsome, charming, clever...cruel? And as things get uglier and more unhinged, he is mostly content to step over the piles of accumulating filth and hide in his hole in the wall.
Not that it’s entirely his fault. He starts out sad about his sister’s death and hopeful for a fresh start, naked and vulnerable as he sunbathes on his balcony, when BANG, his tipsy upstairs neighbor Charlotte (Sienna Miller) drops a bottle of Champagne that shatters right beside him. (Carelessness is the prerogative of the rich and beautiful, yes?) Next thing he knows, he’s chatting up Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect who lives atop his creation, a purported “crucible for change” that mixes middle and upper classes — within reason. And reason is the first to go when people start to bump up against each other. (James Purefoy is a slurring delight as the aristocratic gynecologist who is quick to bare his fangs.) Especially when love (familial and otherwise) has already been hollowed out and chucked in the dumpster. From the start, sex is largely a question of status, free from the burdens of fidelity or even passion. And the kiddies can do little but watch.
Once the bumping starts, it’s a long and messy slog toward that hot dog on a stick; just realistic enough to be harrowing, just fantastical enough to be fascinating, just nasty enough to have you looking for the building’s emergency exit now and then.
Matthew Lickona: Why did you begin the film the way you did?
Ben Wheatley: That’s how the book starts. J.G. Ballard starts with that, and it’s quite a famous opening in British literature. Our instincts at the beginning — screenwriter Amy Jump and mine — were to straighten the story out. But when we did that in the edit, we realized why Ballard had done it. And why fight it? Why fight a master storyteller?
ML: That’s always a challenge when you adapt a famous work: telling the story without being slavish to the text.
BW: We didn’t want to hollow out the book. We wanted to make a movie out of it, and we wanted it to push us into difficult narrative positions. To put it onscreen in a way that we might not be comfortable with if we were writing it ourselves. I really enjoyed the way he used tropes and then subverted them. You’ve got Royal, the designer. He’s a kind of patriarch — essentially, he’s God. And you’ve got Wilder, the reporter. He’s an alpha male. And you’ve got Laing, the doctor, who in a B movie would be the most trusted character. You think they’re going to go one way, and then they go another. He does the same thing with the story. When I started reading the book, I thought, “Oh, it’s class war.” And then it’s not. And then I thought, “It’s going to be like Lord of the Flies.” And then it wasn’t. “Tom Hiddleston’s character will save the day.” And then he doesn’t. The offering up of possibilities and then dashing them is part of the joy of the book, I think.
ML: It makes it tough on the viewer, though. You’re always looking for a place for your sympathies to land, and then they get yanked out from under you.
BW: It’s a tricky thing. A lot of characters aren’t sympathetic in cinema, not when you look at their actions. They do heinous things and stack up all these terrible crimes, but we go along with them, because they’re audience avatars. Look at an action-movie hero, how many people he actually kills in the process of trying to reach his goal, or get his revenge, or solve the crime. Think about what that really means. And that seems to be okay. But if you have a character who is contrarian or difficult, or who changes their mind, or who disappoints you, that’s a massive problem. The films I’ve made have been railing against that. They use genre tropes, but there are more realistic approaches within those genres. I think humans are basically unreliable — they’re both attractive and repulsive, they’ll be heroes and cowards back-to-back — and so [depicting that] that makes the characters more realistic for me.
ML: At one point, Wilder says that it’s living in the high-rise that messes you up, that he thought he was cut out for it, but found he was wrong. Is the high-rise at least partly to blame for what happens?
BW: Not the specific 40-story concrete building. But the constrictions of society can make us sick, and make us perform in ways that are against our best interests, and even turn us into monsters. I think that’s what he’s seeing, and it’s a difficult scene where he says it, because at that point, he’s the villain of the piece. He’s done the most heinous crime of all. And he talks to our hero and says, “You’re the villain,” and the hero’s, like, “Oh, God...yeah.” He tears down the only character you’re kind of rooting for.
ML: I was also struck by Royal’s claim that the failure of the building has set a lot of the residents free. Is that the claim of the film: that civilization has to collapse completely in order for things to get better?
BW: Well, I wouldn’t like to say that in an interview [chuckles]. That’s certainly there, isn’t it? But I wouldn’t believe everything he says. He’s being an arch-pragmatist, working with what he’s got. But I like him. He’s an arrogant son of a bitch, and he’s caused the whole thing, and he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. But he’s a creative character; he’s attempted something. And he rolls with the punches.
ML: As I was watching, I thought that if I were adapting the book into a movie, I might have been tempted to set it now, in an ultra-modern building, instead of keeping it in the ’70s.
BW: You start to break the book if you set it now, mainly because of social media and our needs to broadcast everything that we do. I was eating breakfast this morning, and someone next to me was taking photos of their food and putting it online. Reporting it. You can’t have a building going quietly insane on the edge of town with that kind of behavior. And also, for me, period movies and sci-fi movies are the same thing. They should be movies about now, because there is only now, and everything else is irrelevant. But when you set something in the future or in the past, you can talk about now without the knotty context and distracting detail of now. The audience doesn’t feel hectored or shouted out, and they can come to an understanding of what relevance it has to now at their own speed instead of the film saying, “You’ve made a terrible mistake, you terrible people.” So this is a weird film, because it’s a science fiction film and a period film at the same time.
ML: Talk about directing a character like Laing, who does an awful lot of absorbing and not a great deal of acting.
BW: A character who essentially doesn’t do anything is antithetical to modern cinema. But I think it speaks to a very modern thing. I watch Laing and think, Oh, God, I’m Laing. I’m not taking responsibility. I’m not getting involved. I’m watching it on TV. I’m cross about things, but I’m not doing anything about it. Essentially, we’re all kind of cowards, and we’re not fixing the problem because it’s just too much trouble. That might have something to do with the fact that life is tough and we’ve all got to work and struggle to survive. But if you don’t have the energy to fix things, everything just kind of slides around you and gets worse and worse. I don’t think every film needs to have a character like that, but I think that kind of character needs a place.