SHOCK reviews Ben Wheatley’s scathing and surreal HIGH-RISE.

If you’ve read the J.G. Ballard novel upon which British maverick Ben Wheatley’s delirious film HIGH-RISE is based, you’ll know the story, the characters and will even be surprised by (and hopefully, in approval of) the many deviations from that text. What you won’t be is let down. Because, like William S. Burroughs (a writer he’s often compared to), adapting the stranger work of Ballard is very difficult, a task that only the bravest filmmakers dare attempt. David Cronenberg mastered and expanded upon Ballard’s world in CRASH (he did the same with Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH, in fact) and Wheatley is more than up to the task, here. He nails Ballard’s “voice”. And for those of you who have no idea who Ballard is, words of warning: HIGH-RISE is a horror movie, but a very specific kind of horror movie. Those with milquetoast sensibilities need not apply.

Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Robert Laing, a brilliant surgeon who takes up  residence in a state-of-the art condo, situated in some sort of vaguely retro-future, alternate incarnation of London. Laing lives on the middle floors, reserved for those who “help” others (doctors, dentists, lawyers). The bottom levels are home to the working class. The top floors are for the rich, the elite, the socially and financially superior. The building is completely self-contained. There’s a grocery store, a clinic, a gym, a school and more. Literally, one need never leave the High-Rise. And eventually, they don’t.

Laing begins having an affair with his neighbor upstairs (Sienna Miller), getting slowly sucked into the decadence of the building and eventually neglecting his life outside the condo. Luke Evans plays Wilder, an angry middle class man who despises the building’s architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons) and all he and his cronies stand for. When things start to fall apart in the building – broken elevators, power blackouts, rotting produce in the market – the building turns tribal, with the three factions of this microcosmic society, degenerating into warfare, sexual madness and brutal violence.

Our point of entry into the berserk, arch narrative is indeed Hiddleston and it’s easy to cite that he’s the weakest presence in the picture, though that’s by design. Laing is a virtual automaton, a shell who enters a weird world and lets it overtake him, navigating its politics and horror while never really affecting  or engaging with anything, neither resisting or steering the events. He’s that indifferent everyman who eats what’s fed to him, an observer, a fence-sitter. And with that, in a sense, Laing is the only real evil of the piece, an evil that’s born of apathy…

More interesting is the supporting cast. Miller’s purring sexual cipher; Evans is magnetic as a seething man whose insecurities fuel his anger; Irons is the monster of the piece, a lunatic Dr. Frankenstein who indulges himself to destruction and who is so entitled that his moral compass has long been obliterated. And Purefoy is a riot, essentially reprising his Mark Antony character from HBO’s ROME, especially during the last reel which mimics Mark Antony’s drug and sex fueled madness in Egypt.

Some critics have mentioned that Boong Joon-ho’s 2007 thriller SNOWPIERCER sort of beat HIGH-RISE to the punch in its fantastical, bitter and allegorical tale of a dystopian environment built by genius-turned-madman, with a similar plot thrust of a have not clamoring his way to overtake the haves. But SNOWPIERCER wallows in its genre, always ensuring that it will be defined as a science fiction film. HIGH-RISE has no easy classification and, as it progresses, it forgoes coherence in favor of a weird, blackly funny, amalgam of LORD OF THE FLIES by way of Luis Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, with a dash of Fellini thrown in for maximum psycho circus value. And Clint Mansell’s gorgeous electronic/symphonic score (aided by Portishead’s cover of ABBA’s S.O.S) hold it all together. It might actually be Mansell’s finest score, in fact.

What is certain is that this is Wheatley’s most challenging, ambitious and, ultimately affecting film to date. It’s not easy to recommend, but those that latch on to it, will latch hard and suck all of its caustic poison in, willingly, happily.