High-Rise (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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High-Rise (2016)

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Looking for a fresh start, Dr. Robert Laing moves into a well-to-do apartment complex.  Stacked with amenities, the tenants of the high-rise have little need to venture outside it walls.  But as tensions flare between the families of different incomes, cracks in the cement environment emerge, and all its residents stand on the edge of total chaos.  Ben Wheatley directs High-Rise, from a screenplay written by Amy Jump, and stars Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, and Elisabeth Moss.

The recipe for High-Rise comes courtesy of a mix of English literary and visual institutions.  Take one part Fawlty Towers, a bit of The Lord of Flies, some of the absurd imagery of Monty Python, and blend generously with the kind of self-aware writing kids get out of their system early by making a speech about a speech.  On the latter point, I'm guilty, but it was some seventeen years ago I last relied on that crutch.  Ben Wheatley's 2016 direction of High-Rise, though sprinkled with moments of dark power, so heavily underlines the class warfare I was tempted to write, "I GET IT," in my notes every two breaths.

High-Rise, based on the novel by J.G. Ballard, wore out its welcome within the first ten minutes.  Wheatley makes the curious decision to start our perception of the events of High-Rise in the tail-end of the events of High-Rise.  It's like arriving at a party four hours late with most of the guests wallowing in a pool of their own vomit, only to have the guy who writes bad poetry insist on telling you every detail of what led up to the fluid-saturated disaster.  We already know the titular high-rise apartment building is going to break, making every creak, aggressive posturing of the characters, electricity failure, and flash of violence gratuitous punctuation.

There are a few visual pleasures in High-Rise.

There's a formalist appeal to this approach and Wheatley is, if nothing else, a deft hand behind the camera at moving between the simmering hostility that boils beneath the rigid posturing and the later chaos.  One early sequence has the camera dissecting the barely concealed naked body of Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston).  The POV comes courtesy of his neighbor, Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), and the juxtaposition of the rigid shot, the magazine draped casually over Dr. Laing's crotch, and the unadorned concrete of the apartment building make for a strong and dangerous erotic moment.  Similar shots later in High-Rise linger on Hiddleston's backside, giving the camera an opportunity to revel in the gaze of women instead of men.

This is refreshing until the rapes start.

Maybe you'll have an example of fiction where the plot continues being insightful or enjoyable after the rapes start.  For me, the sexual violence of High-Rise mirrors the dialogue that's tone-deaf too often.  When I read about something being tone-deaf it's usually in the sudden shifts between comedy and drama with exchanges being presented in one tone that reflect another.  In High-Rise this means odd exchanges where the all-white cast portraying different levels of comfortable middle-class have arguments about the use of, "You people."

I have some issue with the dialogue appropriating racially coded dismissals in High-Rise's alternate version of the '70s where no non-white citizens exist and no civil rights are being fought for.  This is likely part of the point, as these folks living in some comfort are never satisfied and rip one another apart while unaware of what's going on outside the apartment walls.  But, as a viewer, the on-point dialogue annoyed me.  In addition to the arguments about, "You people," we have other characters bemoaning the difference between the people on the higher floor and the lower floors, discussion about how the mask slips off of all humans, and of Dr. Laing, "It takes a certain determination to row against the current, doesn't it?"

Residents of the higher floors in a total lack of self-awareness dress as French nobility.

Not even Jeremy Irons, who plays the architect of the apartment building, can make dialogue like, "Now he's raping people he's not supposed to," work.  It's not for lack of trying.  Irons comes closest to nailing the tricky balance between threat and farce with his hurried dismissal of all things that don't fit into the architects grand design.  Then there's the odd case of Elisabeth Moss who is too good for High-Rise.  It's odd watching the formal descent into chaos and hear the bad dialogue occur next to Moss, who mixes just the right amount of oblivious selfishness into her performance to portray the exact kind of person who can ignore the chaos going on around her.

Finally, there's the matter of Hiddleston, a performer I deeply respect but want to love.  He's wrong for High-Rise, but it's not his fault.  Wheatley's directorial approach of dark absurdity demands a lead in-tune with the tone like Moss is.  Hiddleston more or less plays High-Rise straight, and he's excellent at it, generating real pathos in his increasingly agitated attempts to stick to his routine.  But in the twisted universe of High-Rise he's just as crazy as the rest, and as made obvious in the dialogue (because that's what High-Rise does) Hiddleston is less sane than the documentary film-maker leading a rape crusade against the higher floors.

I recognize elements in Wheatley's approach and some of the performances which resonate with me so long as I keep strong aesthetic distance.  This isn't why I watch movies, and there's little doubt in my mind that my distant distaste is another critic's hidden treasure.  Maybe someone else's insight will turn High-Rise into a brilliant take on class warfare.  I'll remain skeptical of the rape-mad residents of the apartment until then.

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High-Rise (2016)

Directed by Ben Wheatley.
Screenplay by Amy Jump.
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, and Elisabeth Moss.

Posted by Andrew

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