Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans
3 (out of 5) Globes
In his introduction to J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned World” — a 1962 novel about global warming, as it were — Martin Amis argues that we shouldn’t exclusively lean on the author’s frightening gift for prophecy. (He also had Ronald Reagan win the presidency in 1970's aptly-named “The Atrocity Exhibition.”) But Ballard’s “High-Rise,” from 1975, feels like it's finally, in the allegorical sense, coming horrifically true. It's a book for today's gloomy pessimist, perfect for a time when America’s presidential election activates deep-seated prejudices, when social media brings forth tribalism and mob justice, when we appear to have become apathetic architects of our own destruction. Reading it makes one think we're not just teetering on the edge but about to sail off, and cheerfully at that.
The new film of “High-Rise” sort of gets this, if you look at it askew, if you give it the benefit of the doubt. Generous readers can fill in the gaps not quite plugged in by director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump. They’ve taken an allegorical work long presumed unfilmable — among those who’ve tried and failed is Nicolas Roeg — and turned in a mad, decadent, productively exhausting, darkly funny but sometimes overly literal interpretation. It understands, as “The Wolf of Wall Street” did, that excess doled out excessively can make a great point, but it also misses the subtler, more disturbing nuances that should go part and parcel alongside it.
Wheatley and Jump still get a lot right, or at least find a voice of their own that's of similar value. Retaining the book's shag hair and sideburns-heavy ’70s setting, it beholds the fall of a high-tech apartment complex, the kind where everything seems modern, all amenities are on the grounds and no one ever has to go outside except for work (if that). Our guide to the insanity is Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a mild-mannered doctor who doesn’t fit in with the aristo-loving richies in the upper floors nor anyone else. There’s no single incident that causes the rift, but very quickly the floors become trash-strewn battlegrounds, swank parties turn into violent orgies and not even dogs are safe when the in-house supermarket runs out of stock. Most chilling of all, almost everyone seem to prefer it that way.
This is part a funnier cousin to David Cronenberg’s sex zombies great “Shivers,” part the darkest British comedy imaginable. Its nastiest sight gags — a dead man’s head comfortably buried inside a smashed television set, a swimming pool filled with fresh corpses, an Alsatian leg twirling lovingly over a patio fire — recall the show “The League of Gentlemen,” which was both pitch black yukfest and demented horror. (One of its ringleaders, Reece Shearsmith, even pops up as one of the building’s gallery of grotesques, as if officially giving it "League"'s seal of approval.)
It's also a bit sloppy, a touch undercooked. Wheatley — either known for the bleak “Kill List” or, better yet, the differently grim rom-com “Sightseers,” about murderous psychopaths in love — is at his best when rattling off bold, monstrous sights or letting the insanity flow into a mad fever dream. He’s less assured with proper dialgoue scenes, which sometimes lack shape and leave a host of great actors (also including Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss and Jeremy Irons) a touch stranded.
You could say that's the point: that the characters lose their humanity because they never much had it to begin with. That's a maybe, and it's true it uses Hiddleston well as the elegant but slightly befuddled center of the storm. (Meanwhile, Luke Evans, typically cast as brooding anger-monsters in blockbusters, is a hilarious revelation as an increasingly wigged-out documentary filmmaker.) Yet it can't help feel Whealtey and Jump are simply better at stirring up an endless, out-of-control stream of mayhem than it is slipping in deeper thought, whereas Ballard could do both with a swagger that betrayed no effort. This "High-Rise" goes as crazy as its characters, and it doesn't even arrive at the same, unnerving end point as the Ballard. Still, the one it finds instead will do in a pinch. Ditto the film.