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“HIGH-RISE” (TIFF Film Review)

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Through his work in films like KILL LIST, SIGHTSEERS, and A FIELD IN ENGLAND, director Ben Wheatley has established himself as a twisted cinematic force. Armed with a distinctly cynical outlook, a dark wit, and a knack for unexpectedly graphic gut-punches, Wheatley delivers comedies and dramas that have the visceral shock impact of horror. Thus far, Wheatley has typically played in the realist realm that earned him comparisons to the likes of Mike Leigh (only with a blood-soaked streak); however, his latest feature is a different beast entirely. Based on a novel by CRASH’s J.G. Ballard, HIGH-RISE unfolds like a cinematic nightmare. It’s a deliberately alienating experience designed to thrust audiences into a nastily satirical vision of society and leave them in a state of disturbed awe.

The story takes place in the titular HIGH-RISE apartment building, a sterile cement structure that contains absolutely everything necessary for an isolated society. It was designed by Jeremy Irons’ perverse architect almost as a social experiment that would coddle its residents’ needs before ultimately unlocking their deepest, darkest desires and impulses. Tom Hiddleston gets protagonist duties as a doctor who arrives in the building having suffered a recent tragedy. He’s interested in getting lost and soon finds himself in a series of parties with the building’s various residents. Rather suddenly and deliberately messily, these parties and the world containing transforms into a giant violent orgy. The building was created to house social classes accordingly from the ground up, so Hiddleston finds himself in the middle once a riot emerges from above and below.

The film feels slightly detached from normal reality almost immediately. The characters each serve a symbolic purpose and even though the roles are all well performed by the likes of Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, and Reese Shearsmith, they are all deliberately a bit arch. The film, like Ballard’s novel, is highly symbolic and while that’s not typically Wheatley’s modus operandi, he runs with it.

The story set in some sort of vaguely futuristic 1970s and shot as though the movie was made in that era. Shag carpet and big sideburns make their expected appearances, as does a beige color scheme and a roving zoom-heavy style of cinematography. Wheatley recaptures a specific style of ‘70s filmmaking so well that his own directorial voice disappears slightly in the process. Thankfully, that’s only true of the set-up; this movie is designed to get messy.

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Rather than play out the buildings descent into bloody, filthy, sticky, sexy madness as a slow-burn, things suddenly nose dive into insanity. The nastiness seems to happen out of nowhere and becomes all-consuming. What once was oddly atmospheric and gently satirical story finds itself leaping from one wild scene of horror to the next. Characters become increasingly erratic, any semblance of the outside world disappears, and the narrative becomes more episodic and perhaps truer to the structure of the novel than anything resembling a conventional film. It’s jarring at first, yet ultimately worth it as the abstract and confusing nature of the storytelling only adds to the nightmare tone that Wheatley thrusts his viewers into headfirst.

For all of its shock and awe visceral power, Wheatley’s film is also distinctly political. He makes frequent reference to Margaret Thatcher and her delightful reign of terror over Britain, yet perhaps what’s most disturbing is how contemporary that nasty and disturbing societal metaphor feels as well. HIGH-RISE presents capitalist society and its warring class structure as failed experiment waiting to burst, which is certainly not an unwelcome message for today.

Admittedly, HIGH-RISE is not an easy film that can often feel like it is getting away from its director. The characters are too cold to connect with, and the deliberately unhinged/episodic narrative will occasionally test your patience. Yet, whenever Wheatley hits his stride, the film feels visceral and intellectual at once, pummelling the audience with disturbing images and ideas that viewers have no choice but to laugh at or cringe from in self-defense. Hopefully, Wheatley will return to his more personal filmmaking voice next time, but at least for one movie, it’s undeniably fun to watch him play in Ballard’s twisted little world.

 

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About the author
Phil Brown
Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).
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