By Brandon Harris
April 13, 2016
If Brazil, Lord of the Flies, and Snowpiercer were stuck in a blender, the result might look something like Ben Wheatley's strange and stylish new film High-Rise, which makes its US premiere April 20 at the Tribeca Film Festival. An adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 dystopian novel famous for its canine-eating upper classes, High-Rise has polarized audiences and critics, hailed by some as "the social-surrealist film of the year," dismissed by others as "a bit of a dog's dinner." The film takes place in an impeccably ruined residential skyscraper, the high-rise of the title, seemingly beset by dysfunction and outright war amongst its residents, who are arranged vertically by a caste system that is very British, yet uniquely tribal.
"We wanted to make something that was not totally recognizable," the 43-year-old director told me last fall at an impossibly chic hotel bar in the Old Town section of Zurich, where the filmed had screened. The picture has a take-no-prisoners verve and sardonic humor to spare, but one leaves it as if having been bludgeoned with a hammer, unsure of up or down, left or right, teetering on collapse. How did we get here? What are the rules of this place? Wheatley and his collaborators, screenwriter Amy Jump and European mega-producer Jeremy Thomas, seem unwilling to offer anything that resembles traditional exposition or human motive throughout High-Rise's near two-hour runtime.
"Periods don't necessarily look like themselves," he remarked, a riddle for sure, but one that makes sense somehow coming from Wheatley, a portly, blued-eyed, shaggy-haired Brit who has become one of the isles' most lauded young directors in less than a decade of feature work. The director's surreal rendering of Ballard's class-oriented societal meltdown is set in an alternate-reality version of the late 1970s. The clothes and records and décor evoke the period without ossifying us there; the world has progressed in ways that it didn't in our times, but perhaps reasonably could have.
Although there are no poor people present, working- and lower-middle-class stiffs reside on the bottom levels while higher-income professional types, such as our hero Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), live on the middle floors below the haute bourgeoisie at the top. Dr. Laing, who has the style and sophistication of those living on the upper floors, draws the interest of the Architect (Jeremy Irons), a mildly disabled schemer who lives at the top of this Grand Guignol with a diabolical, sexually charged redhead (Keeley Hawes) who tends to horses on their rooftop terrace.
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High-Rise makes its US premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 20.