The Savagery of Class Warfare in High-Rise
We’ve been conditioned by films to be terrified of perfection, sometimes depicted as paradise, a concept so entrancing on the surface with something usually rotting beneath the surface. In Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (based on the novel by J. G. Ballard) a group of people live in a state-of-the-art apartment block where the predominately wealthy population have everything they need; they only leave because of their pesky day jobs. Inside the building is a supermarket—the rich can’t be fraternising in a regular market—where the camera pans across stacked trays of peaches, all appears fine, until the lower trays are glimpsed to reveal mould has consumed the fruits. There’s an unease to the purity of High-Rise, an extreme reminder of our status as savages in suits restrained by social decorum but prone to breaking at any moment.
High-Rise assaults class systems within the four walls of a Brutalist, 40-storey structure that appears on the outside like a concrete fortress designed to keep everyone looking downward and inward at each other. As goes with these things: the rich live on the upper levels and the poor live on the bottom. The building is one of five being constructed on the outskirts of London according to the vision of the architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who intends each tower to resemble a finger that will eventually form a hand rising to the sky. The hand is an open palm suggesting Royal wants to give a higher power a high-five; but once you’re in his company it’s clear the middle finger seems likely from one creator to another.
Our entry point into life inside the building comes from its newest resident, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who we first meet in Mad Max cosplay that turns out to be the real deal as the apartment block has become like a mouldy peach. Wheatley goes for broke with this opening gambit to show Laing following a white German shepherd with a small electric saw, followed by a sharp edit to a wall splattered with blood as the camera reveals the dog’s leg spit-roasting, and then, it jumps to three months before the canine feast where everything is fine—or is it? Wheatley never hides the dark satirical heart of High-Rise and the opener sets the stage perfectly for the slide into the manic state of affairs within the apartment block.
Through the flashbacks the dynamics of the power structures within the building are established as well as Laing’s meticulous quest to appear to be okay: suits tailored to perfection, zero-point-one per cent body fat, not a hair out of place on his head and a professional—borderline psychopathic—approach to his job at a school of physiology teaching students how to crack open the heads of cadavers like he’s shucking oysters. Hiddleston wears the mask of calm perfectly while showing the cracks of sanity in unblinking stares and smiles designed to disarm anyone wondering if sadness lingers beneath the bliss he projects.
High-Rise grips the edge of everything being ‘not quite right’ but the more time you spend with the residents (an ensemble of riches: Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss, Luke Evans, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes and Peter Ferdinando), the more you wonder if they arrived just as physiologically wounded as they end up. We’re all damaged in different ways and wearing the same business suit, to the same job, while taking the same commute each day is a polite kind of crazy. High-Rise boxes this behaviour while the residents strive to protect what they’ve built at all costs as they become disconnected with the outside world. And the door is wide open for them to leave at any time, which only enhances the madness, especially in a scene when a local police officer arrives at the entrance to see if they need any help while the occupants go medieval on each other. The self-inflicted isolation exemplifies the lunacy at play, but maybe the 1 per cent should be left to cannibalise each other if they decide to separate themselves from the world and indulge in their wealth to death—there’s a scene where a character jumps to their death and lands on an expensive sports car. In 2016 it makes you ponder whether someone like Donald Trump should have remained occupied in one of his Trump Towers rather than inflicting his wealthy aspirations for power on the rest of the world. High-Rise is flush with anarchy and captures human degradation in style with a sly, twisted grin for the wealthy and entitled.