What a beautiful and bloody mess of a movie.
“High-Rise” is a surreal, trippy, sex-drenched, blood-spattered, adult variation on “Lord of the Flies” (with a touch of “Brazil” and even “Metropolis”), peppered with provocative allegories but eventually sinking under the weight of its own overly artsy, semi-smug self-consciousness.
Based on the 1975 dystopian novel from J.G. Ballard, “High-Rise” is set in an ultra-modern, luxury high-rise where the tenants revert to savagery and a kill-or-be-killed mentality when accepted social mores are stripped away and class resentment kicks in.
British director Ben Wheatley lenses with aggressive flair and fills the screen with stark, sometimes shocking visuals, as if he had watched all of Stanley Kubrick’s and Quentin Tarantino’s films just before filming commenced.
Tom Hiddleston, continuing a string of performances leaving no doubt he’s one of our most versatile actors, shines in the leading role as Laing, a doctor residing in one of the nicer apartments in the high-rise.
When we first meet Laing, he’s barbecuing on the balcony of his posh pad. But wait, what’s that on a spit? It appears to be the leg of a canine. And it looks as if a good-sized bomb has blasted the building.
Cue the flashback graphic: “THREE MONTHS EARLIER.”
Before all the chaos ensued.
Having just moved into a pristine, intimidatingly huge high-rise on the outskirts of London, Laing is sunbathing nude on his balcony when a glass comes crashing down from an apartment above him. The startled Laing jumps to his feet, looks up — and there’s Sienna Miller’s Charlotte, sauced out of her mind and giving Laing the once-over while she fends off the advances of a neighbor.
“You’re an excellent specimen,” Charlotte tells Laing, who flashes a wicked grin in return. This new building, with all the amenities one could hope for and plenty of attractive people milling about, has plenty of promise. Plenty of promise indeed.
“High-Rise” seems to be set in the future but in the mid-1970s as well. The fashion, the hairstyles, the cars and the overall vibe scream 1975, but the quartet of monstrously tall high-rises jutting into the sky on the far edges of the city and the interiors of Laing’s particular building have a futuristic feel. This looks like a movie from the 1970s imagining what 2016 might be like.
Although most of the adults in the building have jobs in the outside world — every morning they march in unison out to the seemingly endless parking lot, get in their cars and presumably drive to London — the high-rise is something of a self-contained universe. The stay-at-home mothers and the children seem to never leave, as if they’re under some sort of home confinement.
The attractive couples and the well-off single people live in the higher floors of the building, while the working class and the families with multiple children are on the lower floors — steerage, if you will. The upper class enjoys all the perks, while the Lower Floor People are lucky if they can get running water and working electricity.
Meanwhile, the building’s architect (Jeremy Irons) lives a kingly existence in the penthouse and rules the building and its tenants like a benevolent dictator. The architect didn’t just design a building, if you’ll hear him out. His plan was to design a better way of life for mankind.
Suffice to say that’s not how things play out. We go from orgiastic, coke-fueled Restoration costume parties featuring a string quartet playing ABBA to horrific scenes of violence and cruelty and destruction. Director Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump are clearly playing much of as pitch-black satire, but “High-Rise” keeps hammering home the same points, and not even the wealth of strong performances from Hiddleston, Miller and Irons are enough to salvage the day.
Magner presents a film directed by Ben Wheatley and written by Amy Jump, based on the novel by J.G. Ballard. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated R (for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use). Available now on demand and opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.