Given that just over half a decade ago Ben Wheatley was shooting films with a budget of £20,000 over eight days [2009’s Down Terrace], you could describe his rise in cinema as stratospheric, except it would imply that his work is still remotely of this planet.
It’s certainly not the case with High-Rise, a brilliantly, riotously surrealist film that makes the human condition look alien and yet scarily familiar.
Based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 modern classic novel, it centres on a young doctor (played by Tom Hiddleston) who is seduced by the lifestyle of a high-rise apartment building in which the residences get more expensive the higher up you go - ranging from the council housing-esque bottom floors to the wild opulence of the penthouse.
Maybe it’s the fact that Hiddleston once played F. Scott Fitzgerald [2011’s Midnight in Paris], but for a dystopian British drama set in the 70s, it weirdly (and not displeasingly) reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Innocent young narrator drawn into mad parties with half-enthusiasm, half skepticism? Check. Mysterious millionaire designing these parties for reasons and befriending our protagonist for reasons that are unclear? Check. Array of characters who fall in and out of love at whim and an over-arching theme of the corrosive nature of wealth and the pursuit of it? Also check.
It’s clear from the synopsis that the High-Rise is a pressure cooker, and it doesn’t take long for it to explode, to supernova in fact.
Wheatley doesn’t waste a single shot here, with the building’s kaleidoscopic downfall being characterised by rampant hallway sex, apocalyptic flat parties and blood in the aisles of the Kubrickian in-building supermarket. One scenes sees a woman dressed in 18th century regal costume waiting to be “fucked in the arse” while someone rides a horse across her shag pile carpet. Another sees a goat wandering lost through a burning hallway, surrounded by overturned trollies, with a balloon tied around its neck. It’s the kind of film in which you find yourself wishing you could mentally take stills from it while sat in the theatre.
You get the sense that Wheatley had an absolute blast making this, that he was finally given a budget deserving of his talents (north of $5 million, quite the leap) and decided to absolutely run riot with it. “I hope you find it boldly funny and invigoratingly shocking,” he said of the film, and it more than delivers on both fronts, my only quibble being the use of a Thatcher quote (the satire was already pretty evident).
I think what makes High-Rise so successful is its willingness not to provide you with all the facts. Had this adaptation been entrusted to a more perfunctorial American director, you can imagine the first act being a slick blow-by-blow account of how the building’s financial system works, but Wheatley shuns exposition, instead throwing you in at the deep end (along with several bottles of champagne and a lawn chair).
Coming off the back of the Oscars and its mostly dreary Best Picture nominees (DiCaprio falling over and getting up ad infinitum [The Revenant], sweaty Boston newsroom men standing in meeting rooms with their hands on their hips [Spotlight]), High-Rise is a welcome, hallucinogenic-laced shot of adrenaline in the arm.
High-Rise opens in cinemas on 18 March.