High-Rise, a darkly funny adaptation by cult English director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field In England) of the J.G. Ballard novel of the same title, preserves the book’s ’70s setting, steeping its vision of a toppling society in retro decadence: brutalist apartments carpeted in ankle-high, cream-colored shag; flight attendants in red uniforms dancing in a pill-induced dream; women in tunic dresses slumping into sectional sofas or against walls of ribbed concrete, drinks in hand. An orchestral arrangement of ABBA’s “SOS” swells on the soundtrack as a man is thrown out of a costume party and into a futuristic elevator with mirrored walls. A super-modern apartment building on the outskirts of London, shaped like a Jenga tower frozen in its first moment of collapse, forms an ecosystem of excess, consumption, and delirium. The sunlight that cuts through its slit windows is the color of champagne.
The intoxicating mix of kitsch and chic barely conceals the psychosis underneath. In Wheatley’s fragmented, mutating style—which sometimes brings to mind Nicolas Roeg—the stacked structure of the apartment tower turns into a labyrinth of hallways, elevators, and parties where every floor seems identically subterranean. Under the gaze of a continuously moving camera, the trappings of convenient living—appliances, rowing machines, shelves stocked with food in the in-building grocery store—appear to come alive. In exterior shots, the 40-story tower revolves like a display model, its scale indeterminate. All the signage is in Eurostile Bold Extended, the futuristic typeface made popular by 2001: A Space Odyssey, suggesting a doomed mission of space colonists.
Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston, very good), a bachelor physiologist from apartment 2505, watches as the building regresses into a Mad Max-esque wasteland of garbage barricades, raiding parties, and literal class warfare following a few blackouts and a problem with the trash chute—a descent into collective madness that High-Rise underplays and elides to surreal (and audience-defying) effect. Wheatley’s use of ellipses and his overall refusal to do anything that might suggest a point of view or invite identification skirt incoherence. As in Ballard’s novel, the building isn’t just a dystopian microcosm of alienation and stratification, with the wealthiest living at the top. It also seems to create a new reality of its own: a killer cocktail of claustrophobia, stylishness, and oblique irony.
Recreating the novel’s notorious opening sentence (“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…”), High-Rise introduces Laing as a scavenger in the tribal aftermath of the collapse, before skipping back to his arrival three months earlier as the new owner of a small apartment with a balcony view just above the midpoint of the tower—a largely wordless montage, carried by restless cuts and camera movements, that encapsulates the plastic appeal of High-Rise. It is a world of blunt allegories, class antagonisms, and erotic drives, perverted by style into manic, nearly unclassifiable black comedy. Its violence is gruesome enough for a horror movie; its dialogue is arch (“She said your tenancy application was very Byronic,” “He’s raping people he’s not supposed to and, to top it all off, he shat in Mercer’s attaché case,” etc.) and spoken in impeccable deadpan.
The tower’s dwindling resources pit two archetypes against each other: Royal (Jeremy Irons), the genteel patrician of the tower, who lives on the roof; and Wilder (Luke Evans), a lowly TV producer from the bottom floors who slowly devolves from a provocateur into a predator of feral machismo, his face covered in a mask of dried blood. Laing, the consummately passive stand-in for the do-nothings of the educated middle class, focuses on women, namely Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and Helen (Elisabeth Moss)—Freudian figures of sex and maternity, the former a single mother, the latter pregnant.
Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump tie it all to the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the final moments of the film, and there is something distinctly British to the movie’s trapped, isolated sense of cultural nightmare. (No man is an island, but Great Britain sure is.) But the devolution of the tower, which remains presentable from the outside even as violence and squalor reign behind its lobby doors, doesn’t seem to have as much to do with bad internal politics as with crumbling decorum. While surfaces fluctuate or decay, the worst instincts and urges remain consistent—an idea visualized early on in a scene where Laing peels back a cadaver’s face, revealing the gruesome skull underneath.