Having just finished and thoroughly enjoyed The Night Manager, I thought I’d know more or less what to expect from High-Rise. This is due largely in part to the sexy sexualization of Tom “Sexy” Hiddleston, who stars in both and is also sexy. I assumed his character in High-Rise to be the sterling yuppie with the isn’t-it-perfect life structured in service of the concealment of darker, truer impulses. In Night Manager Hiddleston’s attractiveness is essentially made into a plot point; so too, probably, would High-Rise note the perfection of the specimen before delving into a personality far less desirable. A six-pack and a violent extreme, per American Psycho, per marketing stills like this:
But High-Rise isn’t sexy for very long. The prologue is a glimpse of the messy future, wherein Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing seemingly resorts to making food out of the dog, making paper airplanes out of the electricity bill, and making a ramshackle life in the husklike ruins of the tower block. It is suspiciously unsexy. Then again, though, resorts isn’t the right word: Laing has very definitely chosen this. He’s in a sort of hell and is more or less enjoying it.
Three months earlier everything was a lot sexier. The high-rise is a self-contained utopia, Laing the newest resident, and each floor has something different. The supermarket on Floor 15. Pool on 30. The penthouse at the roof rivals the penthouse at Minas Tirith. The best amenities, we learn, are the tenants, and it’s not long before the aforementioned phrase perfect specimen is explicitly applied to Laing by the woman who lives above him.
It’s difficult to say whether the direction High-Rise takes after the initial set-up is enjoyable or not. The expectation primed by American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t in director Ben Wheatley’s sights after all, for the sleek suaveness of the film itself is willingly abandoned time and again in favor of consistently manic editing. A shot of Laing in the car is followed by a shot of him on the ergo, followed by a shot of the building itself, followed by a a slo-mo romp between two faceless partygoers, followed by a shot of a majestic white stallion. Laing plays squash (Floor 36) just like he did when he first arrived, but now he seems somehow forced to do so. There are brutal beatings, fine wines, drug abuse, a 7-year-old’s birthday party, rape, babysitting, suicide. A man named Richard Wilder drowns a dog in the pool before resolving to become a documentary filmmaker. Laing himself eventually loots the supermarket for the last remaining can of paint, has sex with Wilder’s pregnant wife, and gets recruited to perform a lobotomy by the building’s architect. It’s chaos.
On the one hand that makes the film a bit of a chore to watch, similarly to the never-ending parade of nonsense masquerading as story in Wolf of Wall Street and Filth and Kill Your Friends; at worst those films are little more than an excuse for the star to go bonkers, and at times High-Rise learns towards that sentiment as Hiddleston’s Laing, Luke Evans’ Wilder, Sienna Miller’s Charlotte and Jeremy Irons’ Royal tear the place apart. Every now and then the framing or the free-association-style editing remind you of something vaguely Kubrickian, but soon you’re watching an orthodontist spew obscenities on the subject of the jammed communal trash compactor and visions of Clockwork Orange give way to visions of Brazil. Most apparent is the refusal to escalate in the way one would expect High-Rise to escalate, positioning a scene of suicide just in front of a pool dance party as if to suggest that as a logical next step after someone’s jumped from thirty stories up.
On the other hand, though, it’s more and more clear that High-Rise is chaos, definitely, but also structured chaos. The residents of the futuristic tower descend into madness, and High-Rise does the same. When the lights in the lower floors start flickering, Wheatley’s camera does the same. And the film ends how it begins, mirroring itself and bookending a wackily-edited high-octane jaunt with comparatively calm, familiar environs. There are quite a few mirrors as symbols throughout the film:
And even things that seem entirely random, fit for inclusion in a parade of nonsense as described above, might actually turn out to be knowing symbols. When the fruit at the supermarket goes moldy, one wonders if everything in the gleaming building will soon rot. Even the human ear on the floor has wealth hanging from it in the form of a diamond earring. Some symbols are more difficult to interpret, such as the bleeding gash on Royal’s head, but the existence of those symbols can be comforting in what might otherwise be a camera trained on good-looking people doing bad things for two hours.
So, again, even if it’s tough to say one enjoyed High-Rise, the merits of the film do become more obvious a few hours after it ends, once you’ve processed the thing as a whole. And the one who is undoubtedly enjoying himself is Laing, living in his systematically deconstructed __topia, waiting for the other towers to fall apart as well. High-Rise and the high-rise are both comprised of structured chaos, individual units of madness packed together to form a big block of it. Maybe that’s attractive to some people, the categorization of sin and vice, or maybe the point is that it’s subconsciously attractive to everyone. Laing’s certainly no longer the picture of perfection and neither is his flat, but he still seems like he’s bringing sexy back.