One thing high-minded critics often complain about is too much exposition in movies: Audiences being spoon-fed everything they need to know about the plot through dialogue, rather than allowing the information to emerge organically from character conversation and behavior. High Rise feels like it took that criticism to heart, to the point that it erred catastrophically in the opposite direction. It’s a movie so committed to its satirical vision that it’s damn near impossible to follow.
Which doesn’t mean that vision isn’t still giddy, and at times even captivating.
The plot follows Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who moves into a luxury high-rise tower outside of London to get a fresh start after the death of his sister. The script by Amy Jump is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard, and ostensibly takes place in that decade, at least if the interior design and styles of dress and the tower’s brutalist concrete architecture are any indication. But for the most part High Rise has a self-contained and timeless feel, with the outside world barely acknowledged save for the occasional scene at Laing’s office.
The tower’s inhabitants carry out virtually their entire lives within the building: it has its own gym, supermarket, swimming pool, restaurants, and more. The director, Ben Wheatley, shoots all of this with a highly stylized, almost twee approach to the visuals. He also has a lot of fun with weird edits, focusing on the mundane details of the environment, and throwing in the occasional dream sequence.
Laing bumps into Charlotte (Sienne Miller), who lives one level above him on the 26th floor, and invites him to a party at her apartment. The floors of the tower are weirdly stratified by class, and Charlotte’s get-together mixes the upper-class professionals like Laing with the middle-class workers on the lower floors. In true 70s style, the proceedings are wild and drug-fueled, with more than a few hints of couples swapping petty jealousies and the like.
Among the lower floor denizens Laing meets are the hotheaded Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss). They later throw a birthday party for one of their several children, and the kids are thrown out of the tower’s pool to make room for another party held by the posh and wealthy inhabitants of the top floors. Incensed, Wilder leads a contingent of children back down to the pool to run the rival partygoers off.
Meanwhile, Laing’s midway status allows him to become a social butterfly between the bottom and top floors. Up on the roof, he finds an elegant garden and a fancy penthouse, which belong to the tower’s architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). That encounter gets Laing invited to another party thrown by Royal’s wife (Keeley Hawes). But Laing doesn’t get the message that it’s a costume party, and he’s mocked for his attire by another tower resident who also happens to be one of his coworkers. So Laing later lies to the man about a health condition Laing has found, inadvertently leading to tragic results.
These two incidents set off a bizarre chain of events that ultimately drive the residents of the tower into tribal warfare, barbarism, debauchery, and a general collapse of civilization. This is also where High Rise’s aforementioned allergy to exposition comes in. The building loses power, the garbage shoots stop working and filth piles up, the supermarket runs out of groceries, and various tribal factions emerge to restore a Lord of the Flies version of order. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to just leave the tower, or even sleep at the office. How any of this happens logistically is never concretely explained; the whole place just degenerates from scene to scene. Wheatley maintains a sufficiently hallucinatory vibe that you more or less go with it, but it also makes the film extremely hard to invest in.
The performances are all sufficient, but none of them really stand out except for Evans as Wilder. He’s flawed, selfish, emotionally undisciplined, but also the one person with a clear sense of principle and social justice. Laing is mainly a cypher, despite making several less-than-admirable decisions. But that also allows him to act as an entryway for the audience into the story, as we probably all ultimately suspect we wouldn’t behave that well either were civilization and its governing norms to suddenly collapse.
You could compare High Rise to Snowpiercer, another film that relied on a heavily stylized, self-contained and stratified world for purposes of social allegory. But Snowpiercer had a definitive story it wanted to tell about the nature and consequences of class-based exploitation — not to mention a clear plot. By contrast, High Rise’s class hierarchy is just one of its many anthropological connections, and it’s largely about resentments by the middle class against the top anyway. The actual poor and working class don’t show up; they can’t afford to live there.
More than anything, High Rise is interested in just generally lampooning the ennui of luxury living amongst the modern professional class, at least as it was envisioned in the 1970s. Admittedly, that has a certain gleeful appeal to it. But without a solid story to anchor it, High Rise is also thin and fleeting. After noting its odd sense of intrigue, it is easy to get on with the day.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYmY2tBYins