In the stylized class satire High-Rise, society doesn’t come undone as much as it artfully spasms. Adapted from the J.G. Ballard novel by screenwriter Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley, the movie takes place nearly entirely in the titular housing development, where the upper classes are literally at the top and the lower classes are at the bottom. The festering resentment and disdain eventually boil over to the point of chaos, in which residents of all income levels indulge their worst impulses in the most elaborately art-directed ways imaginable.
We’re shown how nasty things will get right from the start, with a flash-forward scene of a middle-class doctor named Laing (Tom Hiddleston) on his apartment balcony roasting the leg of a dog on a spit. The movie then jumps back “three months earlier,” as Laing moves in and meets a cross section of neighbors: the unhappy husband and wife (Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss) down below; the partying single mother (Sienna Miller) in the apartment above him; the building’s architect (Jeremy Irons), who lives in the penthouse on the roof. Because we already have a good sense of what’s in store, all that’s left to discover is the gory details.
As social commentary, High-Rise is at once obvious and scattershot. The targets are clear: the covetous poor, the decadent rich and the willfully naive in between. Yet the movie doesn’t sit still long enough for us to ruminate on much beyond those categories. Wheatley’s frantic style favors quick shots over sustained scenes, and eventually the film devolves into a lengthy, abstract montage that flits from one plot thread or visual gag or character to another. This montage is meant to echo the chaos that’s overtaken the building, certainly, but with no unifying principle at work, nothing we see has much consequence.
Despite its frenetic nature, High-Rise lacks the giddy creativity of, say, Brazil and The Zero Theorem, two equally spastic Terry Gilliam films that were deeply concerned with questions of class. Wheatley’s hand on the material — including an agonizingly drawn-out suicide leap from a balcony onto a car below — is too tight. Watching High-Rise, I was reminded of the many other, better films that have tackled class anxiety in a similar setting: George Romero’s Land of the Dead, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer and (at the top of this particular class) Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. At least, like that silent masterpiece, High-Rise boasts ingenious production design. The slanted architecture of the tower itself, which is echoed inside by nonsensically angular walls, is probably the movie’s most arresting element.