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High-Rise, a Parable on Architecture and Social Order, Tells a Dark, Disturbed Tale

Director Ben Wheatley provides an artsy spin on J.G. Ballard’s dystopian story of structure and society

The Brutalist building in the new film adaptation of High-Rise, a dystopian story of social breakdown within an apartment tower, has been called the film’s main character. By the end of the movie, viewers may consider it the most developed.

Director Ben Wheatley, who used British writer J.G. Ballard’s cult science fiction novel as the basis for a dark, kinetic commentary on society, says his film isn’t a takedown of Brutalist architecture. It’s a look at the class structures, economic pressures, and general oppressiveness of society, with a slanted, streamlined modernist building standing for both set and major metaphor. But within the microcosm’s slow descent into madness, from increasingly debauched, alcohol fueled bacchanals to open tribal warfare and murder, the building—its isolation at the edge of the city, rippling concrete pillars, and day-glo pop supermarket—seem more deep and developed than the people slowly breaking apart inside. When Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), tossed out of a top floor party, finds himself alone in a glass-clad elevator, that seems to be the character’s literal moment of self reflection.

The rushed narrative highlights the journey of Dr. Laing, a bachelor who moves into the 25th floor, firmly establishing himself in the upper middle class section of the building right before hostilities break out. First introduced on his deck, grilling the remains of a neighbor’s dog, an in medias res rotisserie, he proves a dour, unaffected narrator, from his move-in day and his flirtations and affair with upstairs neighbor Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) to his interactions with lower-class rebel Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). A cliched, upper crust architect who resides in the penthouse of his own creation, a nod to British architect Erno Goldfinger, Royal seems content to play squash, sit in his studio, a white plastic lightbox, and mutter about how his building is a "crucible for change."

It’s clearly a crucible for crazy, as bodies pile up in the pool, supermarket shoppers begin crushing skulls with canned goods, and the hallways become war zones. Wheatley can’t necessarily be blamed for focusing on carnage and unraveling, since they’re the central actions of Ballard’s book, but he doesn’t make time for setup and character development, never quite capturing the sheen of normalcy that makes the building’s sacking and collapse so spectacular. Frantic camerawork can’t make up for Ballard’s dark and beautifully unhinged prose.

Curbed exclusive clip of High Rise, a Magnolia Pictures release.

What made the real-world downfall of social housing and Brutalist estates so dramatic was the underlying optimism and naivety that didn’t see the end coming, itself a much larger and more moving metaphor than equating any kind of concrete aesthetic with a lack of humanity and warmth. Wheatley’s take on Ballard’s book, coming during an era of filmmaking and entertainment where the end of society is a given, seems to rush past the part about how society should work. Architect Anthony Royal is a caricature of arrogance; too bad the film didn’t dwell a little bit more on the collective pride before the fall.

High-Rise comes out this Friday in limited release, and will have wide release on May 18

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Evil Buildings: Film’s Most Malicious Architecture, in Honor of High-Rise [Curbed]