There’s no lack of ambition to be found in Ben Wheatley‘s new project High-Rise, but unfortunately, there isn’t any subtlety either. One of my bigger disappointments this year at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, this is an allegorical drama that just seems way too jumbled. Perhaps there’s something lost in the translation from book to screen, but this movie almost never worked for me. Wheatley is a difficult filmmaker, for sure, but normally I can appreciate and even like his films. Here though, it was a struggle from early on. The first act has some promise, but by the midway point when everything that’s still to come is fairly obvious, the rest of the flick is a chore to sit through. Class warfare can be fertile material in any medium, but here it’s just driven into the ground, with the metaphors on display wearing thin quickly. Tom Hiddleston does what he can as the main part of the ensemble, but he’s fighting a losing battle. Wheatley doesn’t play it safe with High-Rise, I’ll concede that, but it’s his first real misfire, nonetheless. Tribeca has had a mixed bag of films to showcase this year, and while High-Rise certainly isn’t the worst, I do believe it’s likely the most disappointing thing I saw at the festival. Alas.
The movie begins with a look at the disastrous remains of a high-rise tower block. Some of the residents still remain, including Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), living a sort of feral existence. We then flash back to the more civilized beginnings of the building, when Laing is first moving in, before eventually getting back to where we started off. Early on though, the complex seems ideal to Laing. His eye is caught by Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), while building designer Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) has an eye on him. There’s also tension brewing more and more between the wealthy and decadent tenants of the top floors and the lower to middle class ones below. It all builds and builds, with the second half of High-Rise focusing on what happens once the other shoe drops, as it were. It’s at that point that things get redundant and the film more or less loses you. Repetition starts in and even starts to destroy the small successes that have come before.
There’s a really good cast on display here, though it’s hardly enough to save the film in any meaningful way. Tom Hiddleston is our lead, a doctor who desperately wants to stay out of the exploding class warfare and just get left alone. Hiddleston captures the steely gaze of someone like Laing, while still giving the character enough personality to make him initially worth rooting for. Sienna Miller is similarly strong in the flick, though with far less screen time to show for it all. Jeremy Irons ends up chewing the scenery a bit, while Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss have two of the other big roles of note, though two of the least interesting characters to play. Also in the cast are the likes of Keeley Hawes, Stacy Martin, James Purefoy, and more, but Hiddleston is best in show, for what that’s worth.
Director Ben Wheatley clearly has a vision for what he wants High-Rise to be, but it’s simply not a vision that I found to be effective. Wheatley’s direction is clear cut but less stylized than usual, despite the presence of his usual cinematographer Laurie Rose, while the screenplay from Amy Jump doesn’t really make the J.G. Ballard book of the same name into anything particularly accessible. Jump and Wheatley wallow in the second half plot developments and speed through some of the first half ones, creating a situation where they seem to just want to watch the rich and poor fight each other, as opposed to giving the tale the classy treatment it otherwise should have. They somehow make it all boring, and that’s a real shame. Clint Mansell‘s score is solid but on the forgettable side, which is another bummer to me. Usually you remember a Mansell score, regardless. That’s not the case here.
I might very well be in the minority when it comes to High-Rise, but this represented a real missed opportunity to me. I wanted to see Wheatley tackle a story like this, with a larger budget and scope than normal, but the final product isn’t up to snuff for him. Somehow, it turned out to be one of the least engaging things that I saw this year at Tribeca. It was a real letdown at the fest and wastes a solid cast in the name of something truly middling. If you love Hiddleston, I suppose this is something new for him and could have an appeal as a curiosity, but I can’t recommend it at all. High-Rise is a misfire from Wheatley, who I hope can quickly put this behind him and get back on track as one of the better oddball filmmakers out there. My fingers are crossed, at least.