If Brazil, Lord of the Flies, and Snowpiercer were stuck in a blender, the result might look something like Ben Wheatley's strange and stylish new film High-Rise, which makes its US premiere April 20 at the Tribeca Film Festival. An adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 dystopian novel famous for its canine-eating upper classes, High-Rise has polarized audiences and critics, hailed by some as "the social-surrealist film of the year," dismissed by others as "a bit of a dog's dinner." The film takes place in an impeccably ruined residential skyscraper, the high-rise of the title, seemingly beset by dysfunction and outright war amongst its residents, who are arranged vertically by a caste system that is very British, yet uniquely tribal.
"We wanted to make something that was not totally recognizable," the 43-year-old director told me last fall at an impossibly chic hotel bar in the Old Town section of Zurich, not far from where the film had premiered at the increasingly well-regarded Zurich Film Festival. The picture has a take-no-prisoners verve and sardonic humor to spare, but one leaves it as if having been bludgeoned with a hammer, unsure of up or down, left or right, teetering on collapse. How did we get here? What are the rules of this place? Wheatley and his collaborators, screenwriter Amy Jump and European mega-producer Jeremy Thomas, seem unwilling to offer anything that resembles traditional exposition or human motive throughout High-Rise's near two-hour runtime.
"Periods don't necessarily look like themselves," he remarked, a riddle for sure, but one that makes sense somehow coming from Wheatley, a portly, blued-eyed, shaggy-haired Brit who has become one of the isles' most lauded young directors in less than a decade of feature work. The director's surreal rendering of Ballard's class-oriented societal meltdown is set in an alternate-reality version of the late 1970s. The clothes and records and décor evoke the period without ossifying us there; the world has progressed in ways that it didn't in our times, but perhaps reasonably could have.
Although there are no poor people present, working- and lower-middle-class stiffs reside on the bottom levels while higher-income professional types, such as our hero Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), live on the middle floors below the haute bourgeoisie at the top. Dr. Laing, who has the style and sophistication of those living on the upper floors, draws the interest of the Architect (Jeremy Irons), a mildly disabled schemer who lives at the top of this Grand Guignol with a diabolical, sexually charged redhead (Keeley Hawes) who tends to horses on their rooftop terrace.
The two men begin playing squash in between Laing's trips to work and an eerie grocery store where the clerks only speak French. The Architect clearly wants something from Laing, but what remains is just out of grasp, like so much of this movie's narrative. Hierarchies of all kinds, not just class, come to the fore in mysterious ways the film isn't quite prepared to be frank about either. The one constant is that, as in our own time, unchecked prurience, a sense of irreparable civic decay, and an unwinding of whatever social contract that once existed between the haves and have-lesses, seem to be the tenor of the times.
As Laing becomes embroiled in an escalating series of indiscretions, including several affairs, kidnappings, and a murder, an increasingly violent tribalism takes hold on the residents in the building. One begins to wonder where the picture, and its all-too-relevant themes of consumerism and class anxiety run amok, will land. Although it loses focus in the end, the sense of impending social disruption remains potent. It's fitting that Margaret Thatcher, a woman who didn't believe in "society" and brutally led Britain out of the difficult era that inspired the movie, is the last voice on the film's soundtrack at picture's end.
"The films I've made have always been connected to the current situation," Wheatley explained. "The state can break the law and justify it by saying, 'Oh, we thought we were doing the right thing,' whereas if I go rob a bank because I think money is free, they tend to put me in jail for it."
"Is the class war going to start soon?" I asked. It's not the sort of question one generally issues shortly after meeting someone, but the director seemed like the type who wouldn't flinch. The fancy bar we were in gave my question some bite—we were in one of the most expensive hotels in the capital of the country with the highest standard of living in the world. Five-hundred-dollar shoes were everywhere I looked at the foot of the bar. I was the only person of color in sight.
"It's started, isn't it?" Wheatley replied, a watery twinkle in his blue eyes. The auteur nursed a hangover with an iced seltzer and some nuts he was mostly ignoring. We shared a grim laugh. If High-Rise is any indication, those are Ben Wheatley's favorite kind.
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High-Rise makes its US premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 20. The film opens theatrically May 13; On Demand, Amazon Video, and iTunes April 28.