‘A boozy, sweaty, violent, side-burned mess of a film’ – Ian Maleney on High Rise
High Rise is a mess. A boozy, sweaty, violent, side-burned mess of a film. This was likely the filmmakers’ intention, but this fact doesn’t make the messiness any easier to forgive or the film any easier to like.
The basic story, as far as there is a story, is the arrival of Dr. Robert Laing in a new high-rise apartment block created by the mysterious figure of The Architect. The building itself is the film’s main character – a temple of post-war modernism taken to its narcissistic extreme, an imagined social utopia deeply undermined by the hierarchical structure necessitated by capital investment. The building makes this hierarchy very simple: one’s social standing – and one’s exposure to sunlight – is directly related to the floor of the building on which one lives. The higher you go, the wealthier, more connected, more influential you’re likely to be. At the same time, everyone in the building pays the same charges for maintenance of the building, a sort of flat tax system. When things start to go wrong – the refuse disposal chute getting clogged up, the electricity cutting out, the fruit in the in-house supermarket going bad – it’s those at the bottom who suffer most. Sound familiar?
Laing moves into an upper-middle floor, not high enough to be a top, top resident but somewhere well above the bottom orders all the same. The film regresses quickly, moving in a barely-tethered swirl from a straight-laced film about Laing – his apartment, neighbours and job – to a series of set-pieces wherein nothing much happens beyond the carnival of violence and drinking. There is a tipping point somewhere, but it’s difficult to pick out.
The plot is initially thickened by the death of one of Laing’s work colleagues, an arrogant young medical student who is also a resident of Laing’s building, albeit much further up the pecking order. A joke goes wrong, and Laing feels a reasonable degree of guilt in the younger man’s eventual death. Perhaps it’s at this point, with the body lying cold, that the film shifts – there’s no going back from here, it’s either in or out. The film chooses to stay in, to turn the building into a world of its own, a tower of sin, desperation and debauchery from which no one seems minded to escape.
As the building itself fails, the lower orders gradually take over their portion of the floors, creating a blend of self-protective commune and everlasting party. These scenes are generally beautiful, the dancing light of the flames casting shadows on the residents and the brushed-concrete walls, but utterly empty of significance. Again, you have to assume this is the rather laboured point.
The higher-ups eventually come to the conclusion that their reputation as party-throwers par excellence is in danger of being destroyed by the effervescence of the lower floors. The spectre of class warfare plays out as a farce, the aristocrats lounging in the Architect’s mid-century modern living room discussing a supply strategy for their epic party. A mission to the supermarket – a first for most of them – sets the scene for the climactic battle. It’s wilfully stupid stuff, a shallow mock-up of an ideological clash utterly lacking in tension.
You’d almost have to admire the brute pointlessness of the exercise, but there is a sense that one is supposed to get something from this. A moment of unconscious pleasure perhaps leading to a startled shock of self-recognition, the ultimate Ballardian re-direct, leaving no-one free of complicity in the stark horror of our modern lives. It never happens though, nothing turns, and it goes on for fucking ever. Set-piece after set-piece, a brainless persistence lightened only by Portishead covering Abba. The appearance of Thatcher is the unnecessary final confirmation of a dunderheaded faux-politics. The film circles around a host of meaty topics without ever seeming to really consider any of them in any depth at all – it’s having too much fun making things fall apart, making sure the facial hair is comical enough, making sure the sound of one character punching another is physical enough, making sure that Tom Hiddlestone’s tie is appropriately askew.
Ballard was never much of a political writer; his significance is in his ability to articulate the fetishes and obsessions of a mass-market culture. This is something the film seems to have missed, instead letting the attractions of its retro-futurist style overwhelm the construction of its characters. It feels utterly prosaic to be wondering about the characters’ motivations, but the film’s restriction of its concerns to the slow destruction of a shiny surface denies its characters anything approaching an inner life, the destruction of which is generally far more interesting and something Ballard was generally good at unveiling. The film is a mess. Perhaps the book is better. I don’t know; I haven’t read it.