Trapped in the Tower of London

High-Rise, a chilly glimpse into J.G. Ballard’s preapocalyptic abyss. 

Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise.
Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise.

Aidan Monaghan/RPC

Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a viscerally immediate film, but it’s also profoundly cool, sometimes to a fault. In one early scene, Dr. Robert Laing, an anatomy professor played with distant grace by Tom Hiddleston, peels away the face of a recently deceased schizophrenic for his students. He then begins to saw and hammer away at the skull beneath. Though he approaches this chore with characteristic detachment, one student collapses to the floor in a dead faint, apparently overwhelmed by the intensity of the lesson. In this film, it’s that student—not the casually brutal Laing—who’s the outlier.

Adapted from J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, High-Rise unfolds in an elegantly rendered, and surprisingly seductive, simulacrum of the 1970s. Everything is ugly, but hypnotically so. The titular edifice is a Brutalist masterpiece; its ridged walls, which recall Paul Rudolph’s notoriously off-putting architecture, resemble pin-striped pants made from rough-grained sandpaper. The costume design, by Odile Dicks-Mireaux, is like a hangover from Mad Men’s final episodes, all peak lapels and mottled charcoal wools. Even Hiddleston’s finely hewn features feel like a visitation from another era, equal parts handsome and haunting.

Despite its period setting, High-Rise belongs to the microgenre of preapocalyptic fictions, stories like the first Mad Max in which much of the pleasure comes from watching things go bad. The high-rise—the film’s primary location—is meant to be a self-contained facility for the well-to-do, its 40 stories containing virtually everything that its residents might need: a shopping mart, a swimming pool, presumably even a school for their children. Everyone is sleeping with everyone else, and no one seems to worry about the future, clearly confident that they’re already living in it. “People don’t usually care what happens two floors above or below them,” Helen (Elisabeth Moss, gamely sporting an awkward English accent and a prosthetically enhanced pregnant stomach) tells Laing soon after he moves in.

And yet they do care, of course. Despite its luxuries the building quickly begins to fragment, seemingly less along class lines than by floor. Even luxury, it turns out, has tiers: In one sequence, Laing arrives, invited, to a party on the upper levels, only to find that all the other guests are elaborately attired and wigged in costumes of the ancien régime. Even in his sharp suit, he stands out, and he’s shoved back into the mirrored elevator, where his own debased image reflects into infinity.

The contempt goes both ways, however: Studying a brain scan from his thin-skinned, fainting student, a young man who turns out to be a resident of the upper levels, Laing smiles, void of compassion, when he realizes that there’s something wrong. Soon enough, families from the lower stories—“down in the bottom, in all sorts of shadows,” as Helen puts it—literally rise up, dragging noise and chaos behind them. In-betweeners—Hiddleston’s Laing among them—mostly watch, bemused. But when the power begins to fail, the knives come out: Someone drowns the famous actress’ dog, track-suited men plan raiding parties, the lobby fills up with trash bags.

High-Rise never hides where it’s headed. Much like the novel, it opens with a scene of Laing roasting the leg of an Alsatian hound on a makeshift spit. “For all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise,” the narrator explains before the film cuts away to an arguably more civilized time, just three months before. Each morning, seas of well-dressed professionals stride out of the building’s doors on their way to work. Each evening, they socialize, speaking in mannered phrases that echo the wry, slightly unreal tone of Ballard’s prose even when they’re not quoting it. And yet there’s little doubt that bad weather is brewing.

The storm, when it arrives, is kaleidoscopic, but also surprisingly restrained. Wheatley photographs even the worst excesses of his characters with an attitude of ironic reserve. Actual acts of violence typically stay just out of frame. We hear the sounds of bones breaking and see the bloody aftermath, but we’re generally spared the events themselves. The proceedings have an air of inevitability, but they always leave us with the feeling that we could have done something to stop them, if only the camera had refused to look away.

As horrors accumulate, the building becomes something like an organism eating itself, an emblem of late capitalism in disarray. “I don’t work for you. I work for the building,” one character tells another who’s just tried to fire him for his participation in the chaos. Early in the film, while collective resentments and rage are still growing, Laing visits the penthouse studio of Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building’s architect. Surveying the plans on Royal’s desk, Laing quips, “It looks like the unconscious diagram of some kind of psychic event.” The building itself was designed, the movie suggests, to beget madness.

In what amounts to his novel’s thesis, Ballard writes, “By its very efficiency the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behavior, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses.” See, for example, the building’s grocery store, which provides the residents with everything they need, even as gray mold creeps over the boxes of peaches that stock its shelves. Advanced civilization, Ballard suggests, is its own undoing, since its culture of convenience removes any obligation to struggle with others for survival. It’s not that modernity drives us crazy, just that it frees us to be as crazy as we’ve always been.

Much as he withholds the gory details, Wheatley never quite commits to the extremity of this premise, though he’s forever dancing around it. He sometimes psychologizes his characters in a way Ballard would have found alien, suggesting that something specific to each individual motivates him or her to join in the violence. It’s starkly un-Ballardian to propose that things happen for reasons, and not because reason itself is a fragile prop.  

Wheatley instead locates Ballard’s cynicism in his film’s cinematography and editing, most of all in the dreamlike montages that frame bacchanals and riots alike, events that are equal parts enchanting and terrifying. Characters frequently stare directly into the camera during these fugues, as if beseeching the audience to join them in their madness. It’s hard to resist their invitation. This is, despite everything, a beautiful film, whether it’s showing us the brutish Wilder (Luke Evans) climbing a garbage-filled stairway or Laing and Helen waltzing in the ruins of his apartment. Even in chaos, Wheatley and Ballard ask, Is the high-rise really that bad?

For Laing, at least, it might not be. Though Hiddleston’s performance is evocative and compelling, he rarely betrays any emotion beyond a kind of stoned curiosity. Despite that, he’s constantly showering—or at least he is until the water stops running. I understand the impulse: I soon found myself wanting to wash off the modernist stench of Wheatley’s world. And yet it’s entrancing all the same, so much so that like Laing and his fellows, I had no desire to leave the high-rise. “The building’s failure has offered these people the beginning of an escape to a new life,” Royal tells Laing, blithely unconcerned about the actual nightmare that he’s brought into being.