Boy, what a strange film.
I started High-Rise expecting the unexpected, because there’s not much out there that gives you a clear idea what, exactly, it is. Trailers were vague (though exciting) and plot synopses revealed little other than that it involved escalating tensions between the inhabitants of a residential tower. My best guess was that it was some kind of sleek and inventive dystopian depiction of class warfare. So, did I have the right idea? Frankly, 119 minutes later, I have no clue.
High-Rise is the story of Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who becomes the newest resident in one of several advanced towers meant to provide all one needs to get by. They have gyms, pools, supermarkets, etc., and the residents interact like members of a large community, or like traditional neighbors rather than those in a shared apartment complex. Laing, however, quickly discovers that within the self-sustaining community of the high-rise, a strict social structure whereby those on the upper floors lord over those on the lower floors is threatening to tear the place down from within.
It doesn’t take you long, as the viewer, to get this sense of the high-rise. Although, that sense deepens through Laing’s interaction with numerous other characters, and it’s those interactions and their escalating weirdness that make up the bulk of the film. Laing meets (and finds himself attracted to) his upstairs neighbor Charlotte (Sienna Miller); he’s welcomed to the Utopian top floor to be introduced to the architect of the whole high-rise, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), and his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes); he becomes friendly with Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), occupants of lower floors; and he meets and is essentially dismissed by a range of pretentious upper-floor socialites.
Over the course of all these meetings, one begins to see that not only are most of the characters rivals in one way or another, but that the differences between them are so deep and volatile that the slightest nudge could blow the whole social structure up. And sure enough, that’s just what begins to occur. Laing wanders about life in the high-rise in a politely bewildered state as he’s tugged between invitations from Royal to embrace upper-floor society, and his own connections to those on his level and below. And as the tower itself begins experiencing problems (mostly power failures), the upper and lower classes are increasingly at odds, with Richard Wilder gradually beginning to lead a sort of one-man revolt against the whole structure.
It’s a very original project (my best comparison would be Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby meets Elysium) and one with a few gripping moments and strong performances. Hiddleston is convincing in an utterly unrealistic role (the character is stunningly passive in the face of the total breakdown of his own world), and Evans is wonderful as the upstart drunk from the lower rungs. But there’s a flaw in the film that transcends any performances therein and utterly damns the whole thing: we’re never told what’s actually keeping people in the high-rise.
To be clear, things get really bad in there. We reach a point at which lives are at risk, the top floors are having orgies like indulgent Roman elites oblivious to the barbarians at the gates, and people are living in poverty and filth. But it’s still just a condo complex. There’s no apocalyptic or dystopian environment surrounding the building and holding people there for the sake of survival. They just decide, impossibly, not to leave.
That little detail cheapens the whole thing and makes it seem more random than artistic. It makes you less forgiving of the choppy and almost surrealist way in which the film is shot. And in the end, I was sorry to find that High-Rise devolves into a film screaming at you that it has something to say, but forgetting to actually say whatever that is.
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