MOVIE REVIEW: ‘High-Rise’ is a deeply disturbing, affecting look at human survival

high rise movie review

Film: High-Rise
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller

When you stop and think about it, the human race’s survival to this point is amazing. Think of all that we’ve had to endure over thousands and thousands of years: shifting climates and environments, multitudes of vicious predators and wildlife, disease and famine, and each other. No matter the curveball history has thrown at us, we take it, and we adapt, and here we still are. But what if someone took that millennia-long, planet-wide experiment and condensed it into one location? Would people still be able to survive? What would they do in order to keep going? It’s on this premise that High-Rise thrives and shocks.

The film is based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, and things start normal enough. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the titular high-rise, a complex that contains everything a society needs to survive. There are gyms, grocery stores, garbage chutes, and everything you might need to throw a party. No one needs to leave to have everything they could ever desire. The tower is broken into a class system based on which floor you live on, and Laing meets a wide variety of people from all floors. There’s Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) from the floor above him, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) from the lower floors, and the architect of the whole idea, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), on the very top.

Minor inconveniences such as power shortages and backed-up garbage vents begin to pile up, and tensions quickly grow throughout the building. As conditions rapidly crumble, the residents begin to lose control of themselves, throwing opulent parties while also engaging in extreme violence against the other factions in the high-rise.

high rise movie

It’s in this degradation of society that director Ben Wheatley shines. It’s horrifying to watch how quickly the residents adapt to their new lifestyles, and Wheatley paces the film in a way that moves at a good clip while still making sure we get an ideal view of the depravity. Through the use of quick cuts, montages, and unusual camera angles, Wheatley illustrates the juxtaposition between the happiness and exuberance of the tenants and the disturbing atrocities they’re committing. It’s a fun, silly scene when Wilder crashes a higher floor’s pool party with a bunch of children for his kid’s birthday—until we see Wilder drowning one of their dogs out of spite. It helps that High-Rise keeps the time period from the novel, and the bright and garish fashion and decoration from the ’70s provide a stark background for the brutality and violence appearing on screen.

No one is a saint in High-Rise. Even our protagonist Laing maliciously lies to further himself and obtain petty revenge. The entire cast gives tremendously powerful performances, perfectly selling how the squalid conditions could lead to dramatic and profound psychological shifts. Evans and Hiddleston in particular shine, and their interactions are some of the highlights of the film.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on Clint Mansell’s musical work as well. Throughout the movie, the music remains upbeat, ranging from classical arrangements to more groovy party tracks. The fact that the music doesn’t degrade with the conditions helps to reinforce the deeply dark idea that the warring and violence are the new normal in the high-rise, and that for the residents nothing is amiss.

The film isn’t without flaws, however. The cuts and rapid time shifts can sometimes be too disorienting, breaking emersion as the viewer has to reestablish what is happening and how much time has passed. In addition, some of the relationships in the movie, especially between Laing and Royal, seem unearned due to the lack of time establishing them.

High-Rise is a thrilling case study of a film about how far we’ll go to survive in the worst of conditions. It’s beautifully shot, tremendously acted, and will stay with you long after it’s over.

I would suggest going on a walk after you’re done watching. You’re going to need it, and it’s not good for you to stay cooped up in one building all the time.


Gabe Aikins

Gabe Aikins resides in Michigan and writes with his trusty 18-year-old cat by his side. When not writing, he is more than likely working through his back catalogue of video games or reading a book. Follow him on Twitter to listen to him give opinions on pop culture and yell about sports.
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