Monday, May 16, 2016

Review: High Rise

by Adam Riske
High Rise swings for a home run but pops out to the catcher.

I really didn’t like High Rise despite being able to fully acknowledge there are things about it worth lauding. This is the type of film that I reject almost entirely as far as what I like to get out of a movie, but I can respect how other people might feel differently and really appreciate it. High Rise is made confidently but I found it to be two hours of wallowing in ugliness and I couldn’t wait for the movie to be over. Dystopia is just not my thing. Unless it is my thing, like in Snowpiercer, with which High Rise shares much in common.
I think Snowpiercer is the better film by a large stretch. It has the benefit of being more action-oriented, but also Snowpiercer’s characters are much easier to care about than the ones in High Rise. I found the characters in this movie to be largely inaccessible. I also think High Rise has a tougher time landing its economic and political allegories. The themes in High Rise feel like excuses to show chaos rather than mayhem borne out of a passionate interpretation of a point of view. Ben Wheatley’s vision, oddly enough, reminds me of a review I once read of an Ariana Grande album (which I’ll paraphrase): it’s a great voice with nothing to say. While author of the novel, J.G. Ballard, seems to have had a lot to say, I think that Wheatley is not as deep in thought in his iteration of the material. Or, if he is, it doesn’t come across except in perfunctory terms.

Let’s start with the good. High Rise is a gorgeous looking film. It might be the best shot movie I’ve seen so far in 2016. Ben Wheatley’s choice of cinematographer, Laurie Rose, also worked on High Rise and it's career highlight level work, as is the production design and art direction. The film is set in the 1970s and the aesthetics (including the costuming and hairstyling) are perfect for the period. I wasn’t around in the 1970s, but what I’ve heard is that it was a gaudy period stylistically and High Rise is beautifully so. This is a great-looking, below average movie. The experience is a trudge but I could watch five minutes of this movie at a time with ease largely due to how beautiful it looks. Faint praise, I know.
The performances range from good to somewhat annoying -- sometimes by design, but annoying nevertheless. Tom Hiddleston plays Laing ,who is the lead, narrator and audience conduit. As written, Laing is a bit of a mystery (this isn’t much of a character study or ensemble in that we get to know these characters well, they’re more like mice being run through a maze) and perhaps that’s the right type of role for Hiddleston, who is an actor I often see as more genteel than interesting. Jeremy Irons isn’t given much of note to do, which is disappointing because he has just recently been the same type of slimy, duplicitous character in the excellent Margin Call. Sienna Miller is solid and a highlight of the movie. It doesn’t hurt that she’s one of the most gorgeous actresses I’ve ever seen. The usually strong Elisabeth Moss doesn’t have much or a role either. I was hoping hers would be more fleshed out, but it’s not. The weakest link of the main cast is probably Luke Evans, who has the most complex character of the bunch but rarely registers as more than one-note for me. The B-cast acts like a Terry Gilliam company, which is not my thing on most days.

I appreciate that High Rise is ambitious. I just feel like it’s miscast in a way in terms of a director (if there’s such a thing). It’s an uncomfortable marriage of a filmmaker with material. It’s a bleak experience that made me feel frustrated and bad. If that is its intent – which it very well may be – than it succeeded all too well. High Rise was a long-gestating passion project that was considered unfilmable. My dislike for the movie aside, I’m still happy for those fans of the book that have been waiting for a film version. Whether it’s a good adaptation I cannot say. As a casual viewer who watched it on VOD over the course of a Friday night and Saturday afternoon, it really did little for me. I might be missing something. In this case, though, I firmly believe that has more to do with the film’s execution than my capacity to “get it.”


  1. This is really disappointing. I've been looking forward to this for a year now, and haven't heard from 1 person who has liked it.

    1. I loved it! Variety obviously is the spice of life and I think it makes sense why someone wouldn't like it anything I guess... ha.

      But for me the pacing of the movie was very fun. It reminded me of like, a super dark Playtime! with some Brazil bits to it. I agree with Adam that it didn't really make sense as a contemporary social/economic commentary but aside from that I thought it was terrific. For me it was really funny, totally absurd in all the good ways, and was texturally very beautiful.

      There are moments of it being totally up its own butt, but I think it's still worth a watch.

    2. High Rise reminded me of Brazil too. I don't like Brazil which is probably partly why I don't like High Rise.