The final scene of “High-Rise,” Ben Wheatley’s exuberantly nasty screen adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, plays over an excerpt of one of Margaret Thatcher’s recorded speeches extolling the capitalist values she would later implement as prime minister of Britain. Coming as an abrupt punchline to nearly two hours spent watching an attractive, multi-storied microcosm of British society collapse into a lurid orgy of dancing, kicking, slapping, coke snorting, glass smashing and gleefully arbitrary killing, Thatcher’s words do not exactly register in the rousing spirit she perhaps intended.
But then, neither do they function in quite the manner you might expect, which is to confirm the movie’s scathing critique of the rigid class stratification and rampant consumerism that presumably sent its characters into free-fall. To be sure, there are a few jabs at familiar targets (greed is not good, etc.), but Wheatley, the horror-thriller prankster who made “Kill List” and “Sightseers,” is less an incisive social analyst than a cheerful demolition maestro. If you can pull a cohesive political argument from this movie’s apocalyptic rubble, or divine a clear chain of narrative cause and effect, I salute you.
In bringing Ballard’s famously “unfilmable” novel to the screen — fulfilling a dream that has eluded filmmakers for decades, Nicolas Roeg among them — Wheatley and his regular screenwriter, Amy Jump, have done the usual amount of excising and streamlining. But they have not brought much in the way of dramatic clarity to the specifics of how the residents of a 40-story tower apartment block would devolve into a state of seething, murderous anarchy.
This matters less than you might think. Echoing the book’s famous prologue, right down to the funny-ghastly image of a dog's leg roasting over a fire, the film announces its horrifying destination right at the outset, before rewinding the clock to a more peaceful moment three months earlier. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a handsome, mild-mannered neurologist, has just moved into a spacious apartment on the 25th floor, placing him squarely in the middle of the tower hierarchy.
He soon makes friends all over, worming his way into bed with Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), the glam single mom who lives one floor above, and becoming friendly with the very pregnant Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss), who lives several stories below with her husband, Richard (Luke Evans), a randy and rambunctious documentary filmmaker. But Laing, who can sunbathe naked on his balcony and pull the flesh off a cadaver’s skull with the same matter-of-fact calm, is also a man on the up-and-up. He soon catches the attention of the building’s architect and mastermind, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who dwells with his estranged wife (Keeley Hawes) in lofty 40th-floor splendor.
In designing the high-rise — one of several in the same area clustered together like steel-and-concrete dinosaurs looming over a flat landscape — Royal has advanced a new design for modern living in which all residents will have access to the same conveniences (a spa, a gym, a school) without having to leave the premises. But it’s not long before cracks begin to appear in the tower’s brutalist facade: An elevator malfunctions, the power flickers on and off, and the poorer tenants on the lower floors become restless and angry as their privileges are the first to go.
As the residents’ nonstop partying gives way to violent revolt, the movie cuts abruptly from floor to floor and room to room, not elaborating a plot so much as conducting a kind of diabolically random surveillance. And there is certainly much to survey in Mark Tildesley’s endlessly varied, '70s-riffing production design: a rooftop garden with a white horse; strikingly angular pillars; shag carpets and Che Guevara posters; an enormous parking lot where human bodies are as likely to fall from the sky as bird dung; a supermarket and a swimming pool that become focal points of class resentment and animal cruelty. All this is captured in elegantly prowling camera moves by the cinematographer Laurie Rose, cut together with brisk, vicious energy (Wheatley and Jump also edited the film) and set to the bravura accompaniment of Clint Mansell's classically influenced score.
It has become a cliché to describe a movie’s setting as a character in its own right, but it turns out to be not just true but fundamental in “High-Rise,” which makes a deeper kind of sense when you consider that its calamitous events are being related from the building’s point of view. Ballard’s books — including his notorious exercise in vehicular erotica, “Crash,” another unfilmable story that was filmed rather well — were unusually attentive to the physical and psychological effects of a character’s environment, and Wheatley’s film similarly encourages a systemic, kaleidoscopic view of the action.
The individual residents, though illuminated with vivid humanity by a very fine ensemble, are best understood not as full-fledged characters but as fleeting psychological projections. Hiddleston is the relatively calm eye of a swirling human hurricane, while Irons is unctuous perfection as a sort of corrupted father figure. Evans, as the aptly named Wilder, supplies a ferocious blast of id (at one point, the men in power actually try to lobotomize him). Moss and Miller, making the most of their limited roles, run the gamut from nurturing to seductive; at times the high-rise might as well be called the Madonna-whore complex.
And in the end, it’s the glorious spectacle of this prime real estate being trashed and torched that burns itself into the viewer's brain. Astonishingly, the film seems to become even more beautiful as garbage chutes overflow, fires break out, bodies pile up and “High-Rise” descends into a bacchanalian massacre worthy of Caligula. Those inclined to dismiss the result as a tedious mess would not be entirely wrong, but neither would they be offering as pointed a criticism as they may think. There is something about the too-muchness of this movie’s proportions — the squalid grandeur of its mise-en-scène, the unapologetic obtuseness of the storytelling, the overpowering atmosphere of waste and rot — that strikes me as being perfectly suited to its purpose and ambition.
For Wheatley, the repugnance and monstrosity of the human condition demand to be not explained, but accepted — and once accepted, embraced. “High-Rise” is a stubborn, incoherent wreck of a movie, and I mean that as fairly high praise. You won’t follow everything that happens, but you may feel weirdly at home.
MPAA rating: R for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: In limited release