Review: High-Rise (2016)

Director: Ben Wheatley

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

The story of a high-tech apartment block slowly falling apart under the weight of shoddy workmanship and crumbling expectations? Critics won’t find a more apt metaphor for reviewing High-Rise than the one supplied by the film itself.

Going through Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is like a journey though a 40-storey tower block, only in reverse, starting at the top. The plush penthouse is furnished and decorated sumptuously, but it’s only as we work our way down through the structure that the cracks begin to appear. The solid foundation on which all this is built is J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, a typically sharp satire on the manipulative effect of modern lifestyles. The various classes and cliques of an ultra-modern apartment block turn on one another in an orgiastic venting of primal urges. Based on that pitch alone, it’s clear that an adaptation was going to be difficult. It needed to be lurid yet sharp, a balance of which few directors would seem capable. When the project was announced, the fact that it was coming from the director of such violently esoteric works as Kill List and A Field In England was comforting. Perhaps this would do justice to the Ballard’s vision, a vision that producer Jeremy Thomas had tried to bring to cinematic life since the novel was first published. This structure is burdened with high hopes.

The first scene suggests success. The film opens, as does the novel, with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) tucking into the hind leg of a dog. His apartment bears the marks of a long descent from stress-free living into anarchy. Laing, a resident of the 25th floor, is our guide through the morass of a building that was to be a beacon of civilization, as per the designs of architect/penthouse resident Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Irons’ presence (Cast Irons? There’s a gag there somewhere…) and Ballard’s text can’t but evoke allusions to David Cronenberg. Alas, the comparisons do High-Rise few favours. Cronenberg made his own high-rise horror, Shivers, the same year that Ballard’s novel was released. Its vision of a tower block tearing itself apart in a frenzy is barmy fun, but not a lot has changed in the stakes of localized anarchy. Its polished surfaces and gleaming swimming pools can be seen in High-Rise, albeit as much a result of coincidence as influence, but it goes to show that the thematic richness of the novel may have been milked long before now. As if to hammer home the point, Amy Jump’s script locates the action in the late 1970s. This decision allows DoP Laurie Rose and production designer Mark Tildesley to show off their skills. The garish world of shag carpets and yellow kitchen panelling is illuminated by narrow windows and round-funneled lamps. It’s pitch-perfect design for the period, but the 1970s stylings insist on themselves to such an extent that any possibility of modern relevance is smothered in furs.

The greater, and more damaging, Cronenberg-Ballard connection is Crash. The Canadian auteur’s symphorophilic thriller is definitively jet-black, even darker than Ballard’s 1973 tome on which it’s based. The fact the film was made was impressive enough, but then there’s little that compares to Crash in its narrative or its transgressions. Ballard’s eerie architectural detachment can be seen in the works of many artists, from Bret Easton Ellis to David Fincher. The aggressiveness of Wheatley’s earlier works, Down Terrace and Kill List, suggest he could at least grapple with the savagery of High-Rise’s source novel. There’s no lack of bloodshed, but it all happens within an over-designed setting that has little purpose other than to call attention to itself. The affectations of High-Rise, whether the period setting, choppy acting or wandering narrative, deny the film the muscularity it needs to carry home any convincing themes. An early scene sees Dr. Laing giving his medical students a lecture on dissection. As he digs into a cranium, he cartoonishly peels off the face to reveal the skull’s structure. Tonally, this feels far closer to Wheatley’s comic sojourn Sightseers than it ever does to Kill List. The metaphors are there, but High-Rise feels too comic when it should deliver a killer blow.

As Laing, Hiddleston is our way into this complex full of complexes, but he’s perhaps a little too polished and chipper, lacking the menace to sell Laing as just another mind about to succumb to the ego. More watchable are Irons’ hammy omnipotence and Sienna Miller’s unchecked vampishness as Laing’s neighbour/lover Charlotte. The tower block is full of actors with potential, but the potential is only realised on occassion; for every solid Elisabeth Moss, there’s a hammy James Purefoy lurking nearby. The cast’s MVP is Luke Evans, delivering a star turn as Wilder, a lower-dwelling resident and documentarian determined to investigate why the tower’s residents are turning on each other. It’s apt that Evans’ performance is the strongest here; his character is the one in search of the truth, but his eventual failure in that regard is also the failure of High-Rise. There’s never any sense that there’s any good reason architecturally, psychologically or financially for Royal’s sky-high experiment to fail. The second act of the film feels less like a narrative and more like a long montage of power failures, fighting and looting. It all goes on so long that the third act rolls in like an inert piece of fast food, undigested and blatantly artificial. Ballard’s novel brought smarts and shocks; Wheatley barely manages the latter. By the time the voice of Margaret Thatcher crackles on the soundtrack before the credits roll, it’s become clear that High-Rise is stuck in a time warp. That might be a great cue for Portishead to deliver an oddly moving take on ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’, but it’s not enough of a hook on which to hang a Ballard adaptation. The lights are on, but this block’s been long since vacated.

Review: Sightseers (2012)

Director: Ben Wheatley

****

Why would anyone in their right minds go caravanning for a holiday? Sleeping in a poky shed on wheels with unreliable facilities and all those annoying twits with bigger caravans swanning across the campsite? If this sounds familiar, Sightseers might just be the film for you, as Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram) indulge their hitherto hidden bloodlust on a sleepy traversal of the lovely northwest of England. Bonnie and Clyde it ain’t.

Lest this all sound a touch maudlin, Sightseers is first and foremost a comedy, and a frequently very funny one to boot. Tina is socially awkward and still lives with her mother (Eileen Davies), whilst Chris is a principled chap, barely keeping his temper down when his sensibilities are offended. This odd little yin and yang head off on their first holiday together, taking in such exotic sights as the Ribblehead Viaduct, Keswick Pencil Museum and Crich Tramway Museum. Though these places are very real, had Tina and Chris driven another few miles they’d probably have arrived at St. Kevin’s Stump and The Really Dark Caves. Indeed, Sightseers feels very much like Father Ted with a body count, with both character-based gags and pure farce in full view. Try as they might to enjoy themselves, run-ins with a variety of locals and tourists cause Chris’ blood to boil and theirs to spill. Meanwhile, Tina kidnaps a dog from one of Chris’ victims, suspicions are mounting and the strains are showing in Tina and Chris’ relationship. Odd as it sounds, you may well find yourself hoping they’ll stick together, if only to keep them from killing more people.

As loopy as they clearly are, Tina and Chris are very likable. Lowe and Oram bring a lot of sweetness to their on-screen couple. We may snort at Tina’s skills at knitting lingerie, but Chris seems to appreciate it, whilst she describes him as ‘a very sensitive lover’ (which he’s not). It also helps that the script (which Lowe and Oram wrote) surrounds our anti-heroes with complete tosspots. Whether it’s a litterbug or a snobby hillwalker complaining about dog muck, they all get what’s coming to them. The comedy is none-more-black, so be braced for a touch of nastiness. Even the doggy’s not safe!

In bringing Sightseers to the screen, Oram and Lowe made a canny move in getting Ben Wheatley to direct. Wheatley brought flashes of humour and humanity to the otherwise disturbing Kill List and, for the most part, he manages the tricky balance between laughs and murder on show here. Any weaknesses come from the plot, which is sometimes too happy to meander along until the next potential victim shows up. The arrival of an inventive cyclist (Richard Glover) and his sleeping-bag-caravan-thing does slow the pace, as Chris befriends him and Tina scoffs. That said, the one-man-caravan-thingy is a nifty idea. Let’s hope someone’s patented that.

The fact that it paints northern England as actually having sunshine makes Sightseers a film of note (No kidding. It looks simply lovely.). That said, it also has some belly laughs, a giddily nasty streak and sufficient evidence that caravanning is for the birds. Sightseers is not a five-star film, but it will leave you craving five-star accommodation on your next holiday.

Review: Kill List (2011)

Director: Ben Wheatley

****

Kill List is one of those rarities: a film that takes some old rope and polishes it to a brilliant sheen. The trope of ‘one last job’ gets nasty, as Ben Wheatley’s hitman thriller is influenced as much by The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General as it is by anything Mike Hodges made. Blending genres and warping the rules is just the beginning for Kill List.

Jay (Neil Maskell) is a hitman who’s been off the job for eight months. With money running out and his wife Shel (MyAnna Burning) giving him grief, he welcomes a fresh job offered by his partner and friend Gal (Michael Smiley). Armed to the teeth and with a list of people to kill they set off on their bloody quest. Kill List begins relatively calmly, as Jay and Shel welcome Gal and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) for dinner. Though their marital strife threatens the evening, Jay and Shel seem to be a relatively normal couple who just happen to be living on the proceeds of death. One of the most terrifying things about evil is its banality. When confronted by it in the real world, it is far more terrifying than any movie slasher or CGI monster. Thus, when the kills do come, they are quick but unflinchingly nasty (one poor chap bears the brunt of Jay’s temper and a hammer). From its violence to its black humour, Kill List exudes confidence. Wheatley, directing only his second feature film, ramps up the tension to create a true edge-of-the-seat experience. Wheatley and Amy Jump’s script, meanwhile, gives the viewer little chance to breathe; events twist and turn until we arrive at the stage where we genuinely can’t guess what’s going to happen next, whilst the unanswered questions add to the sense of unease. Why are these people being targeted? Who’s the client Jay and Gal are working for? And just what did happen on that botched job in Kiev? Audiences will share in Jay’s perplexion. Despite being a livewire and somewhat repugnant, Jay is an all too human hitman. Maskell is a fireball of coiled anger in his performance. Meanwhile, Smiley supplies much-needed charm and afore-mentioned humour.

As time passes, tension builds to breaking point, culminating in a final fifteen minutes that becomes so bizarre it borders on jumping the shark. Even if the journey is better than the eventual destination, the finale does bring the ultimate lesson of Kill List home: evil begets evil, even those acts committed against evil. As Jay himself admits, “Bad people should suffer.” Kill List is a brutal but brilliant watch; never preachy, always intense and fearful to the last.