For years, filmmakers knew to abide by a simple, unwritten law: Kill as many people as you want in your movie, but don’t hurt the dog. Audiences will tolerate human death, the thinking goes, but you’ll lose them entirely if Fido kicks the bucket. In the past few years, however, that rule has gently eroded, with 2014’s John Wick and its puppy-avenging hero as the most notable example. High-Rise, based on the cult novel by J.G. Ballard, subverts it almost immediately. In its opening montage, we watch the casually elegant Tom Hiddleston rescue a dog from the rubble of a building, make him his loyal companion, and then roast his detached leg on a spit.
It signifies a total breakdown of the social order, but how does man’s best friend become just another meal? High-Rise is the story of a violent revolution that takes place inside a single apartment building. Set in an ambiguous future-past, the building is designed to physically reflect our social and economic inequalities. The working-class families are on the bottom, and the rich are on top. The building’s architect (Jeremy Irons) lives in an extravagant penthouse, complete with manicured lawns, prize-winning horses, and priceless works of art.
Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) is on a high floor, but seems to slide effortlessly between classes, playing squash with the architect and drinking the night away at raucous parties on the lower floor. It seems a harmless hierarchy, and yet all it takes is a power outage for the system to tumble. It’s like a vertical Snowpiercer, except High-Rise eschews that film’s forward momentum. Director Ben Wheatley has little interest in the mechanics of revolution; instead, he revels in the anarchy. Very quickly, the building is reduced to moral rubble. There are riots in the basement supermarket, fistfights that quickly turn fatal, and public orgies to rival those in Caligula.
The film’s lack of narrative drive gives it a playfully episodic tone, but its grimness becomes unwieldy. There is an early scene in which Laing peels the skin off a human head for his medical students, revealing the skull underneath. The grisly moment is a metaphor for the film itself, which looks past the facade of our daily existence and sees something terrifying. But that’s a cynical sentiment, and it’s a cruel film that inflicts its anarchy upon the audience.
High-Rise may be an apt allegory for the devolution of our collective humanity, but it offers no substitution. The building is described as “the unconscious diagram of some kind of psychic event,” and so is the film, which exists only as an idea, drifting through our imagination untethered to reality. Where is this film’s soul? Perhaps we’re supposed to feel for Toby, the spectacled child who wanders the hallways fatherless. But Wheatley has no more interest in the child’s humanity than he does any of the film’s monstrous adults. These poor bastards walk through this world angry, unloved, and ultimately unknown. After watching their misery for two hours, you might be left wondering if High-Rise has too much on its mind, or not enough.
High-Rise opens today at Landmark E Street Cinema.