Ben Wheatley has carved out a unique little niche for himself in unearthing horror and the blackest humour from the boring little foibles of British life. Kill List manages to wrestle a desperate, ever-building sense of dread from a procession of Welcome Breaks and Travelodges. Sightseers gives Natural Born Killers' Mickey and Mallory a caravan and a National Trust membership and unleashes them on the kinds of crap tourist traps that you can only find in Britain. And A Field In England transforms the English countryside itself from the uniformly pretty, but boring, expanse familiar to us all into a psychedelic, nightmare battlefield. Throughout his career, Wheatley has proven himself a master of breaking through Britain at its most mundane and finding the hilariously rotten core within.
All of which brings us nicely to High-Rise. Slapped with the label of "unfilmable" almost since its 1975 publication, Wheatley and writing partner Amy Jump have knocked together something special from one of J.G Ballard's most enduring works. The plot revolves around Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston, still cool and debonair AF when covered in paint while chowing down on a dog) and his life in a state-of-the-art luxury tower block that is slowly descending into madness and anarchy as the breakdown of utilities in the building robs the affluent citizenry of their sanity, leading a class war in the most literal sense of the term.
I say "revolves around" because although Hiddleston has top billing and acts as our narrator, High-Rise isn't really about him. Wheatley uses him as a device to guide us through the slow degeneration of life in the building and to introduce us to other, far more interesting characters. Such as Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons in full on Dead Ringers / Die Hard With A Vengeance creepy smarm-mode), the architect of the building who inhabits the ivory tower of the Penthouse and lives like a French Renaissance King. And Wilder (Luke Evans, menacing, magnificent bastard that he is), a predatory television producer whose flat on the lower floors of the building turns him into a second-class citizen fuelled by bestial, entitled anger.
High-Rise shouldn't work. It's too brutal, too weird and too mean. The book, and indeed the film, open with our nominal "hero" eating a dog for Christ's sake! But there's one masterstroke that Wheatley and Jump perform that makes everything click into place: they keep it contemporary with Ballard's original vision and set it in the 1970's. The constant punch line of bad haircuts, ABBA music, Thatcher soundbites and outdated technology immediately turn Ballard's bleak and deadly serious vision of the future into a joke about far how far we've fallen.
High-Rise becomes a satire, using the lens of the past to cast a cynically comedic eye into more of those dark holes of a class and income divided British culture than Wheatley has ever peeked into before. And it works. Oh, boy does it work! All of the hallmarks of a Wheatley production are still present: the surreal, nightmarish imagery, the sudden application of brutal violence and the unrelenting Britishness of things. But the scale of the production and the wit with which it's all pulled off makes it feel as though Wheatley is harnessing Stanley Kubrick filtered through early, slithery David Cronenberg.
While it retains the Wheatley two-punch of pitch black humour and lurking dread, going bigger and bolder (in terms of scale, theme and cast) allows High-Rise to be the most accessible Wheatley has ever been. He provides us with a compelling, weird and terrifying vision of, in Laing's words, "a future which has already taken place." The High-Rise itself is a hulking, angular thing, a brutalist castle straight out of a Judge Dredd comic. As the film goes on, we see more of them being built in the background, each a perfect replica of its own location. And I'd be perfectly happy for Wheatley to take me into every single one of them.
5*- A magnificent specimen