(Dir: Ben Wheatley, 2015)
I am going to start this review by making a comparison to the horror director Eli Roth. Bear with me. Roth hasn't actually directed many films, but those he has have been somewhat revered in horror circles, and he is very active from a production side with his name attached to many pictures. I quickly learned that he is not a good director or writer, and that almost every film he is involved in I just don't like. Yet despite this I kept coming back for more and was genuinely excited about watching his recent return to the directors chair for The Green Inferno - the possibility of him transplanting the nihilism of his Hostel films into a modern take on Cannibal Holocaust seemed the perfect fit. Surprisingly it was this edge that it ended up lacking, whilst inevitably suffering from the usual poor storytelling, yet it was still watchable and is his best film to date. But that is faint praise for a film which, in my eyes, barely scrapes an average 3 star rating.
The reason for this comparison is that this is almost exactly how I feel about Ben Wheatley, with the difference being that he is far more skilled from a visual perspective, and the much wider critical love surrounding his films. There's no need to rehash my intense dislike for all of his past films, but the proposition of High-Rise actually excited me - not just because of the cast (Tom Hiddlestone! Jeremy Irons!), and not just because the concept of the story is interesting, but mainly because this was an adaptation of a JG Ballard novel. I may have never attempted to read any of his work, but there was something appealing about the expected dystopian vein and a general sense of something "a little bit out there". But more than anything, Wheatley's biggest flaw as a director is his inability to tell a story in a coherent or remotely engaging way. Whilst his previous films have all been original, tackling something with an existing plot and structure offered the chance for him to deliver a far better film than usual. In my head that was the theory at least.
From a storytelling perspective, High-Rise is a bit of an incoherent mess. Whether that complaint should be leveled at Ballard, or Wheatley and his scriptwriter Amy Jump, I can't answer with certainty, but as Jump has written all of Wheatley's films there's clearly a theme here. Regardless, when adapting a novel you should be able bring out a core line of plotting to focus on. The overarching story about social hierarchies is obvious, as are the allusions to the downfall of Rome as the decadent orgy and the proletariat's agitation rises. The metaphors and ciphers are plentiful throughout, which is intriguing at first, but becomes rapidly more tiresome as hopes of any sort of interesting plotting to hold onto vanishes. Yet there is still much of interest taking place - the set design is superb placing us in a weird eighties London, whilst I couldn't help but think of the towers in Dredd. It's never boring to look at as the camerawork, editing and general visual aesthetics constantly offer excellent eye candy, whilst the use of sound and music adds to the all round weirdness - the Portishead cover of ABBA's S.O.S. is creepily sublime despite the obvious metaphor overload. The acting itself is solid and it's quite frankly really well cast, with Hiddlestone and Irons being the obvious highlights, whilst Luke Evans and Sienna Miller are strong in their own unique roles.
High-Rise is Wheatley's best film, but as I said above about Roth, that's faint praise. As a visual experience it utterly delivers, but lacking a coherent story to lead us through the miasma means it outstays its welcome a long way before we reach the end. It's always on the cusp of wanting to take us on a fascinating journey, but seems content to tease us instead, and then beat us around the head with metaphor and over-done dystopian weirdness. That's not to say there's not interesting and funny stuff here, but it's clear you need far more skilled hands to tease out the essence of Ballard, as David Cronenberg managed with Crash. I disliked that film upon watching it at the cinema, but upon repeated viewings I really got it and it got to me (perhaps age helped too). I guess we'll see if High-Rise inspires the same desire for perseverance, but right now I'm not holding out much hope.