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When we first see Tom Hiddleston's character, Dr. Robert Laing, in High-Rise, he's alone in a ramshackle apartment that looks like it's just been thrashed by '80s-era Guns N' Roses in the midst of a drug-addled afterparty bender. Laing is slowly roasting an Alsatian dog's carcass like backwoods savages do to suckling pigs. Because, well, Laing is apparently hungry.
High-Rise, directed by genre-minded English provocateur Ben Wheatley, is that kind of movie. Believe it or not, though, the image isn't ghastly—it's oddly charming. And that's because of the guy standing next to the rotating spit.
It takes a special kind of actor to pull the sight of a canine's body turning above a fire seem endearing, and accessible. Wheatley knew exactly what he was doing when he chose Hiddleston to lead his deranged High-Rise, a film so bizarre and unruly that it's likely to alienate a large number of Hiddleston's Marvel-minded fans. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to the 34-year-old Westminster native's work as Loki, the villainous yet disarmingly likable scene-stealer in the two Thor movies and 2012's The Avengers. Having Hiddleston's as High-Rise's lead allows Wheatley to push his adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 dystopian novel to its tonally hysterical limits. The experience is like being led through the Gates of Hell by a man-sized teddy bear.
Before I touched down in Austin, TX, last week to attend Fantastic Fest, High-Rise was one of my most anticipated movies. I combed through the film's Twitter mentions a few weeks back after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and couldn’t help but smile as the TIFF critics' tweets alternated between variations of "WTF" and "genius."
On my end, High-Rise's biggest draw has been Wheatley, who's one of the indie genre scene's most exciting filmmakers. He's a good match for Ballard's writing, since Wheatley'ss films all have a morbidly comic streak running through them, specifically the mega-dark comedy Sightseers (2012) and the experimental freak-out A Field in England (2014); the latter fuses black-and-white cinematography, 17th-century period details, and psychedelic madness into cinema as a full-blown LSD trip. Wheatley's best movie, however, is straight-up, bring-hell-down-upon-thee horror: Kill List (2011), is a masterwork about two hitmen who unwittingly plunge right into a Wicker Man-like nightmare. You watch Kill List and then immediately say, "I'll be first in line to see whatever this insane director makes."
High-Rise is, somewhat to its detriment, next-level crazy. So far, it's still without any U.S. distribution, and it's easy to see why. Wheatley's latest is anti-commercial madness. At first glance, High-Rise's cast makes it seem widely appealing. Hiddleston plays Dr. Laing, an eligible bachelor who moves into an enormous, swanky England apartment building in which the class systems are clearly segmented. It's Snowpiercer minus the train; the upper-class residents, led by architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) enjoy plush suites in the building’s top floors while the middle- to lower-class inhabitants—including documentary filmmaker and first-class womanizer Wilder (Furious 6's Luke Evans), his pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss), and the proudly slutty single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller)—are mostly treated like peasants by comparison. Shortly after Laing moves in, the building's water and power stop working, which triggers widespread anarchy, from sex orgies to supermarket riots, murders seen through kaleidoscopic lenses, rambunctious pool parties, and tribal warfare.
Working with J.G. Ballard's already madcap text, Wheatley goes completely mental. The performances are, across the board, mercifully grounded, which is a huge plus since High-Rise's narrative moves with the grace of a Kamikaze pilot. The building’s less-privileged tenants switch from rightfully angry to destructively hedonistic out of nowhere. They don't have arcs, they have sudden mood swings. Wheatley essentially takes Robert McKee's books on screenwriting's three-act structures, burns their pages, and pisses on the ashes. One second, you're watching Hiddleston's Laing share a huge slab of birthday cake with Miller's character's son; minutes later, dozens of residents stare at a suicide victim's smashed-up body, collectively shrug, and then go back to partying.
Due to its anything-goes nature and lunatic storytelling, High-Rise is divisiveness exemplified. Following its Fantastic Fest screenings, the responses were either enthusiastic fawning or visibly agitated disgust. Some hailed it as "brilliant"; others dismissed it as incoherent and over-reaching "bullshit." I, on the other hand, was just really bummed out. High-Rise left me feeling cold; most of the jokes didn’t land, much of the violence seemed overly silly, and the film’s strangeness felt distractingly self-aware. High-Rise is Wheatley's biggest production to date, both in scope and in its credits, yet its name-brand cast initially struck me as a superficially tactical maneuver. Watching the bourgeoisie degenerate into perverted sadists is one thing, but when that bourgeoisie comes in the forms of refined thespians like Tom Hiddleston, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, and Sienna Miller, the salaciousness becomes transparent. It’s clearly a selling point.
For several days following Fantastic Fest's High-Rise screening, I wasn't buying it. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about it. My thoughts kept tracing back to the image of Tom Hiddleston grilling that poor dog, a strikingly grotesque and strangely hilarious visual that truly feels like something only Ben Wheatley could pull off with such matter-of-factness. And the more I ponder High-Rise, the clearer it becomes that the film needs to marinate in one’s mind before he or she can really formulate a definitive opinion. I'm going to need another couple of viewings before I decide whether if it's Wheatley's worst movie so far or if it's actually his magnum opus.
Whenever High-Rise pops back into my head, though, it's always Hiddleston's who's front and center. No matter how I or anyone else ultimately rates High-Rise as a motion picture, there's no denying the fact that Hiddleston is remarkable in the film. He’s the reason why it's impossible to write Wheatley's aggressively off-kilter film off as simply cinematic wildness and depravity for cinematic wildness and depravity's sake. Dr. Laing is a seemingly harmless man of the people, a guy who's able to mingle with the have-it-alls, thanks to impossible handsomeness and debonair personality, and who’s also capable of blending in with the have-nots, due to his concealed insecurities and natural kindheartedness. The character's adaptability gives Hiddleston the chance to cover all of High-Rise's bases—he engages in just as much sex as he does intellectual conversations and brutal fist-fights.
It just might be Hiddleston's best performance. Before High-Rise, that honor went to Jim Jarmusch’s magnificently idiosyncratic vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive, in which Hiddleston excellently plays against the equally great Tilda Swinton as an eternal bloodsucker who's bored stiff with his neverending nighttime existence. But arthouse movies like that that aren't why Hiddleston an online sensation. He's part of the rarefied league of movie stars, like Chris Pratt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Pattinson, and Jennifer Lawrence, who can set Twitter and Tumblr into a frenzied overdrive by merely smiling or sneezing. As Movies.com's John Gholson points out, a Google search for "Tom Hiddleston Tumblr" produces 842,000 results. That's due in large part, of course, to his aforementioned involvement in the Marvel Studios big-screen universe as Thor's antagonistic brother, Loki, but it's also because he's so friendly with journalists and photogenic on red carpets. He's class personified. Seriously, the guy even managed to win over Robert De Niro on a talk show by doing a spot-on Robert De Niro impersonation.
Hiddleston is the total package: for the ladies, he's a dashing English looker who genuinely seems like the nicest guy around; for the fellas, he’s a fanboy-approved blockbuster veteran who’s consistently the best thing in every Marvel movie featuring Loki. And now that he’s on
a break from Marvel until the next Thor movie, 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, Hiddleston is showing those ravenous Tumblr users that he’s also a damn good actor when he’s nowhere near green screens and Chris Hemsworth’s general on-screen vicinity.
In time, whenever it's officially released, High-Rise will give Hiddleston's numerous Internet-savvy admirers a multitude of new GIFs and memes. In one of the film's crazier sequences, Hiddleston's Laing dances in slow motion, and it's like a chopped-and-screwed remix of Leonardo DiCaprio's moves in The Wolf of Wall Street. But it'll be fascinating to see if Hiddleston's online supporters will actually enjoy High-Rise as a moviegoing experience beyond it being an excuse to see their boy sunbathing naked in one scene and ravaging Sienna Miller's body on a dinner table in another. Their reactions won't be unlike Ryan Gosling's misinformed fans who unknowingly bought tickets for an art-house picture in Drive when they thought they were about to see Gosling's best Vin-Diesel-as-Dom-Torretto impression. They'll leave the theater shell-shocked.
And that, come to think of it, may be what makes High-Rise so essential after all.
High-Rise had its U.S. premiere as part of Fantastic Fest, in Austin, TX. The film is currently seeking U.S. distribution.