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Movie Review: #HighRise

High-Rise is a gorgeous but insane, sexual mess.

Review by Matt Cummings

If the movie industry nowadays seems hell-bent on searching for the next billion-dollar franchise, 2016 has emphatically demonstrated that creativity - and especially unique productions - still drives the narrative. With the drama/thriller High-Rise, we get one of the weirdest, sexualized, insane, and pretty messes of the year. But it might not be enough to recommend you immediately check it out.

Standing like a monolith among 1970's London, a new kind of apartment living has evolved: one in which every social class supposedly has the ability to live the good life. For Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), that opportunity also means starting anew from his former relationship. But almost immediately, Laing realizes that his new surroundings are anything but equal. He learns that "the architect" Royal (Jeremy Irons) maintains a lavish estate on the top floor, and that his minions just below him throw wild parties complete with Victorian-era garments and snooty attitudes. He also learns that Royal's dream is a work incomplete, as power and other essentials begin to fail building-wide, with the upper floors receiving first priority. Soon Laing finds himself caught between these extremes; as social order begins to break down, he begins a dance with insanity while his neighbors engage in fierce battles for their very survival.

High-Rise is based on the JG Ballard 1975 book which took a harsh look at social classes. Considered difficult if not impossible to turn into a movie, Director Ben Wheatley sure gives it a college try, by embracing its depravity utterly and completely. Therefore, be prepared for brazen nakedness, promises of fetishes made whole, and other taboos utterly ravaged. And while that might sound like a glorified porno, it's more A Clockwork Orange than that, filled with enough terrific performances to get you through the weird. Hiddleston has become a superb character actor, ready to bring Ballard's book to life. We first see Laing at the end of his story - eating the leg of a dog on a spit - before turning back the clock three months before the apartments go completely tits up. Hiddleston initially feels as if he's trying out for James Bond, injecting Laing with a sense of cool detachment. But as the building falls apart, so does Laing, and here Hiddleston transitions into psychotic with that same icy demeanor. He's also quite naked here - as is Sienna Miller who plays his upstairs neighbor - which should impress those looking for High-Rise to kick things into Weird Gear.

And boy does High-Rise come out to play. The only sexual act Wheatley doesn't show is S&M, but anal sex and full frontal male nudity were apparently OK to the British director. The film also shows the fake-pregnant Elizabeth Moss smoking and drinking, and later getting banged by Hiddleston. DP Laurie Rose presents us with stark and sometimes disturbing images, all wrapped in 1970's-era clothing and sets; but the scene is never just imagery, and in the end we're never left wanting visually.

But the real question remains: does all of this depravity make High-Rise an absolute must-see? Sadly, its script by Wheatley's wife Amy Jump is just too scattered in its storytelling, introducing us to too many characters to keep track, bathing them in dirt, nudity, and drugs along the way. There's the womanizing Wilder (the always excellent Luke Evans), Helen (Moss), the diabolical Pangbourne (SJF fave James Purefoy), and the building handyman (Reece Sheersmith) who keeps a murdered friend in his apartment after things go sideways. Then add Royal, his detatched wife, and Miller's sexual tidalwave Charlotte. After awhile, all the naked bodies, drowned dogs, and sexually ravaged people begin to stack up like cord wood. It became difficult to know who was screwing who and which ones were either victims or winners. Perhaps that's the point, but it becomes an excuse rather than a way to show the death of the building.

High-Rise - as well as this year's exceptional The Neon Demon - have 'cult film' written all over it, both of which snub their noses at the billion-dollar franchise by pushing the genre to incredible visual heights. To Wheatley and Jump, this is truly independent film, with little worry if audiences will accept its wild ride. But this isn't student film either, as every creative force here powers one of the most unique and visually arresting films I've ever seen. It's such a bold stance to take, even if the film becomes as messy as the apartment itself, a war zone of broken promises and shattered dreams while Royal powerlessly looks on. I can see this and Demon taking years for audiences to break down, and perhaps a future viewing will encourage me to reconsider my concerns.

For now, take in High-Rise if the idea of all the disappointing Summer 2016 movies have left you wanting something deeper. If you enjoy a little (actually, a lot) of bold risk-taking in your films, I couldn't recommend High-Rise any more. At least you'll be thrilled by great performances, stellar cinematography, and gorgeous set pieces. Beyond that, it's anyone's game.

High-Rise is rated R for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use and has a runtime of 119 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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