Ben Wheatley is one of the most interesting and under appreciated independent genre filmmakers currently on the scene. Like a British Nicolas Winding Refn or John Carpenter, his elegant, odd, and often violent films certainly have their cult followings but tend to fly under the radar or over audiences' heads a lot of the time. Like Refn with "Drive", or Carpenter with "Halloween", Wheatley tends to be celebrated mostly for one film, 2011's "Kill List", a story of two hitmen who discover a horrifying secret that ends in arguably one of the most frightening cinematic endings imaginable. It's been a while since I've seen "Kill List" but I still haven't been able to shake those final images.
Wheatley's style is, without a doubt, challenging. His most accessible works have been two fantastic "Doctor Who" episodes and "Sightseers", and "Sightseers" is about an odd couple murdering fellow tourists while on a caravan holiday. As difficult as the films can be, they are also rewarding for those willing to actively participate in the madness.
That word can easily sum up just what makes Ben Wheatley such a great filmmaker. Every one of his films plays with themes of chaos in one way or another. From "Down Terrace" to "A Field In England", the characters and stories of his worlds are constantly slipping out of their comfortable mindsets into new realms of insanity. But the chaos never overtakes the film. The chaos is contained and expertly put on display by Wheatley's keen cinematic eye. This talent for wrangling the madness is on full display in "High-Rise", Wheatley's adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel.
"High-Rise" is the story of an apartment building that descends into feral animalistic mindsets after power struggles between the upper and lower classes bubble and froth over.
Ballard's novel is all about chaos, the destruction of polite society, and the animalistic nature underneath even the most polished human imagery. In other words, it's right up Ben Wheatley's alley. The novel of "High-Rise" certainly falls under the category of "Challenging to Adapt", with its heady ideas and loose structure, but Ben Wheatley admirably meets the challenge with the impressive adaptation. It may suffer from a few loose bolts, but overall it is quite an impressive display and is one of the most interesting book adaptations in recent years.
A lot of the charm and success of Wheatley films comes from his constant screenwriting collaborator Amy Jump. The screenplay of "High-Rise" is one of the strongest elements at play here. Wheatley and Jump take the characters from the novel and flesh them out considerably, making them more interesting and sympathetic. Ballard's novel is mostly ideas that are represented through characters, while in the film, these characters feel like real people who believe whole-heartedly the philosophies they profess. Certain characters like Helen Wilder, played by Elizabeth Moss, are enormously improved upon in the transition from page to screen.
These character transformations also work due to the fantastic performances of the cast. Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and the aforementioned Moss fill the shoes of these vessels for thought and give them flavor and personality.
Ben Wheatley's visuals are set to full volume in this film, creating poetic imagery that speaks volumes. Tom Hiddleston reflected through endless mirrors, covered in house paint, or Luke Evans slowly rising out of pool water like a menacing shark help tell a story that is uniquely and distinctively the voice of a singular vision. Imagery like a woman clad in white riding an elegant steed through a house party, or armies of children crashing a fancy adult party, excellently distinguishes the lavish top-floor residents from the revolutionary and angry lower-floor characters, and then blends them together as everyone gives into their most basic instincts.
The one thing missing from the concoction of "High-Rise" is Ben Wheatley's sense of creeping slow-burn storytelling that he exercised so well in "Kill List". This stylistic choice would have fit "High-Rise" perfectly. Instead, Ben Wheatley chooses to plunge the titular building straight into pure anarchy in the same way that the book does. The sharp, quick montage of chaos is expertly shot and edited, yet what works well in the book, does not translate as well on the screen, and a lot of the consequences of this anarchy feels light especially during the last twenty minutes of the film. Even so, there is never a dull moment in the film. Wheatley's style is undeniable in its entertainment or intellectual factors.
Perhaps the most haunting aspect of "High-Rise" is how modern everything feels even though the book and film are set during the 1970's. Even today, the class struggles of the story seem just as relevant now than ever, and that's not something to be taken lightly. "High-Rise" may not be setting the box office on fire currently, but its timeless subject matter very well may prove to be what makes the film a cult classic down the road.