High-Rise Says: Beware the Condo
Ben Wheatley offers up a harsh prophecy for Toronto's fragile glass future
Ben Wheatley offers up a tower. He then starts throwing bodies off the sides.
High-Rise is a modern fable, a retro-future designed by director Ben Wheatley and his team (including his frequent collaborator, his wife and screenwriter Amy Jump) as a prophecy for what’s to come for our Toronto condo future. It closely follows British author J. G. Ballard’s 1975 bleakly comic novel about a brand new high-rise building falling into chaos as the air-conditioning, elevators and human decency crumble in unison. In Ballard, Wheatley has found the perfect partner for his pitiless and aggressively confounding filmography, including previous TIFF Midnight Madness hit Kill List and the mushroom-induced psychedelia of A Field in England. Wheatley is a filmmaker who refuses to explain his low-level atrocities to the audience — he prefers to present them.
Our guide through High-Rise’s world is a passive man, Dr. Richard Laing (Tom Hiddleston), prone to slipping from floor to floor, a loner who can drift between the upper classes on the higher levels inside and the younger, poorer families huddled near the bottom — their frustrations piling up as the power is cut, garbage pick-up ignored and hours at the community pool eliminated. Even as new tenants move into the building, these discrepancies continue to fester. Residents begin to refuse to leave, abandoning jobs, friends and relatives outside, including Laing. The world shrinks. Priorities are rearranged as garbage chutes are clogged and dogs drowned.
Laing is not driven to make these choices — he lets the building carry him. He has no faction to claim him, so he subsumes into whatever group holds power at the moment. This is not a movie where the protagonist pushes the action, High-Rise is tribal at its core. Even Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), the warrior of the working class, finds his own plans for redemption defeated by the very architecture of the building. Choice is secondary to survival. Things are not done by the characters, but to them instead. The environment shapes their actions, but this story is not new. It’s ancient and primal. Even the camera must bend to its whims.
Wheatley and Ballard point to a pattern — a dissolution of social order that cannot be prevented by technology or progress. Even the most unnatural setting seems to only drive humanity back to its base needs — food, water, shelter, flesh. The past, the basest parts of being human, carry more weight than any building, any new technological development. Elevators become new traps for the hunters. The supermarket on the seventh floor is one last place to forage. Even the soundtrack reimagines this future past for the audience, Portishead performing ABBA’s pop hit “S.O.S.” as a warning for the residents and viewers alike — a dirge for a new world.
Residents begin to harvest the building itself for what they need and reject the outside world. Wheatley’s design team has mimicked the '70s era incredibly well, but everything is innovative. The products and designs on the shelves are made specifically for this brave new world. The future is behind us. The high-rise becomes a place unto itself — a slow-motion horrorshow.
Much like his previous work, Wheatley refuses to provide a straight narrative for the audience and at times, the film descends into an anarchic blend of images without the rules to bind them — as it should. We scurry past a horse on a rooftop, a gang of TV presenters armed with baseball bats and chair legs, a dog drowned in the pool. Parties turn into rituals, sacrifices, religious ceremonies and then dissolve back into chaos once again. Wheatley’s camera starts out sleek and mannered, transitioning smoothly from one floor to the next. However, once the social order slides, the narrative structure breaks under the strain. Viewers slider from one party to another, the camera following bodies as they rise and fall. The film itself opens with an ending.
High-Rise is a spiritual successor to David Cronenberg’s 1975 horrorshow Shivers another film where things fall apart inside a new, presumably glorious condo building. In both, powerful men find their creations have run amok. The disease is inside. Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives atop his own creation in High-Rise, eventually rendered impotent on his perch. The women in his life, including his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), assistant Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and even Wilder’s wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss) attempt to preserve a future for their children by whatever means necessary. Initially shoved to the side of the narrative, these characters gather power in the shadows before seizing control on-screen. The building no longer belongs to Royal. It never really did.
Cronenberg’s Shivers treats his building more as a stage for the pre-destined fall, humans retreating back to their basest instincts under the insidious direction of Dr. Emil Hobbes’ parasites and his infected teenage mistress. Sex is the primary drive here, above all else. Let’s recall the scene where Nurse Forsythe confesses a dream to resident physician Dr. St Luc, explaining, “Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism.” In Shivers, this disease spreads through the floorboards, reducing its residents to their most base desires, captive to their own needs. The future won’t save you. The alternate title for Shivers is They Came From Within.
Wheatley implicates the tower itself as the root of all evil. There is no disease except being human. There is no safe place. Both directors place their towers in the outer limits, as their inhabitants attempt to flee the core. Even as these towers fall, they are building new high-rises around them. There is no plan beyond surviving the next night. And then, the night after that. Cronenberg sends his monsters out into the city, spreading their infection out into the world. But Wheatley knows it will fester from within; there is no need for any outside intervention. All our wounds are homegrown, inflicted by the structure.
As Toronto continues to build its own towers into the clouds without a thought for the future, while housing for the lower classes becomes even scarcer in this city, High-Rise looks more like an unhinged prophecy than a cautionary tale from the past. These anxieties pop up in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, as well. Set in Toronto, it traces one man and his double’s dissolution from tower to tower. From the old concrete blocks of St. Jamestown to the twirling glass spires of Mississauga, the language of the city is best expressed through streetcar wires, concrete and endless panes of glass. The men and women of Enemy are penned in and cornered by their very homes, their quiet choices exposed and re-purposed for new, nefarious means. Toronto is rendered as a city of closed off and hidden spaces, spider webs of wire, decaying concrete lobbies and freshly pressed doormen behind black marble counters. High-Rise would approve.
We have traded our concrete brutalism for spires of glass tethered to steel. We have let our lists for subsidized housing grow long for a city of cranes rooted firmly to the ground. We have convinced ourselves that we can afford this, you can afford this, well, maybe someone can afford this, but we haven’t really asked who will live there, inches from the Gardiner Expressway. We haven’t asked how long that glass will hold.
This is a body already falling, paused in flight, asking us all to meditate on its descent before it hits the ground. Wheatley and Ballard ask how long it will be before you find yourself out on a sun-drenched balcony rotating your neighbour’s Alsatian over a cooking fire. The viewer waits for a moment of clarity, for some meaning. The women are coming together on the roof, building a new world, protecting one another. The old ways are not working. Maybe this is just a cycle, a chance for rebirth. Maybe he isn’t really going to eat that dog. Maybe this is just a joke.
When the body hits the ground, the tower doesn’t laugh.