High-Rise (2016)

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One of my favorite movie genres is something I’ve dubbed the “Party Out of Bounds,” a kind of storytelling structure where guests at an initially civil social event are compelled beyond reason to stay once polite society de-evolves & things get primally nasty. The exit is open, but they decline & instead choose to duke it out with their fellow “party” guests. As much as I enjoy the realistic examples of this (admittedly made-up) genre like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band, and this year’s A Bigger Splash, I really get excited when the “Party Out of Bounds” story gets supernaturally twisted, like in the genre’s crown jewel The Exterminating Angel or in the recent dystopian period piece High-Rise. High-Rise is a particularly interesting case because its party starts from a seemingly dangerous, chaotic place and gets even more wild & savage from there, expanding the scope of its hedonism & cruelty to a months’ long, seemingly supernatural descent into the darkness of the human soul. It’s a sight to behold, a sinisterly amusing & deeply unsettling sight that stands as one of the best “Party Out of Bounds” stories I can remember ever seeing onscreen (and in subsequent nightmares).

Adapted from a novel by J.G. Ballard, the madman who penned the source material for Crash (1996’s incredible Cronenberg provocation, not 2004’s shameless Oscar bait), High-Rise is a reflection of 1970s anxieties about “luxury lifestyle” commodity & spiritually-erosive consumer culture as funneled through an aggressive, vague menace of existential dread. The film posits the modern consumer as a “bio robot,” a soulless machine who cannot function without their various gadgets & devices of “convenience.” Tom Hiddleston’s relatively well-adjusted protagonist begins his journey into a bleak, 1970s version of the future when he moves into a high-rise condo complex, a towering work of architectural Brutalism. It’s easy to believe you understand where the film is headed in his early interactions with the high-rise & its inhabitants. The building is a self-contained class system that matches the rigid haves-vs-havenots societal structure of works like Snowpiercer; the wealthy live on upper floors while the middle & lower class fight for their crumbs on the bottom. As the Talking Heads would put it, the building “has every convenience,” from a grocery store to a gym to a rooftop terrace complete with gardens & horseback riding (that only the upper floor wealthy can access, of course). The rich divert & hoard the best of the building’s resources, setting up an anti-capitalist uprise that we’ve seen play out in many (if not most) dystopian sci-fi works in the past. High-Rise begins its journey into human depravity from this familiar place, but completely unravels & sets fire to the genre expectations that accompany its starting point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything exactly like it before, which is what makes it such an exciting, terrifying work.

In addition to their addiction to modern convenience, the inhabitants of the titular high-rise are also addicted to partying. As a seemingly well-to-do surgeon (whose professions appears curiously specific to peeling faces off cadavers), Hiddleston’s protagonist is just wealthy enough to get a glimpse of the Victorian-style excess of the parties on the upper floors (as orchestrated by the building’s owner/architect, portrayed by Jeremy Irons), to mingle with the swinging 70s drug orgies of the middle floors, and to kindly visit with the little kids’ birthday parties of the lower working class floors (dutifully lorded over by Elizabeth Moss’s eternally pregnant, much put-upon matriarch). Hiddleston’s role as an entry point to each layer of the literally stratified society within the high-rise is a great starting point for establishing the scenario’s social structure, but ultimately becomes meaningless as the walls dividing these groups begins to break down. After the high-rise experiences an unexplained power outage the entire building devolves into total chaos. In a literal sense the structure begins to crumble: the water stops flowing, the gym is dismantled, the food in the grocery rots & molds, etc. There’s something much stranger going on in this shift, however, something that feels akin to a Persona-style psychological break. High-Rise is, at heart, a mass hysteria horror, a surreal exploration of a weird, unexplained menace lurking in our modern political & economic anxieties. Instead of simply leaving the titular building when things go horrifically sour, its inhabitants instead party harder and their drunken revelry devolves into a grotesque, months-long rager of deadly hedonism & de Sade levels of sexual depravity. The people of the high-rise are portrayed as just another amenity, one that can malfunction & fall apart just as easily & thoroughly as a blown circuit or a busted water pipe. It only takes weeks for the societal barriers that keep them in line to fully degenerate so that the entire high-rise society is partying violently in unison in their own filth & subhuman cruelty. If this is a version of America’s future in consumerism & modern convenience, it’s a harshly damning one, a confounding nightmare I won’t soon forget.

As much as the nastier details of High-Rise‘s eventual descent into cannibalism, rape, and animal cruelty (the majority of which, it’s worth noting, thankfully occurs offscreen) is obviously far outside my own experience with what happens when a party goes out of bounds, I do recognize a little truth in the initial power outage as a source for the mayhem. Anyone in New Orleans (or elsewhere in the coastal South) who’s gotten through the weeks-long power outages that follow hurricanes by drinking gallons of liquor in the darkness & heat should be able to recognize some of their own despair & depravity in the scenario, even if just a little. No matter how much you love the people you ride out a hurricane outage with, the confined space, oppressive boredom, and uncomfortable living conditions of the situation can increase tensions exponentially on a daily basis. The alcohol doesn’t help either (except maybe with the boredom). As I multiply that scenario in my head by the hundreds of people occupying this fictional high-rise & the economic tensions already driving them mad before the outage, this movie’s complete descent into subhuman depravity sort of makes perfect sense. Sort of.

There’s plenty of high art craft that goes into High-Rise‘s trashy version of Cronenberg mania, a marriage of aesthetics represented nicely in its off-putting soundtrack of nervous proto-punk jams & various spooky covers of ABBA‘s “S.O.S.” The film puts a lot of care in constructing its traditional sci-fi dystopia beginnings, distinguished only in details like its The Diary of a Teenage Girl/Space Station 76 faithfulness to its grim 70s era origins and its willingness to ogle at a male actor’s naked body for a change (Hiddleston’s, of course). When the setup gives way to the blindingly chaotic & inhumanly cruel punchline, though, the film finds its own distinctive space of cinematic innovation. High-Rise pushes its initially-familiar story into new, surreally wicked territory that makes for a more memorable experience than what the first act would lead you to expect and then lingers there for an uncomfortably long time. I’ve seen plenty movie parties go out of bounds before, but this is the one that most convincingly sets fire to the path back to civilization in the process. Its an entirely unique obliteration of the thin line that separates the modern consumer from the wild, bloodthirsty beast, a nightmare of a good time that will surely become a strong contender for cult classic status once more people have a chance to fall under its terrifying hypnotic spell.

-Brandon Ledet

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