I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that an adaptation of a book as great as Ballard’s High-Rise isn’t great. Ben Wheatley’s film is one of two things. It’s either a beautifully chaotic bricolage of hedonism, or it’s a mess of a movie. I wonder if you haven’t read Ballard’s novel if you’d fall on the former side. I unfortunately, think it’s the latter.
Basic premise: Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a new high rise building. The lower classes are on the bottom floors, the rich on the top floors. All hell breaks loose. An uprising of sorts starts. Chaos ensues.
At times, High-Rise feels like it could be a David Cronenberg film in terms of sheer coldness (I’m sure that Cronenberg’s Crash adaptation was also in the back of my mind), but Wheatley never reaches the rigor of Cronenberg. This feels feels far too loose, and Cronenberg really works on the relationships between his characters – something else that is very much missing here.
The two single biggest problems with High-Rise: too many montages and a lack of spatial orientation in a film that so heavily relies on it.
For the former: the structure of the film is basically extended scene-montage-extended scene-montage. It does a disservice to the slow build of the book. Some of the montages are a hell of a lot of visual fun, but they take the air right out of the tires. Why, for example, use a montage to show the building’s true, final descent into madness? It’s almost confusing (is this a confusing film if you haven’t read it?). See the aforementioned note on character relationships. Wheatley’s film is unaccomplished in that regard because he and his co-writer/wife Amy Jump prefer to push ahead through time in short, sumptuous bursts rather than linger on the way various characters interact.
For me, the spatial relationships are as much of a problem and an even bigger reason for why the film is so disappointing. It is confusing as to who is where. Wheatley’s camera and editing doesn’t relegate space well. Instead, he relies on production design and character recognition to do so. We need to know what floor we’re on and when; we need to know who is against who (although, to be fair, at times it’s important that no one seems to know who they are fighting); we need to see the trend of the lower classes trying to push upward. There’s no sense of up and down.
Maybe the camera needs to explore more. Maybe it needs to be wider. Maybe it’s a big mistake to keep Laing so cooped up in his own apartment unit for much of the film rather than using him as a vehicle through which to delineate geography.
Wheatley’s got some flourishes. There are some pretty hilarious (but a bit inexplicable) direct-to-camera dance sequences. There’s a suicide that I’m sure will be talked about. But the energy of the film is more music video than complex narrative.
I don’t know where or why, but for some reason I’ve had it in my head for years that I really need to watch Ole Bornedal’s original Nightwatch. So I finally did. And it’s not great.
Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a young law student who takes a job at a morgue. A serial killer is on the loose. Martin seems to be a target.
There’s a lot of great visual setup in Nightwatch. Bornedal clearly likes his location, and he should. It’s eerie and the color contrast from location-to-location makes the set feel endless:
The problem is that he never takes advantage of it. There’s all of this talk about a door that locks from the outside (second image above), and so much space for shadows and creepiness, but it’s all basically thrown to the wayside.
Instead, the plot is only interesting insofar as it reminded me of In the Company of Men. There are so structurally questionable decisions (i.e. why reveal the identity of the killer so early?), and some moments that aren’t believable (why can’t Martin use the bat to break the glass earlier at the end of the film?).
Most people will know Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones. He kind of looks like Ewan McGregor:
I wonder if that’s why McGregor played the Martin role in the remake. Coster-Waldau is plenty believable in the film. He’s got a nice combination of innocence and frat boy that really works here.