Fantastic Fest: ‘High-Rise’ falls flat with ill-conceived characters, confusing plot

Alex Pelham

“High-Rise” focuses so much on theme that its story gets entirely left behind. Despite a promising setup involving the residents of a towering apartment complex going insane and engaging in a bloody fight to the death, the film goes all-in on a quest to present a queasy, dream-like stroll to a realm of class division and chaos. Had it focused more on developing characters and the plot, “High-Rise” wouldn’t be the nonsensical journey that it unfortunately is.

Respected doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a gigantic high-rise apartment designed by elderly architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). The complex is a secluded biosphere with its own gym, supermarket and school, giving residents no reason to leave. However, it becomes clear that a social unrest is brewing between the wealthy occupants on the higher floors and the poorer ones at the bottom. Soon, Laing finds himself in the middle of an all-out war and begins, along with the rest of the residents, to lose his mind.

Director Ben Wheatley sets forth to tell a compelling tale about the problems with a capitalistic system that favors the wealthy, but he abandons the story to focus on the moral. After Laing enters the complex and starts getting into fights with a few of the residents, a cohesive narrative abruptly turns into spaced-out sequences that are barely connected by a thread. There are a few parties, then a tenant dies, and then the place erupts into absolute chaos for the rest of the film. The film lacks subtlety or an effective transition from civil unrest to straight-up insanity.

Even the the tower's collapse into a free-for-all is haphazardly conveyed. There is no explained progression of the conflict, nor any sense into how the “Lord of the Flies” style tribal camps that form are set up. The entire second half of the film feels like a rush of mindless violence inflicted on characters that the audience knows little about.

Granted, it’s fun to watch the hauntingly elegant apartment complex transform into a decimated warzone, but it’s difficult to appreciate the chaos when all the participants are indistinguishable from each other. None of the occupants are interesting. Aside from Laing and Royal, it’s easy to confuse who's who inside the high-rise. Several unsatisfying storylines featuring the tenants only add to the confusion.

There are a couple of decent aspects to the film, namely Tom Hiddleston’s stellar performance as a man on the brink of insanity. His transformation from a wealthy doctor to a nutjob who feasts on the neighbor’s pets is the only arc that is carefully executed. The pain of losing his humanity is evident throughout the civil war, and he serves as perhaps the only likeable character in the entire building. Irons also does a decent job as the secretive designer of the complex. He manages to be charismatic enough to not be lost in the large crowd of actors.

Another shining element is the film’s dry humor. The script’s cheeky tone expertly satirizes life for the wealthy occupants of the higher floors. The jokes make even the toughest parts of the film slightly more bearable with a darkly humorous exploration of the tower’s social hierarchy.

“High-Rise” possesses the ingredients to tell an exciting story about rich and poor people devouring each other in a civil meltdown but botches the basic plot. Fine performances by Hiddleston and Irons and clever dialogue can only help it so far. If it actually featured a coherent story, Wheatley could have created one of the most charming, violent satires around. Instead, “High-Rise” stumbles through with a hallucination of a plot and fails to reach any heights.

“High Rise”

  • Director: Ben Wheatley
  • Runtime: 112 minutes
  • Rating: 4/10 Glass elevators