The Discreet Vileness of the Bourgeoisie: Ben Wheatley’s ‘High-Rise’

Reviewed by Lauren Humphries-Brooks

Like all the best art, Ben Wheatley’s bizarre and vicious satire High-Rise has divided critics, and made more than a few walk out in consternation, fury, or elation. It incites proclamations of brilliance, as well as vitriolic attacks accusing it of superficiality and overindulgence. There’s no doubt that High-Rise is overindulgent – it is a vile, ugly, grotesque and yes, hilarious, circus of a film. A film that produces a view of class and social hierarchy in stark and disturbing terms, offering no solutions and suggests no way out. Its comedy lies in the dissection of a society that is so grotesque, and yet so like our own that it becomes difficult to watch without cringing. Appreciation of High-Rise must lie in the viewer’s willingness – or lack thereof – to accept the bizarre nature of the dish it serves.

High-Rise is not really about class warfare; at least, it is not the diametric vision of rich vs. poor. Rather it is about the more nebulous, harder-to-define category of status within class, the movement of the bourgeoisie within incremental social hierarchy, and the subtle hints of power and prestige that go along not just with financial gradations, but also with social position. High-Rise deals with the image of status, and the lengths to which people will go to fulfill that image and to punish others for attempting to exist outside their social rank.

In High-Rise’s vision, those on the lower levels are not really the underclasses, per se – not the working poor that formed the end of the class train in Snowpiercer. They are only slightly less well to do, their status defined less by their finances than by their place in the building. They access the same amenities, shop in the same store, work out in the same gym, and swim in the same pool. But, unlike those on the higher floors, whose power is ingrained as part of an assumed class, those on the lower floors must work harder to appear socially dominant, and this stress threatens to erupt into violence when their social needs are not placated. Positions in the High Rise are arbitrary, based on what floor an individual occupies, with alliances formed among people totally disparate in intelligence, ability, or interest, but thrown together because they are of the same “level.” The warfare that breaks out is not about acquisition, but ascension, the pitting of one group against another.

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Luke Evans in HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

As the power in the building fails, the hierarchy within grows increasingly stratified and floors begin to war with each other. Those on the lower floors want to ascend to the top; an arbitrary desire, given that the top floor has no real significance other than being at the top, and in fact suffers the same decay and failures of power as everyone else. This middle class fury comes to a head in the person of Wilder (Luke Evans). Wilder’s anger and subsequent rebellion is the result of being put off, both by Charlotte (Sienna Miller), who lives on a higher floor, and by the power structure of the High Rise in general. Forming himself as a class warrior, Wilder attempts to climb to the top, to document the unfairness of the High Rise. But his distinction as a class warrior is a hypocritical one – Wilder doesn’t really want to make the High-Rise fairer for its inhabitants. He wishes to ascend, to place himself above others; to be given (or to take) what he believes is his due. His rebellion is a form of social climbing, his real crime (in the world of the High Rise) not knowing or accepting his place.

After breaking into Charlotte’s apartment and raping her, Wilder continues to climb to the top, seeking out the architect Royal (Jeremy Irons). Wilder’s rape of Charlotte signals his destruction, his violation of the High Rise’s class code: “now he’s raping people he’s not supposed to.” Wilder’s transgression is not a moral one, but a social one – he has stepped outside of the power structure by raping a woman above his level, and so must be punished for it. And he is: having achieved the highest level of the High Rise, Wilder finds that the architect has no control over what he’s created, that anarchy has ascended to the highest level, and that his position on the High Rise cannot remove him from his ingrained status as of the “lower orders.” He’s transgressed social and class boundaries, and for that he dies. The cultural warrior is just as bad as those he abhors.

Wilder’s grotesque social rebellion is in contrast to Robert Laing’s (Tom Hiddleston) total acceptance of the world within the High Rise. Even as anarchy and decay sets in, Laing remains stolid in his obedience to the hierarchical structure. He goes nowhere that he isn’t invited – he continues to go through his daily routine, trying to ignore the world disintegrating around him. He commits dual transgressions: first, in telling a patient that he’s dying, resulting in the man’s suicide (one of several inaugurations of the High Rise’s breakdown), and the second in refusing to lobotomize Wilder at the instigation of Royal and the upper floors. Laing and Wilder are among the few to question and then to transgress the High Rise’s structure, and both are punished in their own ways – Wilder with his eventual destruction, and Laing by becoming increasingly insular and increasingly insane within the confines of the High Rise as he works himself into the new, established hierarchy.

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Tom Hiddleston in HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

High-Rise’s bizarre amalgam of 1970s styles reflects its satirical take on status and social structure. Because the film almost never moves outside of the building, there’s a sense in which it’s a film out of time, anchored by the 1970s but as much a story about contemporary bourgeois society as it is about a pre-Thatcher era in Great Britain. It possesses an otherness outside of known time; an obsession with the construction of the image that reflects the characters’ slavish adherence to image as an indicator of social class. Its very lack of visual subtlety conceals the narrative’s more complex, nuanced depiction of class and status structures. The High Rise and its distinctions are made ridiculous, yet it is a recognizable microcosm of the social order.

High-Rise shares some affinity with Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, in which a party of upper middle class theatergoers are unable to actually leave a room they have voluntarily entered. As their anger and dismay increases, they divide into factions, fighting with one another, their social skills breaking down in the face of self-imposed exile from the outside world. High-Rise mirrors this – the people of the High-Rise are apparently incapable of leaving the building, or opting out of the social warfare. Their lives are so ingrained in the structure of the High Rise that they cannot depart from it.

If we are uncomfortable with High-Rise it is because the film expresses an obvious yet disturbing truth about the way that the class system works, forcing us to laugh at unpleasant, unsympathetic characters, to identify with rapists and murderers, to root for destruction. It is not an easy, vertical narrative with a definable solution. There is no call for revolution, no escape from the gaudy vision. Post-modern in its viewpoint, High-Rise refuses to be bound to an ideological framework that would allow for a clean resolution, or even hope for the future. It is an elucidation of the social system in which people place themselves, tacitly agreeing to abide by the rigid class structure and to punish those who try to break its barriers.

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Sienna Miller HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

High-Rise is an unflinchingly unpleasant satire of extremity; an unruly, iconoclastic mess of a film that occasionally hammers home its points with such malice that it threatens to unseat itself. The descent of humanity into violence and hedonism is merely a logical extension of the hostile environment of class structure for which there is no definable solution. Even as the world devolves into chaos, no one thinks of leaving, because there is nowhere else to go. There’s nothing outside the High Rise.

Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @lhbizness)

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