The latest edition digs into some unexpected places.
Jack goes back to the lodge with Ernest, causing trouble with his wife. And in the desert, he and the team begin new tests.
High-Rise. 2016.Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay by Amy Jump, based on the novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard.
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, & Tony Way. Recorded Picture Company/British Film Institute.
Rated 18A. 119 minutes.
Almost from the opening, High-Rise caught me as impressive. Part of that is because I find J.G. Ballard’s writing beyond thought provoking. The other is because Tom Hiddleston commands an audience’s attention similar to the old school Hollywood leading man. And finally, a large part is due to Ben Wheatley. Ever since I had the chance to see his debut feature Down Terrace there was something worth the attention in his directing. It only got better as he moved through an excellently varied catalogue of films including Kill List, my personal favourite of his Sightseers, A Field of England, as well as some other projects. While each film is vastly different from the other his style is one an auteur. In each of his works there’s an existential question, of some sort, whether that be about family, loyalty, love, work, and much more. Writer Amy Jump has written several of his features, alongside Wheatley. She is also a great writer with an uncanny ability to look into human nature honestly, whose talents are solo here in adapting Ballard. A job she does well.
Together in High-Rise, using Ballard as the foundation and source, Jump and Wheatley explore an earlier view of the future. Yet for all its madness this story is certainly a great analogy for the war of classes in society, at any point. Particularly, though, in a day and age where billionaires are profiting the most, paying the least for their transgressions, as the poor end up footing the societal and economic bill, this is a book and film that holds as much if not more weight than first when Ballard conceived it.
Dr. Laing: “The facial mask simply slips off the skull”
It’s literally dog eat dog now. Or man eat dog. From the beginning, Wheatley shows us the resulting chaos. Similar to how Hitchcock spoke of showing his audience ‘the bomb underneath the table’, and then for the rest of the film letting people sweat it out wondering… when will it go off? So it’s a perfect place to start the journey. Now we’re left to watch as Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) and all the other inhabitants of the towering titular high-rise complex descend into the madness of their isolated, socially divided existence.
One of Ballard’s interests as a novelist lies in the convergence point between society and technology, between human psychology and technical advancements. In Crash, he examined a very physical space of body horror where the human body and the metal of cars meet in a disturbingly erotic nature. High-Rise examines a more psychological and moral space than anything physical. As everyone of all kinds is mashed together in the elaborate complex, which for all its space becomes more claustrophobic over the course of the film, the moral compass of its various residents and their respective concern for fellow people in different social classes begins to spiral. Downward. So in effect, Ballard’s main themes are that the higher we get in terms of technology, often the lower we get in social skills, but more importantly in social and moral empathy.
Laing is completely oblivious to his class privilege. He tells a cashier to keep the change, but she can only reply: “There isn‘t any.” Brief little bit of Jump’s excellent adaptation. A little later he’s completely humiliated at a fancy costume party where everyone’s dressed in centuries old party clothing. Then thrown out. A great juxtaposition of moments for Laing to experience.
Three big characters in High-Rise have significant names. Royal (Irons) – the main sitting at the top of the throne. Wilder (Evans) – the primitively violent man, arguably the first to fully succumb to the influence of the divided complex. Then there’s Dr. Laing himself, whose name is lifted from psychiatrist R.D. Laing, which connects with his concept of schizophrenia as a type of self-defense mechanism against certain social situations and events. They all play pivotal roles, as the isolation and almost blissfully ignorant nature of high-rise living (a microcosm of social structures) takes its toll in so many intensely brutal ways.
Wheatley often works with cinematographer Laurie Rose. In fact, if I’m not mistaken he’s essentially shot all his feature films. His eye for composition, alongside the directorial choices of Wheatley, always serve the best interest of the subject matter. Plus, he captures everything so rich and full that it jumps off the screen. No matter what type of things he’s shooting. From the bigger, more grand scale shots to the close, tight moments, Rose has a wonderfully classic sense of filmmaking. At times he and Wheatley go for experimental sequences, but mostly they craft a beautiful, old school-looking film that’s modern in theme. It’s a story that was written back 1975, likely started a little earlier, so Rose and Wheatley bring this interesting ’70s vibe to their atmosphere and look while exploring the modern themes in that space rather than update it completely to a contemporary setting.
You could easily see some filmmakers shooting this, as well as writing this, in a complete vision of future today. With the trio of Jump, Rose, and Wheatley, the J.G. Ballard adaptation they give us is the one which the author imagined, as a vision of the future in the 1970s. Everything, right down to the set design, is absolutely astonishing.
Then there’s Clint Mansell, whose work many recognize from his various collaborations with Darren Aronofsky among other scores he’s composed. He does fantastic things with a bunch of orchestral pieces, as well as the iconic electronic pieces he’s known for, too. The opening sequence is accompanied by some nicely fitting orchestra. Later, electronic scores pulse us towards the violent finale. Having Mansell a part of this team only makes the film more effective.
For me, this is a 5-star cinematic experience. Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump, Laurie Rose, as well as every one of the actors involved, particularly Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans, each do a perfect job bringing this J.G. Ballard adaptation to the screen. Notably, this was previously deemed ‘unfilmable’ in Hollywood. So take that, big wigs. Wheatley continues an impressive career. He is a visionary director and every bit deserving of his status as an auteur filmmaker. Jump brings her wonderful writing to the table, and along with Rose’s keen eye they’re able to make Ballard palatable, exciting, and every bit as brutally engaging as his original novel. This is available as of this writing today on VOD. But I’ll also be heading out to see it on the big screen as soon as it shows up here. High-Rise is the type of film I’ve seen on VOD, I’ll see in theatre, then be damned sure I’ll buy up on Blu ray. Great cinema, great minds, great actors.
Sightseers. 2012. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay by Alice Lowe & Chris Oram; additional material by Amy Jump.
Starring Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Eileen Davies, Roger Michael, Tony Way, Seamus O’Neill, Monica Dolan, Jonathan Aris, Aymen Hamdouchi, and Tom Meeten. BFI/Big Talk Productions/Film4/Rook Films/StudioCanal.
Rated 14A. 88 minutes.
I’m a hardcore fan of Ben Wheatley. Some say he’s the best thing to happen to British film in a while. I say he’s one of the best directors to come along in a while, period; not just British, but all over. I think there’s something I enjoy about Wheatley because all of his films are, at their core, fairly simple. Not meant in any way negatively. What I enjoy is that he can take those simple, smaller premises and turn them into something big and exciting.
Even in this case a couple’s week-long trip in caravan, under direction of Wheatley, becomes an intriguing and unexpected story. What could easily be something dull – and I’m sure there are detractors who say it is – turns into a tense and weird ride alongside an equally tense, weird two lovers. Not only is there tension happening, Sightseers is one hell of a riotous black comedy.
Until now I had no idea Edgar Wright was an executive producer on this film. Turns out the screenplay by stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram had been turned down for years – too dark, they said – and Wright came along to greenlight the project. I think this fits so well with Wright’s own style as a director that it’s no surprise he was willing to get onboard.
With the purposefully awkward and tense atmosphere, dark laughs, added to excellent directorial choices, I really think this is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in the last 5 years. A highly underrated film, at least on this side of the pond. I’m sure the British film fans have been ALL over this already.
Little moments which make this so funny, often in a dark way, make the movie so memorable.
For instance, even right after they’ve cleared everything with the police following Chris running over a stranger by accident, killing him, Chris tells his girlfriend Tina “he’s ruined this trip for me“.
Later while Chris and Tina are having some fun, getting the caravan all setup at the campsite, they all of a sudden notice a bright splash of blood on one of the hubcaps, abruptly interrupting their laughs. It’s in the way Chris responds I get a kick, how casual and unassuming he is about the whole thing. Gets me every time.
Then there are the tensely awkward bits of which I can’t get enough. Like the first encounter Chris and Tina have with another couple out in their caravan. Right from the beginning it is so incredibly painful to watch, but in the right way – these two are socially inept, they’re both on the fringe of life in so many ways. However, as the caravan holiday wears on, Chris and Tina find themselves becoming less and less awkward, while becoming more and more sinister. The comedy coasts along with them, only it gets progressively darker and more unsettling; at the same time, it also gets foolish with great effect.
The whole bit of the film with Martin testing his mini-caravan is ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS! So awkward and weird and way too funny. Even from the first scene, as Chris leaves after talking with him and then Martin gets into the mini-caravan only to roll away down the hill chaotically; I burst laughing at this moment. There are a bunch of these great bits.
Something I love about Wheatley’s films are the way in which they’re edited. The are a couple other editors on this film, including Amy Jump and Robin Hill, aside from Wheatley. Hill and Wheatley have worked together ever since Down Terrace; the trio have edited together on Kill List, this film, and A Field in England. I totally dig how these three edit films. There are countless examples of how well they work.
WARNING! SPOILER AHEAD!
My favourite here, I believe, has to be the scene where Chris sneaks up on the writer he and Tina met; Vanilla Fudge’s excellent cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays, as Chris follows him along the highlands, creeping behind, then smashes him in the head with a rock. The great part is how it’s edited with cuts of both Tina, as well as the writer’s wife. In particular, the wife is interesting – she steps on a piece of broken plate, one Chris tipped over purposely earlier, then hauls it from her bleeding foot. I thought this was just a genius bit of editing, snapping between these quick cuts at times. Not sure what it means, other than Chris sort of hurting them both simultaneously – albeit one worse than the other; the writer husband more actively, the wife inadvertently. But either way, how the editing cuts here I find is extremely effective.
HERE ENDETH THE SPOILER!
For me, the greatest part of Sightseers is the juxtaposition of the comedy and its awkwardness with horrific murder at the hands of both Chris and Tina. Every excellently hilarious segment seems to come along with a heart dose of violence.
The best scene of murder, and in turn makeup effects, comes when Chris murders a man chastising Tina for leaving dog shit at a public historical site. Building up to the violence, there’s this funny moment when Chris and Tina sort of land on the same page; if only for a moment. Then Chris traipses up behind the man, who decides to walk away instead of pursue an argument with this manic couple, and proceeds to bash his skull in with a big, heavy walking stick. When we get slight glimpses of the leftover face, it is HEINOUS! In the best possible horror-ish sense.
But this leads me to another part of Sightseers I found interesting. There’s a strange sort of awakening in this scene, as Chris and Tina become closer. While Tina watches Chris bashing in the man’s head, though she appears to be slightly traumatized, not long after she seems to be totally in on it, willingly; a radio report they hear in the car prompts her, and Chris, to go mad with glee. Then later, Tina herself joins in on the murder without even being coaxed into by Chris (except for the dumb and thoughtless flirting he engages in). They become, tenuously, a murder couple.
So it’s this weirdly violent story undercut with a romantic tale. The ending is the ultimate undercutting of the romance, however, there’s still a love between Chris and Tina. It reminds me of the real life story of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley who committed the Moors Murders – as in, if Tina had never gone on that caravan holiday with Chris, she’d probably never have killed a person in her life. Yet Chris and his personality, his actions, draw her into murder. It’s no secret Tina is a bit slow, in many ways, so I’d venture to bet she would probably have lived at home with her mother until the end of time had she not met him.
This is absolutely a 4.5 out of 5 star film. While at times it might seem there’s nothing going on, plenty happens under the surface and right in front of us. Dark comedy comes as immediately obvious, but underneath it all there’s the story of two damaged people. Chris and Tina are the victims of unfulfilled expectations – most of all, Chris hates himself and everyone around him who are either more competent or more successful than he is. This is where the violence originates from. However, it’s interesting to see how Tina latches onto Chris and sort of supports this vicious, animalistic side to him; for her, being a muse to his violence is equal to or even greater than being the muse to some writer. It’s only once Chris sort of messes it all up by shamelessly flirting that Tina turns against him, using her own violence to then turn the tables. Without ruining the ending, Tina gets a major last laugh that I’d not expected whatsoever, personally.
If you’re a fan of Ben Wheatley, then absolutely see this as soon as possible. Great black comedy, burnt like toast. As well as there’s a real horror aspect at times, between the violence and a trippy little dream sequence. I’m a huge fan of Kill List, as well as the vastly different A Field in England and Down Terrace. Ultimately, though, I’m beginning to think my favourite of his work is Sightseers. The performances from Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, also the screenwriters along with frequent Wheatley collaborator Amy Jump, are so unbelievable and it’s as if they’re being completely natural; so much so you’d almost have a hard time separating the actors from their characters’ personas. This has got a bit of everything, from a road trip-like feel of adventure, to awkward and dark comedy, and even a nice dash of horror for good measure.
What’s not to like?
If you’ve got any SENSIBLE and thoughtful comments about Wheatley’s film, drop one below and let’s chat!