By Jake Peter (Charlotte, NC)
High-Rise, based on the novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard, was directed by Ben Wheatley and released in 2016. This social thriller stars Tom Hiddleston as Doctor Robert Laing, a physiologist who moves into a new apartment building after the death of his sister.
Laing quickly discovers a social hierarchy within the building—the rich tenants live on the upper floors, the poor tenants live on the lower floors, and the architect occupies the penthouse. As Laing socializes and settles in, his fellow residents imply that he needs to find his place in the building’s class structure and stay there. Mr. Royal, the architect who designed the high-rise, is presented as a god-like figure ruling over his subjects.
The theme of colonization plays a prominent role in this film. At a party, the wealthy tenants dress in colonial-era costumes and mock Laing for showing up in a suit. Laing even overhears a partygoer say that Royal “appears intent on colonizing the sky,” and that the German press has praised him, alluding to the fascist culture Royal has created in the building. An air of surveillance also permeates many scenes throughout the film, as characters discuss private affairs they shouldn’t know about with frivolity.
Royal expresses halfhearted remorse about the inequality within the building to Laing, saying he meant for the building to be “a crucible for change,” but “people have fitted themselves so tightly into their slots that they no longer have room to escape themselves.” But Laing shows no sympathy toward him, reminding him that he designed those slots.
It soon becomes clear that the building’s wealthy tenants have a history of mistreating those below them without consequence. Not only that, but they enjoy better facilities and living conditions despite paying the same rent.
Residents living on the lower floors share their concerns with Laing, telling him that the building isn’t nearly as homogenous as one would like to think, and that “successful people don’t want to be reminded that things can go wrong.” One tenant even implies that they’ve been waiting for an outsider like Laing to come along and upset the established social order.
However, Laing begins to slip into using the mannerisms of the wealthy, almost unconsciously assimilating into the building’s fascist culture. Half-joking, a struggling actor named Wilder accuses Laing of being commissioned to “disseminate propaganda amongst the lower orders, the dangling carrot of friendship and approval.”
Dogs appear quite often in High-Rise, representing the “dog-eat-dog world” in which the residents live. In order for the rich to survive, they must intimidate and steal from those below them. It’s a zero-sum game.
This motif arises when a middle-class resident chases after a stray dog and beats it, calling it an “intruder” that just needs a “good, sturdy chain.” Like a dog on a leash, the wealthy tenants only tolerate the poor when they stay in their assigned socioeconomic position.
When things start to go wrong in the building, the rich residents just sink deeper into their own depravity. They hold extravagant parties and shameless orgies while anarchy breaks out on the lower floors.
Cosgrove, a rich reporter, says those living on the upper floors must prevail over the poor because “healthy competition is the basis of a modern thriving economy.” This reveals the contradiction between the wealthy tenants’ belief in a free market and how the conditions of that free market allow them to dominate those below them. Another rich tenant even says that they must “commandeer all necessary resources,” and a third suggests they “play the lower people off against each other.”
Wilder embodies the faceless lower class when he screams his name into a broken video camera over and over again. Like all of the other poor tenants, he just wants recognition and respect from those living above him. In addition, the residents’ admiration of Cosgrove imply that the news media helps spread the narratives that perpetuate the building’s class divide.
In the film’s most transparent scene, the usually belligerent Wilder decides to confide in Laing. He confesses that he doesn’t feel cut out for life in the high-rise because “living in a high-rise requires a special type of behavior. Acquiescent. Restrained. Perhaps even slightly mad.” He adds, “The ones who are the real danger are the self-contained types like you. Impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life. Professionally detached. Thriving, like an advanced species in the neutral atmosphere.”
This is the central message of the movie. We are all Laing, living comfortably while the predatory upper class abuses the poor, watching apathetically because we’re unaffected.
Laing fails to escape such apathy in the end, ultimately becoming completely detached from reality. He surrenders to the same cold, economic logic that the architect uses to dehumanize tenants and reduce them to numbers. He emerges as a Columbus figure reigning over a “new world.”
The film’s final scene includes a radio broadcast from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was known for her focus on economic deregulation, privatization of government-owned companies, and firm belief in neoliberalism and the free-market economy. In the broadcast, Thatcher describes capitalism as a necessary and inevitable system and concludes by stating that political freedom is impossible within a state-controlled economy.
This speech is laced with irony given the events of the film. Thatcher says that state capitalism is repressive, but the high-rise, which was a free market ruled by private actors, devolved into anarchy under their rule.
By presenting the dangers of both a totally free market and one that is state-controlled, High-Rise implies that there must be a middle ground. There must be an economic system that combines state regulation and corporate freedom in order to create a balance that benefits everyone.
But in the meantime, we live in nations ruled by corporations with little government oversight. So, we have to resist becoming apathetic like Laing and respond to systemic injustice when we witness it. As we see in this film, those who refuse to take action because economic inequality doesn’t affect them become just as culpable and morally corrupted as those creating the inequality.