High-Rise is a 2015 British thriller directed by Ben Wheatley, starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss. It was produced by Jeremy Thomas through his production company Recorded Picture Company. Its screenplay was written by Amy Jump and based on the 1975 novel of the same name by British writer J.G. Ballard.
The film centers around a luxury tower block during the 1970s. Featuring a wealth of modern conveniences, the building allows its residents to become gradually disinterested in the outside world. However, as the infrastructure begins to fail and tensions between residents become apparent, the situation becomes anarchic and the building soon descends into violent chaos.
In September 2015, the film received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and its European premiere at the 63rd San Sebastián Film Festival. The film was released in the United Kingdom on 18 March 2016 by StudioCanal.
The film opens with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) living in a ravaged and anarchic tower block, killing a white German Shepherd and spit roasting it.
The film flashes back to three months ago when life was more typical. The forty story high-rise tower on the outskirts of London, built by esteemed architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), is the epitome of chic, modern living. The upper echelons of society live in the top floors, while more common families live in the lower ones. The high-rise provides its tenants many conveniences, including a swimming pool, gym, spa, supermarket and even a primary school. There is little reason to leave the building outside of working hours, and its occupants gradually become isolated from the outside world.
Laing moves into an apartment on the twenty-fifth floor after his sister dies. He begins a relationship with single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) and becomes a fatherly figure to her son, Toby (Louis Suc). He also becomes friends with Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily-pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), who live in a low-level apartment with their children.
Laing works at a school of physiology. While cracking open a decapitated head, a student named Munrow (Augustus Prew) faints. Having taken a fall, he is given brain scans as a precaution. The next day, Laing is taken to the 40th story penthouse to meet Royal. There, he finds an opulent rooftop garden and is invited to a party being thrown by Royal’s snobby wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes).
The party turns out to be an 18th century costume party and Laing’s every-day suit is ridiculed by Ann and other guests, including Munrow, who also lives in the building. Laing is thrown out of the party and becomes trapped in an elevator during a power outage. Such outages are becoming common, along with water being shut off and garbage chutes becoming blocked, much to the annoyance of the more-suffering lower-floored residents. During a game of squash Royal tells Laing that these are simply the growing pains of a new building.
Laing receives Munrow’s brain scans, which come back clean. However, still angry about his humiliation, the vengeful Laing tells Munrow that they may have “found something.” A massive power outage in the high-rise leads to a night of decadent partying in the hallways and apartments. A drunken and distressed Munrow commits suicide by jumping off the 39th floor, crashing into the bonnet of a car. Wilder finds it suspicious that no police showed up to the scene, and becomes intent on exposing the injustices of the high-rise.
Law and order begin to disintegrate in the building due to the failing infrastructure and increasing tensions between floors. Violence becomes commonplace, food from the supermarket becomes scarce, and the building devolves into tribe-like warfare between floors. It is implied that Royal has been bribing authorities to ignore the chaos within the high-rise. Feeling guilty about Munrow’s suicide, Laing shows signs of mental disturbance, eventually barricading himself in his apartment and settling into the anarchic atmosphere.
Wilder, waking up from a fight from upper-floor residents, intends to find and kill Royal, believing him to be the cause of what has happened within the high-rise. Acquiring a gun from the Royal’s former housekeeper, Wilder also finds that Charlotte is Royal’s aide, and that Toby is Royal’s illegitimate child. Breaking into Charlotte’s apartment, Wilder tortures Charlotte for information on Royal. The only resident that leaves the building for work, upper-floor resident and television newsreader Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), is captured and killed by a gang of lower-floor residents.
Some upper-floor residents ask Laing to lobotomize Wilder, as they believe he is a dangerous agitator causing the majority of the chaos in the building. After Laing conducts a psychiatric examination, however, he refuses to do the procedure, saying that Wilder is “possibly the sanest man in the building”. Laing is nearly thrown off the building to his death for this, but Royal steps in and saves him.
Laing and Royal talk about the failure and arguable success of the high rise, that it is a “crucible for change” and could lead to “new developments”, as well as giving the residents the opportunity to escape to a new life. The women at the top begin working on a plan to establish new management of the building, and Helen gives birth to her overdue baby. Wilder manages to make his way to the penthouse and shoots Royal dead after a scuffle. He is then killed by Royal’s harem of women, as Toby looks on through his kaleidoscope.
The film ends as it began in the ravaged high-rise. Violence has abated somewhat now that many residents lie dead, as well as many of the apartments in ruin and decay. Laing appears to have gone insane, speaking about himself and to others in the third person and talking to the building. Laing then lies down with Charlotte, reflecting that what has happened will eventually reach the second tower of the high-rise development. The film ends with Toby listening to a recording of Margaret Thatcher saying that where there is state capitalism there can never be political freedom.
British producer Jeremy Thomas had wanted to make a film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise since the 1970s. He tried to make it in the late 1970s with Nicolas Roeg directing from a script by Paul Mayersberg. In the 2000s, Thomas began developing the project with screenwriter Richard Stanley and director Vincenzo Natali, with the film intended as a loose adaptation of the novel.
In 2013, Wheatley started looking into who held the rights to the book, which led him to Thomas. Wheatley has remarked: “The book makes as much sense now as it did then. It was written in the ’70s, projecting itself into a near future, but we live in that future now. We’re almost in a new version of the ’70s.”
Screenwriter Amy Jump, who is also Wheatley’s wife, adapted the book.
Hiddleston’s involvement in the project was announced in February 2014 after he was cast in the role of Dr. Robert Laing. Hiddleston had previously worked with Thomas on Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive. Hiddleston said: “I’m greatly looking forward to working again with Jeremy Thomas and Recorded Picture Company… It’s a huge privilege to be asked to collaborate on this brave and daring piece of work”. Wheatley said of Hiddleston: “He is the perfect Laing to me. He brings an intelligence, vulnerability and humor to his roles, be they art-house or blockbuster that will make Laing come alive.”
It was announced in June 2014 that Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss had joined the cast, and Augustus Prew and James Purefoy were also confirmed.
Clint Mansell composed the soundtrack for the film.
International sales were handled by HanWay Films, and key financiers included the British Film Institute and FilmFour.