Ben Wheatley is unpredictable to the point where the success of his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise was not a sure thing. As far as directors go, he doesn’t like to sit still; nor does he like to repeat himself; and I get the strong impression he’d rather swan-dive off a skyscraper than be ghettoized as “a [insert genre here] director.”
In the dark-as-hell Kill List, Wheatley shows a knack for uncomfortable intimacy in character interaction (the boiling tension in a hotel restaurant leads to a crescendo as disturbing as it is darkly funny), and an unflinching eye when it comes to people working under duress – whether it be the messy, violent details of a contract killing, or an awkward martial spat during a dinner party. The narrative follows its own internal logic, skipping the predictable beats of more straightforward Hollywood fare, metamorphosing from domestic drama to lurid thriller to, finally, dead-of-night horror. That these shifts occur in such a matter-of-fact manner, with certain character motivations deliberately shuttered, makes the film all the more jarring and unsettling.
Tonal traces of Kill List can be found in High-Rise.
In Sightseers, Wheatley offers a darkly comedic tale of two burgeoning lovers on a tour of the English countryside. Tina (Alice Lowe) quickly discovers, however, that Chris (Steve Oram) – while charming – is also a serial killer. The attention paid to character detail, and the disconnects in communication and philosophy that cause friction in any relationship, makes the scenario believable. On an aesthetic level, the cinematography captures the countryside in lush, vivid detail – with wide-open spaces that seem to extend endlessly. With this repeated motif, Wheatley emphasizes that his characters are like any other couple – small fish in an overstuffed pond.
The semi-comedic characterization of Sightseers can also be found in High-Rise.
So the big question is: does High-Rise work?
I’ve said repeatedly, to the point where it’s probably getting more than a little annoying, that 2016 has been a great year for film. With Wheatley’s impressive and idiosyncratic track record, I was fully prepared to christen High-Rise a masterpiece. It is one of the most well-designed films I’ve seen all year, with a bold and dynamic look; and the technical aspects – from sound to editing to costume design – are flawless. But it’s a narrative disaster that, over the course of two patience-testing hours, slowly eviscerates the greater ideas of Ballard’s novel. It becomes a cavalcade of cheap humor, aimless performances, anvil-heavy symbolism and social commentary, and the repetitive spectacle of bourgeois fools engaging in acts of debauchery (when all else fails, throw another horse or dog on the spit!).
If we leave with any conclusion, it’s that free rein to behave badly can result in boredom and numbness.
And also, maybe: you can be slavishly faithful to something and still miss the point.
For me, the effect of reading Ballard’s novel was that of creeping dread, confinement, and claustrophobia. Amy Jump’s screenplay is faithful to a fault, but Wheatley’s decision to stage it with all the subtlety of a Monty Python sketch leaves the viewer adrift throughout; by the end, when the characters have acclimated to a devolution within a “futuristic” world, I didn’t feel dread in the pit of my stomach; nor was my mind stirred by the barbaric imagery; I just wanted it to end, because I’d grown weary following all these placeholders for characters.
Which raises that age-old question: should filmmakers just leave certain books alone?
After three tries, we’ve yet to get a truly faithful version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (though I would argue that The Last Man on Earth is good enough), while the stuffier works of H.G. Wells tend to fare better as rollicking mainstream entertainments (1933’s Island of Lost Souls being a brilliant example). This phenomenon isn’t limited to sci-fi, with allegedly “unadaptable” works such as those of Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) or William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch) transformed into challenging and thought-provoking films. Even Walter Salles’s take on On the Road, while a safely literal telling of the Kerouac novel, wasn’t bad.
In addition to Naked Lunch, David Cronenberg also adapted Ballard’s Crash, about a subculture sexually aroused by watching and participating in car accidents. It’s not as good as the novel, but comes about as close as one can get to capturing Ballard’s particular aesthetic onscreen. Detached characters, radical philosophies, and body modification/mutation are the director’s stock and trade, and that proved an apt fit for the material.
While we’re on the subject, Cronenberg also did a damn fine job of bringing Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis to the screen. Its long-winded monologues and spacebound characters informed a society on the verge of economic collapse, capped by a sequence where young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), whose fortune is in a tailspin after a bad investment, meets a destitute company cast-off (Paul Giamatti); their interplay is brilliant, hitting palpable notes of contempt, humor, camaraderie, and empathy that High-Rise never even bothers to approach.
To Be Continued…