Tom Hiddleston is turning a particular brand of intense, savage politesse into a thriving career. He plays it with vicious delight as Loki in The Avengers and other Marvel movies. He’s in theaters right now, playing it with a Southern looseness as Hank Williams in I Saw The Light. He’s on American TV screens, infusing it with a cosmopolitan urbanity in the British import The Night Manager. And he laces it with an almost expressionless grandeur as protagonist Robert Laing in High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel. The British film, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival last September, and the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this April, is headed for wider American release in May. It’s arriving at a moment that feels like Peak Hiddleston, but it’s still a welcome use of his particular image: few other actors would be as well suited for this role, which combines elemental ferocity and a polite, faintly dubious, openly artificial social mask.
“Living in a high-rise requires a special type of behavior,” one of the leads tells Laing late in High-Rise. “Quiescent. Restrained. It helps if you’re slightly mad.” That last bit seems like a massive understatement, given how his building’s inhabitants descend into rabid chaos throughout the film. “Quiescent and restrained” also seems like an understatement when describing Laing. Hiddleston narrates the film in the third person, in Ballard’s prose: “As he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building.” On the page, that removal from first person seems like natural storytelling. On the screen, with Hiddleston’s level, chilly voice speaking about Laing as if he were someone else entirely, it reads like the self-mythologizing of a sociopath. And that seems entirely intentional.
Screenwriter Amy Jump (Wheatley's wife) doesn't keep any secrets about where High-Rise is going. She opens with Laing blood-stained and rumpled, coolly eating that dog on his balcony, amid piles of filth and refuse. Then she leaps backward to the point he'd just mentioned, three months ago, when Laing moved into his new apartment in a hunched, 40-story tower of raw concrete. Laing openly longs for the order and sterility of the high-rise: it gives him the sense of control and belonging that he craves. It's poreless, sleek, and impervious, all the things he aspires to be himself.
His neighbors are all initially cordial and equally sleek, but below the surface, they're all rapidly disintegrating. Charlotte (Sienna Miller) is a playful, worldly resident whose balcony overlooks his. The aptly named Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) wants to be her lover, but she keeps turning him away. He's estranged from his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), who sees Laing as a kind ally. But then Laing runs into the building's architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons, who 25 years ago also might have made a perfect Laing), who wistfully explains that the building is meant to be "a crucible for change." He just has no idea how to enact that change, or even necessarily what form he wants it to take. He seems to have egalitarian ideas, but his immense penthouse garden — where decadent, exclusive parties take place — suggests otherwise. As his debauched, resentful wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) points out, the high rise has already developed a strict hierarchy based on how close to the top a given resident lives. Laing lives on the 25th floor, and hobnobbing with the greats in the penthouse is the act of a pathetic social climber. When the building's power starts to fail, and the cliques on various floors ossify into gangs, open warfare abruptly breaks out, and Laing has to choose sides.
Much like the previous Ballard film adaptation Crash (the 1996 David Cronenberg movie about erotic car accidents, not the regrettable 2004 Oscar-winner), High-Rise is a chilly, alienating movie, about people whose choices make more sense as metaphor than as actual human behavior. In the broad sense, High-Rise follows the logic of social criticism: the people up top oppress those down below, so the lower classes rise up and create mayhem. But the only "lower classes" in the building are the artificially created ones: it's an expensive, prestigious new tower, and even the lower floors are filled with middle-class workers with shiny new cars and polished new suits. Grumbles over power outages turn to wholesale slaughter surprisingly quickly, and wreckage builds up almost magically overnight. Wheatley suffuses the film with dread and grotesque violence, particularly against women. If High-Rise weren't so straight-faced and ruthless, it would look like a Terry Gilliam movie, with a laughable manic anarchy lurking on the backside of every calm conversation.
And the character specifics are particularly strange. Royal is particularly inconsistent, veering from hero to villain to absent god from sequence to sequence. The restless, lonely Laing seems to find what he wants in a deeply fulfilling sexual encounter, but the moment goes unremarked upon by either character, and when Laing's lover is endangered later, he doesn't appreciably react. Meanwhile, a third resident starts systematically raping and beating a fourth; Royal and his aristocrats react by grumbling that the rapist is assaulting a woman above his level, and suggest forcing Laing to lobotomize him. No one, not even the victim, thinks to call the police, or seek out help. There's a touch of Luis Buñuel's Exterminating Angel in the way everyone in the building seems to be stuck there, isolated from the outside by mutual consent, for no reason anyone cares to address.
But Wheatley's visual style never feels beholden to Buñuel. It's more familiar from 1960s speculative-fiction films. The Brutalist architecture and cold sterility of the building suggests Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, and the polished futurism and stiffly remote characters are reminiscent of François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451. The retro cars, suits, and architecture all put High-Rise more in a quaint, remote past than a dystopian future. They also add to the sense of otherworldliness that hangs over the film.
And so does the sense that High-Rise is driven more by Wheatley's poster-ready striking images — a suicide falling from a high balcony in ultra slow motion, Laing expressionless and spattered with paint — than by any sort of human drives. "Laing would surrender to a logic more powerful than reason," Hiddleston narrates, hand-waving away any irrational behavior. No one in the film really operates on reason, they just represent emotional factions. Wilder becomes a feral, untrustworthy spirit of the denied and oppressed. Ann becomes an equally monstrous symbol of the selfish, out-of-touch aristocracy that actively enjoys spitting on everyone below them. Both sides are poisonous. Laing isn't an innocent caught in the middle, he's desperately looking for a place to fit in, and his narrative isn't about saving anyone, not even himself.
But while the story often back-burners Laing to focus on the other residents, Hiddleston is still the heart of High-Rise. Wheatley's past films — the dark comedy Sightseers, the genre-defying slasher Kill List, the weird black-and-white micro-project A Field In England — come together in this film, which is crazed and violent, image-driven and a moral lesson, and just plain strange. But Hiddleston's combination of placid calm and seething, hidden rage gives it all an anchor. He isn't exactly accessible, or sympathetic. But he gives the film a memorable central character, one who steps beyond the class-war metaphor to become a larger symbol of the dangers and pleasures of submission. He's his own symbol, not of ego and aspiration run amok, but of capitulation and amorality. And in the end, he's more frightening than the rampaging rapists and out-of-control oppressors. He's someone who'll do literally anything to be accepted. In an insane world, the man who values conformity over sanity fits in perfectly.