What the F*ck is High-Rise? We Explain. Or Don’t. We’re Not Really Sure…

“This is my party, you are my guests. I shall be the one who decides if someone is lobotomized.”

So last week Clarice and Cole rented and watched High-Rise (as of Friday, May 13th it is also in theaters!)

Going in, they knew exactly three things before starting this movie:

  1. It was about an apartment.
  2. It had an intriguing cast list.
  3. Tom Hiddleston appeared wonderfully unclothed in the trailer.

What follows is their reaction. Warning: there is much confusion and many spoilers!


Clarice: Ok, Cole, where do we even want to start?

Cole: Well. Um. Let’s see. I guess we should start at the beginning? Set the scene so to speak? We start with Dr. Robert Laing (played by Mr. Hiddleston) living in a chaotic building full of trash and dead bodies and flickering lights, surviving by roasting a dog. Then we flash to three months before, when he’s first moving into the building. I suppose that really sets the tone for the film, doesn’t it? The idea that chaos and disorder is inevitable. As a viewer we literally know it’s coming. It’s right around the corner.

Clarice: I’m not sure anything properly prepares you for the tone of this film. Haha. But yes — we are assured from the beginning that chaos and disorder are on the horizon. Though I think the most tone-setting moment is specifically Laing finding an adorable dog… and then roasting it. It reads like a declaration on the film’s part — it is going to refuse to play by any expectation of easily-digestible mainstream cinema. Because it’s the type of film that is going to have Mr. Charming himself, Tom Hiddleston, roasting dog legs. That’s the movie you’re settling in to watch. Fair warning.

Cole: Absolutely. It doesn’t waste time with that declaration either. It gets it right out of the way and then settles into showing the events that lead to Laing roasting a dog leg.

Clarice: So as you said, we flashback to Laing moving into his brand new apartment on the 25th floor of a luxury high rise. It is a massive concrete structure both somewhat sci-fi/modern and reflective of a 70s aesthetic/setting. It is a social microcosm with its own gym, pool, and market.

Cole: It’s one giant metaphor!

Clarice: It totally is! Because do you know what else defines the tower??? LITERAL CLASS LEVELS!

Cole: Indeed! It seems roughly divided to lower classes on the bottom, working class in the middle and rich upper classes at the top, with the Royals occupying the penthouse. It’s not subtle but the film is vague and erratic enough with the information it still kind of makes your head hurt.

Clarice: PS I think it should be 100% clear to people that when Cole says “the Royals,” he means that Royal is the actual name of the building’s “Architect” (Jeremy Irons). Because METAPHOR! And thus Laing, being professional working class (i.e. a doctor) has his place in the middle. … That makes sense, right?

Cole: Yes! Sort of. Maybe? I don’t know. My head still hurts from watching this film…

Clarice: Mine too! Anyway! Laing is (naturally) sunbathing nude on his brand new balcony when he meets his new neighbor the floor above him — Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller). She (naturally) ogles him, tells him he is “an excellent specimen,” and invites him to a party she is hosting that night! Of course, this being the decadent High-Rise, her party (naturally) turns out to be a 70s-inspired binge-drinking, couples-swinging near-orgy!


Cole: I think it’s worth pointing out that the party is the first time we get any real sort of explanation of our world (courtesy of Elisabeth Moss as Helen Wilder) and even then it’s very vague. I was already very confused by this point and the film’s attempt to clarify things actually only made it worse.

Clarice: It certainly doesn’t help that it is literally hard to hear her. Ya know, because of all the hedonistic mayhem around her…

Cole: Yup. It’s a party! A very drunk party. And we meet Richard Wilder (Luke Evans)! Though we technically already met him on the balcony when he was saying some rather creepy and forward things to Sienna Miller. But here we get to know him a bit better and he has unacknowledged sexual chemistry with Tom Hiddleston. This will become a recurring theme for the two of them throughout the film.

Clarice: In my head, they totally made out under that coffee table.

Cole: Oh they totally made out. We just didn’t get shown that part. And then Laing meets Mr. Royal a.k.a. The Architect a.k.a. Jeremy Irons.

Clarice: Someone invites him to do so… Who invites him? Cole, I don’t remember who invites him…

Cole: The go-between guy? Simmons or something like that? Was that it?

Clarice: Don’t remember! Sounds close enough!

Cole: We’ll say it’s that then, shall we?

Clarice: So Laing meets The Architect up on the top top floor. It’s a garden. There’s a sheep. And a horse. Jeremey Irons wears head-to-toe white and sits over a drafting table.

Cole: Because ARCHITECT.

Clarice: Basically he kind of looks like how a children’s cartoon might interpret “God.”

Cole: That’s actually a really good way to put it. And what happens then?

Clarice: Royal explains… things.

Cole: Oh. Yeah. He’s our exposition dumper.

Clarice: Part 2.

Cole: Only this time we can actually hear the dialogue. Turns out that doesn’t actually help all that much.

Clarice: The tower is a work progress… yadda yadda.. He complains about his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes)… He expositions something about how the power in the tower works…

Cole: And invites Laing to yet another party! Head’s up: there are a lot of parties.

Clarice: Fuck, now that I think about it you’re totally right! Half this movie is Laing getting invited to various parties and showing up to them! Except Mr. Royal’s party is very different than Charlotte’s…

Cole: Yes, very different. Everyone is dressed up as French aristocracy because METAPHOR.  


Clarice: And they all laugh at Laing for being there. Meanwhile… there are weird power outages all over the rest of the building!

Cole: Because METAPHOR.

Clarice: Are you sick of us saying “Because metaphor” yet? Unfortunately, it will keep happening. Anyway.. One of the people who laughs at Laing is (apparently?) one of his physiology students named Munrow (Augustus Prew). Implying — we assume — that Munrow is from wealthy family. We previously watched him pass out when Tom Hiddleston peeled the face off a dead man’s severed head. …Seriously.

Cole: Because metaphor?

Clarice: Haha. Not sure about that one… but I’ll go with it!

Cole: At this point, I kind of assume that anything in this film is a damn metaphor for something.

Clarice: Fair! Next Laing is invited to ANOTHER PARTY! This time it’s a children’s party on one of the bottom levels, in the Wilders’ apartment (i.e. a still very drunk Luke Evans and a pregnant, chain-smoking Elisabeth Moss).

Cole: And Luke Evans leads a revolution of children to take over the pool from the upper floor snobs who are having — you guessed it! — a party! And Luke Evans drowns famous actress Jane’s (Sienna Guillory) dog.

Clarice: Yes! For those keeping track, that’s two dead dogs.

Cole: That number will not stay that small. Generally, be very afraid for any animal that rocks up in this film.

Clarice: Oh! And PS there is a “reason” that Wilder decides to take over the pool with all the children. It is because he hears from Helen that the rich folk kicked all the kids out because they thought the children were being too nosy. He takes it personally. And so cue the utter anarchy!

Cole: Yeah. The pool incident kind of sparks off the rest of the film as the high rise descends into chaos.

Clarice: It essentially becomes all-out tribal warfare between the various levels. All while there are increasing power outages. In other words: the mingling of the classes LITERALLY disrupts power. … … Cole?

Cole: METAPHOR. To be fair, this film really should have just been called Metaphor: The Movie.

Clarice: Hm. Maybe that’s a little too on the nose?

Cole: Probably. But it is accurate! Anyway, at this point, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of point in continued recapping as everything descends into anarchy and confusion after the pool. Do you want to do a quickfire of the remaining important bits?

Clarice: Ummm Tom Hiddleston wears business capris? And savagely wrestles over a can of grey paint? And then he paints his apartment grey? And he dances with / then fucks Helen in the grey apartment? And they sit on trash? He stubbornly persists in neglecting to make out with Luke Evans…?

Cole: It really is the movie’s greatest misstep, isn’t it?


Clarice: Meanwhile the rich levels are having orgies of their own! And they kill a horse (for food, presumably?) They talk about throwing an EVEN BETTER party than the lower levels! In one of my favorite ludicrously deadpan moments they discuss that they must  “commandeer necessary resources” which (naturally) consist of canapés, cocktail onions, and cake.

Cole: I believe at this point we paused, rewound and double checked we had, indeed, heard correctly. And I also believe that I looked at you and said (very loudly — we were a bottle and a half of wine in at this point, thank god) “LET THEM EAT CAKE!”

Clarice: Get it?? Because they were dressed up like French aristocracy!

Cole: Because when this film isn’t doing metaphor it settles for blatant allusion.

Clarice: Whilst plotting their “better” party, Mr. Royal & Co. also discuss getting Laing to lobotomize Wilder who is getting angrier, drunker, and bloodier (and straightforward warning: he does rape Charlotte around this point.)

Cole: The film descends into utter chaos (if it wasn’t there already). Laing almost gets thrown off a roof. Wilder sneaks through the building’s ventilation system to the penthouse and shoots Royal and is then stabbed to death by the women (including Charlotte) who have gathered up top. Helen has her baby. The pool has become a graveyard. Laing establishes a new order with the women and they await the similar downfall of the neighboring tower. Am I missing anything?

Clarice: That’s the basics. And it all caps off with Toby (Sienna Miller’s son, by the way, courtesy of Mr. Royal) listening to a Margaret Thatcher speech.

Cole: And that’s High-Rise. Sound confusing. Well, yeah, it is.


Clarice: Ok. But I have to say: as much as I am making fun of this movie, overall I don’t think it’s a bad movie at all.

Cole: No, it’s not a bad movie, but I’m not sure it’s a good one either?

Clarice: I think it’s hard to make that simplified a call on (i.e. “bad” or “good”). I do think it is an aggressively “non-mainstream” one — perhaps even overly aggressive. It certainly has a distinct point of view, and so much of the cinematography at play is arresting, even hypnotic.  Between the looming views of the tower, all of the parties inside, and Laing’s various dream states, it can be dizzying and surreal. The camera itself begins to turn upside-down like a slow motion tumble dryer once the state of the world falls to anarchy.     

Cole: I’ll agree with that assessment. And I’ll give it the cinematography definitely.

Clarice: It’s a hallucinogenic fever dream. And as such, I think it’s at its best when it’s operating on pure visuals. Sequences like that Portishead cover of ABBA’s “SOS” are stunning and, I think, quite effective. The movie seems to be at its wobbliest when it’s trafficking in stated ideas. Any time a character opens their mouth to say something is when it all becomes ludicrous.

Cole: Agreed. The visuals have impact and when operating on those alone the film is at its best. Its visual interpretations of its central metaphor are also the strongest. High Rise hangs on a metaphor (we’ve pointed that out a few times, haven’t we?) which is never allowed to breath or stand on its own feet. The film either states outright what it’s doing or is too damn subtle for its own good.

Clarice: I agree that the metaphor weakens the more people speak. And hey, maybe that dichotomy is part of the point? Everything is supposed to be savage and indulgent and ludicrous. There is admittedly a perverse hilarity to proceedings at times.    

Cole: I suppose? There is a maniacal, often ridiculous undercurrent to the whole thing. I lost count of the amount of times we laughed, not because the film was being funny, but because we didn’t know how else to react. I guess it could be a purposeful dichotomy, though I suspect that we might be giving the film a bit too much credit and searching for purpose where there is none (especially in regard to the dialogue).

Clarice: I think there is purpose in there, but I’m not sure it’s always what they want it to be / I think it loses its own grasp on it at times. I can’t escape an underlying, ill sense that mostly the film is maliciously chuckling to itself because ‘society is just the worst, ammirite???’ It’s all just a rotting, unstable structure — concrete by outward appearance, yet full of people with the most tenuous civility / moral imperative in their behavior towards one another. It’s all doomed, ready to collapse from within by even the smallest disruption. In many ways this makes it effective sci-fi(?), but as a worldview to cater to? Whatever.

Cole: Oh, I definitely think it’s chuckling to itself. I guess I would describe High Rise as a very aggressive film. It works very hard to push its point of view. And I think it would be a better and stronger film if it was willing to sit back and let the viewer reach their own conclusions.

Clarice: I can accept that as a succinct summation. I also think it bears stating that the novel on which it was based was written by J.G. Ballard and published in 1975. I think it makes complete sense that they set the era(ish) of the movie as the era of the book — a time when many people were conscious of a disorienting social upheaval. And England already had class issues hardwired into its DNA.

Cole: The era of paranoia film? Yeah, it definitely makes sense that its source material came from that decade and the decision to set the film in a version of the 70s does help frame it with some context.

Clarice: Context helps, but not always enough. Anyway… I want to get on to possibly my favorite part… the quotes!

Cole: Oh, YES PLEASE. Pretty much every single one of these made us stop and rewind to make sure we heard correctly/so we could write it down accurately.

And now here we shall present the rest of our favorite quotes, without context (though we promise you, context won’t help in regards to most of these.)
  • “I should have married someone like you: stoic and perfectly breasted.”
  • “I’m an orthodontist, not a homosexual.”
  • “I’m a modernist by trade.”
  • “… her chief distraction is the careful cultivation of an intense sort of nostalgia.”
  • “Is that a horse?” / “Probably.”
  • “Do you know you look much better without your clothes on? You’re lucky, not many people do.”
  • “… [he] hovers over the place like a fucking albatross.”
  • “Why haven’t you got a wife?” / “Why haven’t you got a father?”
  • “[mama?] said you’re family’s all dead. Did you kill them?”
  • “You know, Toby, when I was your age I was always covered in something. Mud… jam… failure.” (Clarice’s vote for MVP quote) (And Cole’s)
  • “What do you want to be in that future of yours? Engine driver? Astronaut?” / “I want to be better than you.”
  • “I’d watch out if I were you. There are some very unhappy bunnies bouncing about.”
  • “… you’re definitely the best amenity in the building.”
  • “You can’t put him over the edge! He owes me a squash game!”

And lastly, we leave you with these selfies of us, taken immediately after we finished the movie:

high rise