Movie Madness 2016 Heat Two: High-Rise vs Green Room

Movie Madness is a feature wherein I pit my top sixteen most anticipated films of the year against each other in a bracketed single elimination tournament because top ten lists can sit and spin.

Here we go again! The brackets as they currently stand.

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And introducing the competitors. Weighing in at 119 minutes we have the fifth feature film from British director Ben Wheatley, an adaptation of J.G Ballard’s High-Rise!

And weighing in at a lean, mean 95 minutes we have the third feature from Jeremy Saulnier, the siege picture Green Room!

High-Rise has long been considered an unfilmable novel. Producer Jeremy Thomas bought the rights back when it was published in 1975, and has been trying to get the film made for over forty years since, with various directors attached including Nicholas Roeg and Vincenzo Natali. While I confess I have not read the source novel, having watched the film, the unfilmable nature of it starts to make sense to me. It reminded me, in many ways, of Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a film which, like High-Rise, relied more on mood and atmosphere and visuals to convey ideas rather than the plot itself.

Indeed, for much of High-Rise not a whole lot seems to happen. After an arresting opening wherein our protagonist Dr. Robert Laing (played by Tom Hiddleston at perhaps his most British) eats part of a dog he has barbecued in what looks like a post-apocalyptic ruin, the film settles into a somewhat languid exploration of the society in the high-rise itself. What’s interesting is that rather than the general revolution story of working class rising against the bourgeoisie, High-Rise positions its players as more of a middle class at the bottom of the tower, with the working classes apparently shut out entirely.

Robert Laing finds himself positioned somewhere between the two, simultaneously befriending the architect of the tower Royal (played by a wonderfully detached and churlish Jeremy Irons) and a documentarian from the lower levels Wilder (a growly Luke Evans). Even when the revolution itself does come, it’s not entirely with the outpouring of violence I expected, but instead played out across dreamlike visuals, and often broad humour. Wilder leading a party of children to disrupt the richer people at their swimming pool, and the rich responding by dressing in their finest to lay drunken siege to the supermarket had me laughing out loud in my seat, even though I was apparently one of the only people in the cinema finding it in any way funny.

Ultimately, while Laing is the protagonist of High-Rise, it’s Wilder who is the audience’s way in. As a documentarian. He is not there to express an opinion about the events, he merely exists to point a camera at it and watch it happen, leaving the audience to decide. And that’s ultimately how High-Rise operates. It seems to condemn the actions of everyone involved whilst using every cinematic technique at hand to utterly revel in their antics, lingering on the decadence for as long as possible and often in slow motion and vivid colour.

It’s this dedication to documenting the debauchery that lends High-Rise an atmosphere of detached nihilism. Which I absolutely respect as a viewpoint, though I acknowledge it will not be for everyone, and will lead to many wondering whether the film has anything to say at all. For my part, I was content to sit back and enjoy watching the whole ship sink.

Green Room, on the other hand, is a completely different kind of beast. When I think of the classic siege movie, the one that springs immediately to mind is John Carpenter’s seminal 1976 work, Assault on Precinct 13, though the genre had no doubt found its roots much earlier than that. Night of the Living Dead would probably count, and that pre-dates Carpenter’s flick by eight years.

Which leads me, ultimately, back around to Green Room. Back in 2014 I adored Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, most notably for how it took on the revenge genre and instead of featuring as its protagonist a skilled cop or action star as many of these films tend to, it had a very real man on a single minded quest who managed to make a complete mess of the whole thing. And in many ways, Green Room follows that up by taking the concept of a siege movie and replacing, say, a police station full of trained police officers with a scared and desperate punk band.

I think what I like most is that after the critical success of Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier could have gone on to do anything he wanted. And he turned right around and made another mid budget down and dirty genre flick with a lean runtime. Granted, the cast is much bigger this time, with the previous film’s unknowns displaced by bigger names like Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and the legendary Patrick Stewart.

And let me just talk for a minute about Patrick Stewart here. Patrick Stewart is that guy who went from being a theatrical Shakespeare performer, to the nicest man who ever captained a starship, to the kind of gentle old man who you would like to eat Werther’s Originals with while he shows you slides of his holiday in the Cotswolds. And here he is in Green Room playing the leader of a group of midwestern neo-Nazis… And he is fucking terrifying. He plays everything with a calm detachment, casually ordering his men to send in vicious attack dogs with the same tone he uses to invite the skinhead audience at his music venue to a racial advocacy workshop. Picture the opposite of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, or something akin to Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men but without the malice, and you’re along the right lines. Everything he does is to protect his way of life, and when it comes to violence, he plays it with an unnerving, unflinching calm.

Which isn’t to say everyone else falls in his shadow or anything. Anton Yelchin is our point of view, the bassist of small time punk band the Ain’t Rights. I loved these guys’ dynamics from the very opening scene, where they’ve managed to drive their van off the road after the driver fell asleep, and they have to siphon gas in order to reach their next show. With its runtime being so tight and there being plenty of violence to get around to, Saulnier’s screenplay does what it needs to in order to get our principle players established, with not a moment to spare. But I’ll just say that by the time the Ain’t Rights opened their show on a dare not spoken on screen (complete with Alia Shawkat’s guitarist Sam telling Callum Turner’s singer Tiger “Do it or I’ll tell them you’re Jewish”), making the first song in their set a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks Fuck Off I was pretty much on their side and a little gutted when the blood did start to flow.

And flow it did. Special attention must be paid here to the practical makeup effects by Joe Badali. I’ve seen plenty of horror films with plenty of gore, but there were parts of Green Room that left me audibly cringing in my seat.

There’s a lot I’ve left unsaid about Green Room but I fear to type much further lest I give away which way this particular fight is going to go. I’ve managed to somehow neglect mentioning both Imogen Poots and Macon Blair, both of whom are excellent, as is the cinematography by Sean Porter, who manages to infuse nearly every shot in the film with green, whether it be the gorgeous artificial green of the American midwest, or the sickly artificial green from inside the Nazis’ music venue.

Green Room is the clear winner here for me. In a time of superhero pictures that more often than not exceed two hours (and recently find themselves creeping towards two and a half), it’s a 95 minute breath of fresh air. A tight, claustrophobic, often scary movie about everymen trapped in an extraordinary situation. High-Rise is worth checking out for its Lynchian or Cronenbergian or even Ballardian visual style, but Green Room is a sick triumph.

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