High-Rise: Is Ben Wheatley the new Terry Gilliam?

The audience sits in stunned silence. On screen Tom Hiddleston, covered in blue paint, gives a pregnant Elisabeth Moss a seeing-to from behind. To which she describes him as ‘the best amenity in the building.’ So, er, what did I just see? Something many will probably be saying to themselves after coming out of Ben Wheatley’s latest offering, High-Rise.

For it is bonkers I say, unfiltered madness. And all the better for it. To backtrack a sec, if you’ve not studied up on Wheatley’s filmography, he’s not been a big name director for long. Indeed, many would still say he’s up and coming. His debut was the critically acclaimed Down Terrace in 2009, he then hit us with brutal horror Kill List, then darkly comic Sightseers, and utterly surreal offering A Field In England followed, and now this. Not a bad trajectory, all things considered.

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And his style – if you insist on pigeonholing – is perhaps a hybrid of Terry Gilliam and Terence Malick, but with added horror and insanity. So… perfect for adapting a dystopian J.G. Ballard novel then? This one focuses on the residents of a futuristic (yet set in the ’70s and to us now, quite retro) tower block, one which quickly descends into madness, hedonism, sex and violence; as the building suffers teething issues with power and food supplies and residents try to one-up each other when it comes to throwing debauched parties.

Still with me? We’re in Ben Wheatley territory here.

It’s worth pointing out that this sort of source material and auteur director is bound to attract many a skilled actor, which by golly it did, for Wheatley’s cast is, ahem, long and distinguished. We have Elizabeth Moss, Luke Evans, James Purefoy, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons and, of course, Tom Hiddleston, the latter who leads the show as the cool and enigmatic Dr Laing. New to the High-Rise he likes to hit the gym and sunbathe naked on his balcony. Which draws the eye of Sienna Miller’s character who, in turn, is pined after by Luke Evans’s character, who’s meant to be with Elisabeth Moss’s character. So it’s all a bit incestuous.

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Not that that is what it’s about, not really. But it provides a bit of a meandering story from which to hang these deranged individuals. Think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a tower block with added mad Luke Evans. In short, it probably helps if you’re on something to watch it, as it veers back and forth between dark comedy and surrealism. Thanks, in no small part, to Wheatley’s director of photography, Laurie Rose, who has done a fantastic job.

Seldom has chaos looked quite so sumptuous.

So for audiences gorged to bursting on straight line films where you’re spoon-fed the plot (superhero flicks I’m looking at you), this is a harsh yet refreshing antidote and perhaps much-needed at this time of year. And in the way you’d pair a good wine with a nice meal, this film might make a nice double bill with In Bruges, or if you want slightly crazier, try Brazil. Or if happy to dine alone, go in armed with a dark sense of humour and an odd lens through which to view the world and you’re bound to get something out of it.

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The Following season 3: Hardy hits the bottle

It was only a matter of time before Kevin Bacon’s haunted FBI agent Ryan Hardy went to the dark side. Know thine enemy and all that. For two seasons The Following pitted him against James Purefoy’s charismatic serial killer Joe Carroll, to the point where they became two sides of the same coin.

A literal life or death bromance.

And that was great. Audiences – including myself – loved those scenes. Bacon played his conflicted as the good guy with dark, self-destructive compulsions, and Purefoy simply revelled in helping those come out of him. Like a sort of TV version of Emperor Palpatine seducing Anakin (Star Wars reference there people).

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For season 3 Carroll is (sadly) locked up, so new villains take centre stage and we inevitably lose a lot of what made the show so compelling. First, his mentor Dr Strauss, who is ok as far as bad guys go, but pales in the charisma stakes if I’m honest. Then, Strauss’ so-called ‘best student’ is introduced, the one other serial killers are afraid of, Theo Noble (Michael Ealy).

As a new character he’s got a few strings to his bow. Being an ace hacker helps keep him off the grid and he’s smarter than most of the minions Hardy normally faces. As an actor Ealy has presence but, yet again, he’s no James Purefoy.

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There’s an air of carry-on-regardless about this season. As if the writers realised they’ve written out their best, most interesting and most charismatic character and are up serial killer creek without a bullet proof vest. They do their best to keep bringing him back in different ways but it just wasn’t enough.

For season 3 we’re quite a few episodes in before Hardy even visits Carroll in prison. Carroll’s first line to Hardy is, ‘What took you so long?’. I imagine the show’s producers – and indeed the show’s fans – were asking this question too. (Incidentally, this is exactly what happened with Homeland and Damien Lewis, although the show has just about recovered and evolved from his departure, but that’s another story.)

Hey ho though, the show must go on.

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As the season progresses Theo’s hold over his ordered life of killing (obviously) unravels, forcing Hardy to go to darker and darker places to stop him, pretty much cementing his status as our go-to, twisted antihero, particularly for the season’s final third, which sets him up as a vigilante ready for a crusade all of his own.

If The Following makes it back for a fourth season it would be interesting to see how this progresses and expands. A huge change of direction could be welcome.

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If in some way they could keep the show’s regulars still involved to a degree (like Jessica Stroup’s Max Hardy and Shawn Ashmore’s Mike Weston) then great. But if they did have to lessen their roles to take the show in a new direction, I think I could live with that. Change, after all, is progress.

Hardy needs decent foes to face though. None of these bargain basement killers that couldn’t charm their way out of a paper bag. Another James Purefoy is the order of the day. Or, better yet, a charismatic lady to mix it up. Instead of a bromance he could be drawn to her romantically, yet unable to come to terms with her dark side. That could work.

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On that note: Come the season’s final third (slight spoiler ahead) we were introduced to a shadowy, glamorous woman called Eliza (Annet Mahendru), who seemed to hold the key to a hidden world of high society killers. This gives Hardy his purpose for the next season and maybe she’ll become his future nemesis. Although I suspect she’s part of a much larger organisation and we’ll have another big baddie (or two) to look forward to next time round.

Ps. Turns out, having written this piece, that the show is indeed now cancelled. Typical. And, whilst this means a fourth season isn’t planned, website Design & Trend have suggested some interesting spin off ideas. See them here. I largely suggested a Ryan Gone Rogue one here in my blog, but there’s some others that could work well.

The Following season two: Bacon and Purefoy back with a slice and a stab

203-003-the-following-trust-me-photos-lightbox-tbdSo… it seems The Following is back. A bit of a surprise hit when it aired last year so no big shock that it’s got another season. If you missed it first time round, the show largely focuses on two characters: wounded (physically and emotionally), brooding former FBI guy Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and the charismatic and learned lecturer-turned-serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).

The cat and mouse game these two play is what makes this work. Ok, the script is decent and intriguing, suspenseful even. But for me, the secret lies in the casting and the characters. We often know where the story is going but it’s a fun ride getting there.

Whether it’s big or small screen, Americans adore a bad guy played by a Brit. And in Purefoy’s Carroll they’ve got just that; as his cult ‘following’ of wannabe killers grows, you feel yourself drawn into his orbit – you believe people would follow Carroll and want to please him.

To his credit, Purefoy doesn’t overplay it, but gives Carroll real believability as a cult leader. The way he actually kills people is like some sort of visceral and cathartic release, almost sexual at times. 202-007-the-following-for-joe-photos-lightbox-tbdYou can imagine Family Guy’s Stewie describing him as ‘deliciously evil’.

And then there’s Kevin Bacon’s Ryan Hardy. Wounded by Carroll in a previous encounter, he now has a bum ticker and, as a former FBI man, he plays fast and loose with the law to catch Carroll. Oh, and he drinks, making him your all-round, typical flawed antihero.

Funnily enough, I see both Carroll and Hardy as protagonists, they’re both so interesting you want them both to come out of it with a measure of success. Or, to put it in other terms, you want them to go round and round each other forever, much like Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight or De Niro and Pacino in Heat. Two sides of the same coin.

Anyway, that’s the setup. And, without ruining season one for those that haven’t seen it, Hardy and Carroll scrap it out to the bitter end in a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion. I say satisfying because, whilst it brought the series to a nice close, it left it open for a follow up.

With season two events pick up a year on, Carroll has gone into hiding and Hardy is getting on with his life. He’s stopped drinking, he’s hosting dinner parties. In short, he’s becoming well adjusted… to a degree.sam-photos-lightbox-tbd

Then bam, stabbings and murders galore. Carroll’s followers celebrating the anniversary of his ‘death’ at the end of season one (it’s no spoiler to say this, of course the main bad guy survives for a second season!), go on a killing spree on the subway shouting ‘Carroll lives. Ryan Hardy can’t stop him!’ Then, slowly but surely, little factions of his followers begin to emerge.

One of Carroll’s original followers, Emma, returns sporting a new punk rock haircut. We’ve also got a new love interest for Ryan Hardy in the form of art dealer Lily Gray (Danish beauty, Connie Nielsen), a character who will no doubt have a hidden agenda or two (the internet is already awash with theories, time will tell).

But most interestingly we’re introduced to a pair of twins: handsome, well dressed lads (both played by Sam Underwood) that put you in mind of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Underwood is an interesting actor (another evil Brit!), already carving out a career playing characters with a dark side (see his work in Dexter and Homeland). The twins pay homage to Carroll in a series of elaborate and poetic murders that set things up nicely in terms of intrigue and a wild card element for the season.

And all that in the first two episodes. It’s nice to have the show back.