A polarizing but exhilarating and provocative movie, High-Rise has all the makings of a future cult classic. Kill List director Ben Wheatley's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's landmark 1975 novel (long-deemed unfilmable) stays true to the author's corrosive vision, detailing the chilling breakdown of society within a lavish London tower block, an assault of darkly comic humour undercut with a savage note of social satire. Working with an all-star cast including Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Luke Evans, director Wheatley (along with his regular writing partner Amy Jump) brilliantly presents audiences with the toxic class system of the high rise, before peeling away the veneer in the second half as the movie's characters give in to their animalistic impulses. It's not just a sense of the grotesque that High-Rise shares with Wheatley's previous movies; in-keeping with Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England, the movie is also a feast for the ears, relying on beautifully judged sound design and an outstanding score from Clint Mansell to add further levels of warped character to the movie. Wheatley has always used music terrifically well in his films, whether it's the twisted application of Soft Cell's Tainted Love in blackly comic serial killer odyssey Sightseers, or Blanck Mass' Chernobyl during the terrifying possession sequence in A Field in England. However, even amidst all that Mansell's deliciously baroque and portentous High-Rise score is something special.
Mansell has truly come into his own as a film composer in recent years, merging his experimental Pop Will Eat Itself background with the symphonic needs of the movie soundtrack to increasingly dynamic effect. Whether it's his adaptation of Tchaikovsky in Black Swan or the intriguing classical/modernist fusion of Biblical epic Noah, Mansell has fast become one of the most unique soundtrack voices around, and High-Rise sees him continuing his ascent to the realm of all-time greats. Yet whilst the score very much plays to his genre-defying strengths, it's also one of Mansell's most lyrically accessible works to date: a more approachable score than the fearsomely overwhelming (although undeniably impressive) textures of something like Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain. The score is often clad in a lush sense of classical pastiche evoking any number of titanic figures like Mozart or Purcell; Mansell nails his colours to the mast during the engrossing and powerful opening "Critical Mass" whose surging, choppy strings work in ironically jaunty contrast to the festering class war taking place within the walls of the high-rise. The opening track is an overture of sorts, signalling the intent of the soundtrack as a whole: suspended above the visuals, Mansell's score is out to portray human nature as an operatic symphony of excess, one that will become increasingly twisted as the score proceeds.
The opening theme re-appears several times throughout the score, notably in the spectacular, snare-driven "A Royal Flying School" where it evokes classic airborne film scores from the likes of Ron Goodwin. “Somehow the High-Rise Played Into the Hands of the Most Petty Impulses” (a direct quote from the novel) introduces a host of turbulent, Howard Shore-esque textures, from which the thrilling main theme eventually emerges in "Danger in the Streets of the Sky". Later the theme is distilled down to a haunting harp solo in the truly beautiful "The Evening's Entertainment" before rounding everything off in the climactic "Blood Garden", whose rapturous sense of resolution lies at deliberately ironic odds with the nature of the story. That Mansell's central idea is so adaptable speaks of his dramatic intuition: just as the movie is a fluid emotional experience, moving from dark comedy to uneasiness, so does the score mirror the narrative's quicksilver shifts in tone.
What surprises are the attractive moments; Mansell isn't a composer especially renowned for being fulsome but a piece such as "The World Beyond the High Rise" is really quite lovely, stately strings and woodwinds (plus an ever-so-subtle electronic undercurrent) working away to craft a genuine sense of melancholy (albeit underscored with the air of foreboding that runs throughout). The aforementioned "The Evening's Entertainment" is perhaps the most appealing of all. An eerie, woodwind siren's call first heard in "The Vertical City" is a classic example of a piece that skirts along the divide between the alluring and unnerving, a brilliant embodiment of the emotional contradictions to be found within the high-rise; this is another piece that works its way through the score, notably in "The Circle of Women", "Built, Not for Man, But for Man's Absence" and "Somehow the High-Rise..."
This being a Mansell score, the orchestration and construction of each individual track is dazzling. The desolate, buzzing textures of "Cine-Camera Cinema" with its piercing woodwinds, Moog synthesiser and processed choir speak directly of the characters' more bestial impulses, as do the disturbing, shrieking glissando strings in "Blood Garden", whilst "Built Not for Man..." features a genuinely moving passage for strings that hints at the compassion being lost amidst the chaos within the building. Meanwhile the rolling piano, glockenspiel and plucked strings of "The Vertical City" have more than a hint of Alexandre Desplat about them; there's a distinct sense of glacial decorum about to crack and implode. Absent from the album is Portishead's woozy, delirious take on Abba staple "S.O.S": the pop hit's application in the film has been one of its most widely reported aspects, an unlikely fusion between chart-topping success and Ballardian excess.
There really aren't enough good things to say about the High-Rise score, one of the most striking, challenging and entertaining in years. Both Ben Wheatley and Clint Mansell need to be applauded for a fabulous collaboration that does exactly what film music should do: extend the emotional impact of the movie in question, and add extra layers of meaning to the visual design and performances. It's a score that's both darkly satirical yet surprisingly melodic, a contradictory mix that comes together very well and of which J.G. Ballard himself would surely have been proud. Those who bemoan a lack of sophistication or insight in modern day movie soundtracks would be wise to check it out; it's possibly Mansell's finest work to date, and possibly even the one to convert those not sold on his more oppressive scores.