London Film Festival: High-Rise and Tangerine

Two very different visions of urban chaos, Ben Wheatley's High-Rise and Sean Baker's Tangerine, represented two of the most anticipated films in the first few days of BFI London Film Festival

Feature by Ian Mantgani | 12 Oct 2015


Sean Baker’s Tangerine (★★★★) is a dazzling rush around the Sunset Strip, following Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a trans prostitute who has just been released from 28 days in prison only to hear pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a “fish” (“A real fish, girl! With a vagina, and everything”). Barely three minutes have passed before Team Gotti Anthem blares on to the soundtrack, the camera whizzes down the street and Sin-Dee’s aggressive odyssey to find that “white bitch” and teach her a lesson has begun.  

From there, it’s a series of interrogations, slappings and screaming sessions, as Sin-Dee marches around the streets to enact justice. Subplots are myriad, including Sin-Dee’s friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) trying to drum up a crowd for her singing gig at a local dive bar and a married male taxi driver (Karren Karagulian) who keeps sneaking off from his family’s Christmas dinner to get a little business from his beloved chicks-with-dicks.  

Baker’s film is loud and hilarious, filled with attitude, colour and music. The iPhone footage doesn’t just look convincing, but vibrant – oversaturated, burnished, a bit like overexposed 16mm but more energetic and free. The soundtrack barely lets up, until the film’s poignant conclusion in the Donut Time shop at the centre of the Strip, when the characters are finally in one place to confront their chickens coming home to roost. Tangerine is not just a seminal mainstream film giving us a glimpse into this community – it’s a brilliant standalone piece of rhythmic storytelling, throwing itself at the audience as a ball of momentum that rolls to a tender, touching stop.  


Ben Wheatley's High-Rise (★★★) also starts with a blast of energy that settles to a contemplative finish, but it’s a lurchier film, widely regarded as a disappointment. Focusing mainly on the detached Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston), it takes place in an enormous Brutalist housing development replete with its own gym, supermarket, swimming pool and societal tension. As the higher-ups throw lavish costume balls and spit on the lower classes, the plush apartment complex turns into a fetid wasteland of murder, dog-killing, garbage and civil war – and ending with a quote from Margaret Thatcher serves as Wheatley’s commentary on contemporary capitalism.  

The film is set in the 1970s, but as well as being a period piece exists in its own hyperstylised science fiction realm. Where Ballard’s vision was cold and emotionless, and the class warfare was simply a byproduct of failed utopia and modernist alienation, Wheatley paints a lusty violent farce where the economic deck is stacked. While there’s colour and energy in the film, and a cast including Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Reece Shearsmith, Elizabeth Moss and Renton Skinner, there’s also confusion. It both paints the disorder in the high-rise as a freak event yet eventually tries to extrapolate political commentary from it, and it shows the decay in montage, stopping for isolated scenes of wackiness rather than watching the process happen step by step.

An ideal adaptation of Ballard's novel might look something like Crash, Fight Club and Delicatessen crossed with Godard’s Weekend. This hints at going in a Clockwork Orange direction before the director loses formal control in parallel to his characters, ending up with something more like Sightseers mixed with 28 Weeks Later and Cassetteboy. As Baker rises, Wheatley skates on thin ice.

 Ben Wheatley on A Field In England
 Ben Wheatley on Sightseers

The London Film Festival runs until 18 Oct