FREE FIRE (2016)
Directed by Ben Wheatley.
Produced by Andrew Starke, et al.
Written & Edited by Amy Jump & Ben Wheatley.
Cinematography by Laurie Rose.
Music by Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury.
Starring: Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Brie Larson, Cillan Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharito Copley, Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Mark Monero, Patrick Bergin.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” – The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats.
There’s a buzz about Ben Wheatley and no mistake. Theatre 1 of Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema on the evening of 07.03.17 was sold out for their preview screening of / Q&A session for his latest effort Free Fire (many thanks, as ever, to Mayhem’s Chris Cooke for saving me a ticket… and to Ollie Morris for actually finding me a seat!) Hell, more people attended this than last September’s Broadway screening of Doctor Butcher M.D. There’s no accounting for tastes, I guess…
… only kidding. Among the countless British directors who have been touted in recent decades as the next big thing / great white hope / second coming, very few – IMHO – have actually merited such excessive investment of high hopes… off the top of my head (and no doubt I’ll offend some by not mentioning them and piss myself off for forgetting others), Nick Broomfield and Michael Winterbottom have rarely disappointed. Though it’s still early days, Wheatley has been justifying the hype via relentless pursuit of his (and his muse Amy Jump’s) favoured theme, a truly Shakespearian one, namely the bad things that happen when things break down … things as diverse as the self-control of banal, frustrated people (Sightseers), the Utopian dreams of urban planners (High Rise) and the Stuart dynasty (A Field In England).
This Billericay Dickie having already dabbled in the UK gangster genre (to significantly more intelligent effect than is generally the case) with Down Terrace and Kill List, Free Fire is a step across the pond and hopefully up the ladder, in which the expected entropic narrative is boiled down to the contents (human and ordnance) of a derelict Boston factory in 1978. It’s not quite the uninterrupted “90 minute shoot out” you might have primed to expect. The first half hour sets up the quirky dramatis personae in a twitchy drug deal and how it all goes tits up, starting with the revelation that a foot soldier on one side recently glassed the cousin of a guy in the other camp because she wouldn’t give him a blow job. After that charming spark has ignited the tinder box, you do get pretty much the climax of Taxi Driver (and just look whose name pops up among the list of executive producers) stretched over the remaining hour of the picture and played for queasy laughs, none of the characters allowing themselves to be distracted from the serious business of aiming profane wise cracks at each other by the fact that new chunks are being blown out of them at regular intervals. Nice to know that when things are falling apart, the last thing people lose (after several gallons of their blood) is their sense of humour. It’s as though Laurel And Hardy’s Them Thar Hills had been directed by Quentin Tarantino… or Tarantino’s own early efforts had been directed by somebody with a grasp of the Aristotelian unities.
More than anything, Free Fire reminded me of the hip “heroic bloodshed” epics that I used to watch at The Broadway a quarter of a Century ago, though there’s precious little heroism in it… everyone’s in it for themselves and it’s revealed, at the death, that the fix was in even before the goonish underlings started butting heads. Somebody had the whole thing stitched up all along and they would have gotten away with it but for those pesky… but for a timely reminder that although we have, for the last hour-and-a-half, been engrossed in a microcosm of man’s venality and buffoonery, there’s a world outside intent on reimposing order… however transiently.
During Wheatley’s Q&A session, moderated by Mayhem’s other main man, Steve Sheil and enlivened by the prospect of a free T-shirt for anyone who asked a question, the director deployed a dry and deadpan wit. It was difficult to tell if he was kidding or not when he claimed to have enlisted the help of his producer’s son to plan out the film’s set on Minecraft. He frequently had the audience in stitches, which moved somebody at the back to start shushing people, which was a bit weird. I don’t know why they were in such a vibe-busting mood… maybe someone they knew had recently been glassed? Wheatley revealed that the film he’d watched most before shooting Free Fire was Evil Dead 2 and when he finally disposes of Sam Riley’s infuriating and hitherto indestructible-seeming character, he certainly honours that central zombie movie tenet… you’ve gotta get ’em in the head!
Much of the onstage discussion (at least before I had to leave to catch a bus) was about the technicalities of discharging guns on rifle ranges and sets, but one statement of personal philosophy did slip out, about the re-emergence through Wheatley’s films of the theme that “smart people get dragged down by the stupidity of the crowd.” Will his upcoming films get dragged down to the LCD level of Hollywood product? The director revealed that his next two will be “a science fiction film… and something else.”
Watch this space.