Free Fire (2016)

2017 #105
Ben Wheatley | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Free Fire

The latest film from director Ben Wheatley (he of Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, High-Rise, and the rest) is by far his most accessible movie yet. Set in Boston in the ’70s, it sees two IRA fellas (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) arranging through a pair of black market brokers (Brie Larson and Armie Hammer) to purchase guns from some arms dealers (Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay), with each side bringing along a couple of chaps to carry boxes (Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, and Enzo Cilenti). But things go sideways when a couple of those minor participants have a falling out, leading to a protracted shoot-out. “Protracted” as in “two-thirds of the movie”.

If an hour-long gunfight doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, maybe Free Fire isn’t the movie for you. Conversely, this isn’t a Jason Statham flick: instead of an hour of highly-choreographed gunplay, most of the participants get injured early on and end up seeking cover around the rubble-strewn floor of an abandoned factory, occasionally taking potshots at each other. Most action movies are defined by their characters sprinting about — in this one, they crawl. The screenplay was partly inspired by FBI ballistics reports from real gunfights, so there’s actually some veracity to how things go down.

Guys with guns

So, on the one hand, it has a definite grit and reality. Bullet wounds actually hurt, leaving characters dragging themselves around in the dirt. Although there are occasional bullet-flying free-for-alls, just as often every shot counts. Similarly, their guns run out of bullets — frequently. Sometimes, permanently. On the other hand, however, it’s a bit like something Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie might once have made, although thankfully without slavishly duplicating either of their overfamiliar styles. Without being an out-and-out comedy, it’s often pretty funny, thanks to the ludicrous situation and outrageous characters — all while remaining just this side of plausible, that is.

Unfortunately, the thin premise means it lags a bit in the middle. It feels in need of a clearer overall purpose and one or two more ideas. A better sense of space would help, too. We know who’s shooting at who, but for a long time we don’t really know where they all are in relation to each other. That’s not a deliberate choice to evoke the confusion of a gunfight or something — the characters all seem to know where they need to point their weapons. It’s a lack of filmmaking clarity, exposed in the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes featurette when it’s revealed how meticulously and thoroughly the whole thing was mapped out — it’s a real shame that doesn’t translate on screen.

More guys with guns

These are flaws that hold Free Fire back from perfection, mind. It’s still a fitfully funny, sporadically tense, gleefully violent hour-long shoot-out. And events occur in real-time, too, which I always have a soft spot for. When all is eventually said and done, I doubt critics and scholars are going to hold it up as a key film of Wheatley’s career, but I’d wager it’s the one most people will get the most enjoyment from.

4 out of 5

Free Fire is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

She isn’t pictured in the review, so here’s a bonus one of Brie Larson being badass:

Badass Brie

High-Rise (2015)

2016 #123
Ben Wheatley | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

High-RiseI was looking forward to this sci-fi-ish ’70s social satire, but, having let it percolate for a few months, I still have no real grasp of what it was about. I mean, it’s obviously about society, but what its point about society is… I have no idea.

I will add it reminded me of Shivers. I didn’t like Shivers.

Technical merits are first rate — it’s magnificently designed, shot, and edited; a visual delight throughout. Plus it finds two fantastic uses for Abba’s S.O.S. But at a full two hours, pleasant aesthetics are slight sustenance.

Not so much disappointing as indecipherable.

3 out of 5

Kill List (2011)

2016 #51
Ben Wheatley | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

I appear to be coming at director Ben Wheatley’s films in reverse order (having covered A Field in England in 2013 and Sightseers in 2014), and now I reach, not his feature debut (that’ll be ‘next time’, I guess), but certainly the film that brought him wider attention.

To describe too much of the plot of Kill List, or to even name its genres, is to give away some of its mystery. It’s a problem for reviewers, and has been since it came out — I read an interview with Wheatley where he said he didn’t envy their job, trying to accurately assess and ‘sell’ the film without actually telling people why they should watch it! The marketing people go a little way towards that for us, though, billing it as a horror movie when it seems to be nothing of the sort for a very long time.

It begins in that classic British tradition, the “kitchen sink” drama. Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife (MyAnna Buring) argue about the fact he’s not got a job and the money’s run out. It becomes clear something happened in Jay’s recent past to spook him out of work. Then his mate Gal (Michael Smiley) comes round with a new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), for one of moviedom’s more uncomfortable dinner parties. Gal talks Jay into joining him on a new job (there’s some criticism of the film for being a “one last job” movie, but I don’t recall it being presented as that — Gal talks him back into work, not for a definitively final go-round. Maybe I missed something); elsewhere, Fiona’s actions hint at something more… unusual going on.

Kill List mixes in its genre elements — and they’re elements from a couple of different genres at that — so gradually that, as I said, it’s hard to discuss them without spoiling the film. (Much like the film itself, this review is getting progressively more revealing, so jump off when you’ve had enough.) It’s kind of a compilation of traditional British movie genres: we begin with kitchen sink, then discover we’re actually watching a crime film, before the final act swerves (though not without foreshadowing) into folk horror. The skill of Wheatley, and his co-writer Amy Jump, is in not making these transitions too implausible. That’s not to say they’re not surprising, but the doom-laden music, inexplicable proclamations by some characters, and a couple of very strange events should all clue the viewer in to the film not being a common-or-garden hitman flick.

Even as the latter, it is, again, very “low-key British”. It follows through on its domestic setup, presenting the mundanities of the profession — it’s the kind of film where the dealmaking and mission-giving are dealt with in a dialogue-free montage, but we do see characters discussing how they’ll get out of the hotel lobby without an injury being noticed, who’s going to clean up the blood in the sink, and the quality of the hotel’s free toiletries. The biggest threat the characters initially face is their credit card being declined, which might, potentially, later, draw attention to them.

The final act is naturally where the film reveals its overarching purpose… or rather doesn’t reveal, because there are a shortage of answers here. It’s a lot more straightforward than A Field in England, but it still offers few (or, some would say, no) explanations for what’s occurred. According to Wheatley, the screenplay was more explicit about what was happening and why, and so was some of what they shot, but he cut back on the exposition to leave it up to audience interpretation. This isn’t a film to passively watch and have everything explained, but even viewers prepared to do a little work for themselves may find it frustrating.

Nonetheless, there is striking, unnerving imagery to be found during the movie’s climax, Wheatley and regular DP Laurie Rose using the pitch-black nighttime setting to create dread rather than merely accidentally hide things, as so many under-lit movies seem to nowadays. The handheld camerawork and jumpy cutting that earlier in the film was just a little New Wave-y comes into its own here, aligning us with Jay’s disorientation and confusion. While the ultimate result is arguably predictable, to get too caught up in the minutiae of whether it’s a twist or not is to miss the point. What the point is… well, that’s debatable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a twist for the sake of a twist. (Others disagree.)

The odd mash-up of domestic drama, mundane crime, and folk horror by all rights shouldn’t work, so credit is definitely due for the movie’s flow. Memorable sequences keep it ticking over throughout — and so they should: taking inspiration from the likes of Kubrick and Stephen King, Wheatley started from specific images and worked backwards to a plot. Here, I think that method has been effective. The abstruse ending won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the journey there is worth experiencing.

4 out of 5

It’s Ben Wheatley Night on Film4 this evening, beginning with Kill List at 10:45pm, followed by Sightseers at 12:35am and A Field in England at 2:15am.

Wheatley’s new movie, High-Rise, is currently showing in scattered preview screenings around the UK (mainly in London, because of course), and is on general release from next Friday, March 18th.

Sightseers (2012)

2014 #52
Ben Wheatley | 85 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

Sightseers“He’s not a person Tina, he’s a Daily Mail reader.”

Like The Trip, only with quaint museums instead of restaurants and murder instead of impressions, the third feature from director Ben Wheatley is succinctly described as “a black comedy”. That’s a severe understatement: it’s dark; the kind of dark you might experience on a moonless night in the middle of nowhere if you popped on a blindfold made of lead.

A distinctly odd, rambling experience, it unquestionably won’t be to everyone’s taste — to most people’s, even — but if you are on its wavelength, it’s hilarious and brilliant.

Adorable dog, too.

5 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.