Editor Chloe Woods reviews Ben Wheatley’s latest.
Welcome to the 1970s. You may want to invest in body armour. Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, following in the traditions of films such as Goodfellas or Reservoir Dogs, is a cavalcade of violence and blood-spattered gore, executed by rough men (and one woman) whose lives are defined by it. Though Martin Scorsese is one of Free Fire’s executive producers, the parallels to – or, if you want to be harsh, imitation of – Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 classic are more obvious: after a brief outside encounter, the cast enters an enclosed space and proceeds to shoot at each other. That’s it. That’s the plot. Or at least as much of the plot as you need to know.
What you should know: though it won’t win any awards for World’s Most Graphic Violence, this is probably one to give a miss if you have difficulties with blood, brain matter, improvised first aid, near-immolation, assault with a deadly vehicle, or sudden headshots. (Really, what were you expecting?) Otherwise, Free Fire comes recommended. It is a well-crafted, deft, fun and surprisingly funny movie which for the most part trots along at a nice pace towards an unsurprising but well-earned conclusion. And though very little will appear shocking in hindsight, the film does pull off enough misdirection to allow for nice sleight-of-hand surprises in the moment. Free Fire does occasionally get lost in its own melee: this is more noticeable early on, before the initially large cast has been thinned out or become familiar – and they are not all easy to tell apart. Despite best attempts at differentiation, Free Fire does ultimately star Brie Larson, Babou Ceesay and almost a dozen white guys; excuse me if I had a little trouble remembering who was who.
Most memorable of the men are Sharlto Copley’s Vernon, bedecked in full disco gear, and Armie Hammer’s Ord. As hired security, Ord is both the most competent and among the most affable of the men – if affability is compatible with probable sociopathy: though only interested in leaving with his limbs intact and the money he was promised, he makes little attempt to cool the situation and is callous to the death around him. Ord’s employer, Vernon, is one of the hot-tempered livewires determined to escalate the violence, for no better reason than his paranoid, panicky sense of macho pride. Meanwhile, Cillian Murphy’s Chris – leader and main character from the Irish mobsters squaring off against Vernon’s crew in the initial deal-gone-wrong – is one of the few characters to show protective rather than murderous instincts. Though the Irish crew are a more close-knit team and Chris has personal motivation to keep them alive, he reserves the bulk of this attitude for Brie Larson’s Justine, as the only woman in the room.
Now: part of me wants to complain that we keep making films starring almost a dozen white guys, one black man, and one woman. As a general rule, we should probably ease off. But Free Fire in its own right, in a hyper-masculine gangland setting (it needn’t be the 1970s), is saying some pointed and reasonably smart things about gender. Justine is well aware of the assumptions these violent men have about women and more than willing to play upon them, while proving herself, in the end, determined not to be defined by the role the men try to cast her in, and neither to surrender to their confusion between the power of a gun and sheer brutality. Thanks to Free Fire’s contractual obligation to blow stuff up at intervals and the sheer size of the cast, all of its characters are archetypes rather than individuals, but Justine is among the best-developed: if not the most interesting in her own right – and she certainly has less personality than Ord or Vernon – she’s certainly in the most interesting position.
(Anyone who has seen the film might notice that I’m fudging here, a little; but anyone who’s seen the film should understand that it would be a massive giveaway to even hint at which other character(s) something similar might apply to.)
The film is strong on its depiction of violence, which is – as noted – never overly graphic, but more importantly never glamourised. From the beginning we are given the sense of an aggressive world, though initially background rough-housing receives less focus than foreground conversations. Once inside the factory, the situation reverses: words fade against the imagery of movement and weapons, even when the guns have no human target. From the beginning we are keenly aware of the threat of bloodshed; even when the conversation is at its friendliest and before the relevant fuse has been lit, it’s difficult to see the two groups as anything but a keg of gunpowder unlikely to remain on peaceful terms. Once it’s unleashed, barrages of action alternate with lulls to keep the overall tension in a fair sweet spot, neither fizzling out nor building to a fever pitch. As mentioned, there are laughs, too, though it doesn’t always feel right to engage with the film’s moments of comedy (even when led by the characters): while not fully visible, the audience is well aware of the characters’ pain and injury and the brutality of the events unfolding – and by extension the brutality of the world these characters live in, which has made them hardened to it.
As far as lighting and cinematography go, I have little to say, except that I noticed nothing amiss in this regard; even if visuals were within my wheelhouse, this is not a film built upon its visuals. (Notwithstanding that all films are built upon their visuals; I mean that Free Fire is a long way from, say, Fury Road in this regard.) Sound-wise, the film prefers to lean on its present sounds and some juxtapositional use of John Denver, appropriate for a movie dedicated to the sense if not the actual inclusion of realism. The leads shrug off bullets a little too easily; otherwise it doesn’t overly stretch reality, in either plot or action, despite tending towards absurdism at times. It’s a tricky balancing act.
You’ll have difficulty if, after all this, you actually want to go and see it: Free Fire is showing at relatively few cinemas now and has done relatively poorly at the box office so far. There’s a quietness to it, despite the explosions; I didn’t read it as either a thriller or a black comedy, the genres it’s been judged for failing at, so much as a cynic’s study in social dynamics. As that, it works. Make of that what you will.
Free Fire is out now in UK cinemas. See the UK trailer below: