Ben Wheatley keeps making films that I would like to make. His last outing, High Rise (2015) was an adaptation of JG Ballard’s infamous novella, one which I was morbidly enamored with after reading it and have since harbored a secret wish to adapt it to the screen, if I ever was in a position to do that. Well I can cross that one off, and now Mr. Wheatley has grabbed the crime film by the lapels and thrown it back into the limelight, in this tale of a gun deal gone wrong, taking away another cinematic desire of mine.
To be honest I’d probably be upset if he wasn’t doing it so goddamn well.
Free Fire is a film about scoundrels. All the insects hiding on the underbelly of society, some prettier than others, some who prefer beard oil, but all of them hiding in the dark surfaces underneath the rocks. It’s characters spill all over each other, violently clashing and warring for their egos, and then for their lives. The whole film becomes something of a Chinese spinning plate act, as characters drag themselves around the floor of this abandoned warehouse, all of them slowly bleeding out from various wounds inflicted by the others (when most of them can’t hit anything anyway because shooting people is much harder than most Hollywood films portray). We bear witness as their chances and efforts to actually get out alive grow slimmer and dimmer, and we instead settle into a kind of cathartic rhythm of watching how they perish, and taking solace, joy, sadness and all the rest in between.
And what a cast of characters who pull themselves through it. Ben Wheatley’s ability to draw out the absurd in all of these performers, in Sharlto Copley’s lovable and irritating weapons dealer, Michael Smiley (a Ben Wheatley staple) deadpan old “Grandpa”, Armie Hammer’s smarmy oil slick demeanour, Sam Riley’s laughable smackhead and the list goes on with each actor involved leaving their mark in a way which makes you remember them. Special attention must be given to Brie Larson (the reasons are obvious once you’ve seen the film) and to Noah Taylor because well I just love Noah Taylor.
Honestly though this whole essay could be devoted to just a discussion on the richness and balletic complexity of the characters and their interplay throughout the film, but that would be doing a great disservice to the other elements at play here. The cinematography of Laurie Rose for example, Wheatley’s long time collaborator, helps to bring such a visceral intensity to the proceedings, as the camera keeps itself in the position of the players, low to the ground and confused. Constantly bouncing back and forth around the factory setting, it helps to set up a constant thread of anticipation and tension as you can never quite work out exactly where everyone is or how close they are to each other.
Not just that, but the colour scheme of the film, both in terms of its lighting and in terms of its costume design is gorgeous, this rich gold permeating throughout (even referenced in terms of “the golden hour and a half”, the time period in which medical treatment will likely prevent your death, which is also conveniently this films running time) while the costumes themselves are drenched in 70s style, open shirts and pastel colours abound. It’s just such a gorgeously designed world, it’s vibrancy there to be looked at rather than just glazed over.
Obviously with a film so skeletal in comparison with some of its action film counterparts of today, there’s not much room for hiding, and if the film’s pace had slacked in any way, the whole ballet would have crashed to the ground. Thankfully this never occurs, mainly due to a clear script and some great manipulations in the editing and the sound design. In terms of its script (which I’d love to read mainly because the amount of “x shoots at y, y shoots at z, ad infinitum”) it’s a lot of pure cinema, just pure action, and Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump did a job which he explains in this clip as to how it feels so tight:
As with the editing and sound design, the pace is incredibly well executed, ebbing and flowing not necessarily where you would expect it, but allowing the time for the film to breathe in between its gasping for air shootouts. Really, the editing is the linchpin in a film like this and what a magnificent linchpin it is. Finally the sound design also must be extolled, the gunfire becoming this great cacophony of explosive echoes which are at points near deafening, only punctuated by elements of freeform jazz and a great use of John Denver.
Free Fire is not the most important film ever made, and that’s good because it’s not trying to be. All its trying to be is a good, well crafted film. It’s a film which you can really get lost in, because there’s nothing really outside of its own internal world. And it’s a film which owes its inspirations to other films, from silent cinema to the gangster flicks it evokes. I just think its great cinema, and beyond that, that’s not for me to say.
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