Ben Wheatley’s latest film Free Fire feels closer to the ensemble spirit of his 2009 debut Down Terrace than last year’s deliciously deranged High Rise. There are criminals meeting up with arms dealers for a trade, one which takes place in a warehouse in Massachusetts. It almost seems like too simple of a plot for a Ben Wheatley movie until everything goes ridiculously awry and you realize with delight, “Ah, here we go.”
From black comedy and folk horror to dystopian fantasy, Wheatley’s filmography has covered a lot of ground, but if I had to pick one unifying theme that defines them all it would be this: no matter how fucked up you think things may be, they can and often will get even more fucked up.
There are a lot of characters in Free Fire so it’s understandable that you might feel overwhelmed at first remembering their names and their allegiances. Wheatley and screenwriting partner Amy Jump capitalize on this gloriously, making the fact that there are so many characters integral to the actual plot. There are no purely good guys or bad guys; there are, however, a bunch of assholes that let their egos get the better of them. No one comes across as one-note or unforgettable and the viewer is constantly reevaluating who is a jackass, a smartass, or both. By the end they’ll all feel like old friends, albeit ones that you’ll probably want to kill. (Although all of the actors in the movie are incredible, Sharlto Copley’s Vernon threatens to steal the show, but that is completely appropriate for his character.)
You might be reminded of early Quentin Tarantino, thank to the film’s combination of balls-out laughs and unbridled violence, but Free Fire is far less metacritical than a Tarantino outing, dispensing the self-reflexivity and replacing it with impeccable pacing. The fact that most of the movie takes place inside the aforementioned warehouse but is never, not even for one minute, visually or narratively boring, is a testament to the genius of the writing, the directing, and the acting. All are integral to making Free Fire so much fun.
It’s also grueling. You feel every gunshot (and there are hundreds of them), and wince at every wound the characters suffer. Unlike a lot of action films where the characters pick themselves up and dust themselves off, these are literally crawling on the floor and struggling to survive. It’s both painful and hilarious to watch.
Does Free Fire have any deep messages? No, but perhaps surprisingly, it’s a movie with a lot of depth. It’s part character study and part action movie, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that combined so beautifully. After I saw Sightseers in 2012, I predicted that Ben Wheatley would become a household name. That hasn’t quite happened yet, but Free Fire indicates that it’s not far off.