Second Sight: Ben Wheatley's "Free Fire" and the Anatomy of a Shootout 

Free Fire
2017)  Directed by Ben Wheatley.

Criminals killing each other in remote locations to the tune of pop culture anthems, while pontificating on honor and loyalty are an industry staple that has been overdone to the point of rebuking even the most non assuming viewer.  Rogue auteur Ben Wheatley has built his reputation by making films across genres that repulse and endear, creating a divisive body of work that has rocketed him to the top of any discussions involving unique working directors.  His latest effort Free Fire is a flawed, but meticulously constructed story in which the climax of the film is excised from the narrative, dissected, and stretched across the bulk of the running time.

The result is an engaging example of the power of choreography, editing, and cinematography whose marriage takes an experimental concept and imprisons it in a decaying urban preserve of economic despair.  Economy is a theme that is rarely explored in the crime thriller.  While money is a motivation for dubious acts, few films attempt to incorporate it directly into happenings outside of basic greed and the inevitable downfall of the powerful.  While Andrew Dominick's brilliant Killing Them Softly put the financial complexities of the underworld on full display, Wheatley uses it as an organic counterpart to the street level antics of his players.  Indeed there is no honor among the hungry, and the cash serves not only as a central motivator, but doubles as a numerical sentinel standing vigil over the charnel warehouse at the center of Free Fire.

Characters are the first element brought to bear.  The title establishes the main event, however there is a certain magic to the way Wheatley and Amy Jump's script establishes the combatants, yet another stunning use of economy.  Every sentence has purpose, and the blocking used in the slim first act is captured with panache by Laurie Rose's brisk cinematography.  Armie Hammer delivers one of his best performances as a sly middleman and his chemistry with the rogues’ gallery is one of the film's few (non-combat related) pleasures.  Sharlto Copley plays yet another iteration of his previous characters, but it works perfectly in the Acme madhouse of Wheatley's design.  Brie Larson's operative is slightly telegraphed, but this is well within the predefined rules of the grimy microcosm on display.  Cillian Murphy is outstanding, balancing endearing comradery with lethal precision that instantly makes his IRA killer the most interesting of the bunch.  The remaining cast consists of a wealth of talent, including the formidable Jack Reynor who completely disappears into his dingy character with such ease it’s a wonder to behold.

Wheatley constructed the setting on Minecraft in order to ensure every piece of his terrible locomotive was perfectly placed.  1978 Boston initially seems a random choice for time period, however, it yields not only a refreshing lack of easy technological solutions, it also allows for insanely gaudy outfits designed by Emma Fryer, another pitch perfect addition to the absurdity.  Even before the carnage begins, each of the combatants jump off the screen both in presentation and action, setting up the ultimate deal gone awry, simulating urban criminal legends that dominate even the tamest social media enclaves.  Everything, even a John Denver dominated soundtrack, serves as an ingredient in the impending comical doom of Wheatley's carefully situated leisure suited gladiators.

Once the firestorm begins, the merits of the crew begin to truly shine.  Maintaining pace and interest in an hour long gunfight seems almost impossible, however, it becomes instantly clear Wheatley not only studied for the exam, he also stole the answers before class.  Every shot brings a dirge of shattered dreams and maniacal comeuppance.  The editing is truly remarkable.  Some have criticized the lack of overhead shots laying out the battlefield; however this is a testament to Wheatley's respect for the audience and his confidence in his project.  While the brass fuselage is initially jarring, the sides, the victims, and the geography are easily kept in focus through quick fire cuts and a stalwart amount of patience from the cast.  While the characters themselves are confused and reactionary, everything spins perfectly to a junkyard rhythm.

Ultimately, Free Fire is an above average experience, undone by its forgettable story.  Bad guys killing bad guys has always been a thing and while Free Fire sidesteps the nihilism with humor and unbelievable antics, it is still constrained by its choice of subject matter.   Despite this, the power of the film is in how it is constructed.  It's gruesome fun, distilling the crime caper through a three color filter that ends on an expected loser take all resolution and that's alright, if only because it means we have Wheatley's next dangerous concoction to look forward to.

Analysis by Kyle Jonathan