|Scene from Free Fire|
There's no denying that America has had a fraught relationship with guns. It remains a pressing issue as to whether the media encourages careless use that leads to some of the nation's biggest tragedies. While it is true that this is a thorny topic without a clear answer, director Ben Wheatley has done the next best thing. He has created pitch black satire that thrusts American demographics into the depths of hell as a group of neurotic weapons dealers participate in a shootout that goes horribly awry. Like the issue, it's not without some discomfort. However, its satire is pointed to the fact that it undoes the masculine archetype set by films like John Wick. At 90 minutes, it also doesn't waste any time, which only adds to its riveting, stylish structure.
It would be unfair to compare Wheatley's aesthetic to that of Quentin Tarantino. Even with the vague Reservoir Dogs-esque set up, it's a film whose use of violence is spring loaded with a deeper meaning. The inciting incident comes when two men pick a fight. It starts with fists before transitioning to guns. To explain how this leads to every party picking up a weapon and fearing their former partners would be a waste of time. It's intentionally confusing, but makes perfect sense when placed alongside its tagline: "When everyone has a gun, no one's in control." It only gets worse from there as more parties join and the incident escalates, especially when it comes to retrieving a suitcase full of money placed in the no man's land section of the building.
There is plenty of comedy. Sharlto Copley is in top neurotic form as he becomes more unintelligible, choosing to put logic aside for the briefcase. He is taken through the wringer in cartoonish fashion. On the flip side is Armie Hammer, whose charisma continues to be an undervalued tool. His ability to play the film's equivalent of a handsome lead character adds an inspired twist, as he generally gets the best jabs in between rounds of ammunition being shot at him. Still, the entire cast is full of small memorable moments: a feat that is particularly difficult given that the film spends 70% of its running time having characters hide behind barriers while shooting at each other.
What Wheatley has created is a satire meant to distill American culture into its baldest forms. There's the immigrant, the minority, the woman, the capitalist, the mentally impaired, and the drug addicted. Sure, there's little depth to what gun violence means to any one facet, but it feels like a chance to equal the playing field and show that what gun violence inevitably does is turn even the most similar of people against each other. Few characters start off unpleasant, but by the end everyone has their own grudge to bear. Even the pacifist woman (Brie Larson) ends up suggesting "We cannot all be good girls." before defending herself from a potential bullet. The world of Free Fire is a hellscape that shows gun violence in its worst form: the type that the NRA publicly creates where fear and corruption is all that exists.
It creates a confusing dichotomy that neither glorifies the actions nor ignores that there's something cool about shooting off a round. Still, Wheatley's direction shows the barrier between the two as each character quickly becomes injured. This isn't the world of straight shooters and superheroes. This is the world of vulnerability where every character ends their performance either crawling on the ground or limping with a makeshift crutch. While there's issues regarding how Wheatley shoots spatial locations, his choice for close-ups of the actors personalizes the issue while amping up the neuroses. In a world where everything is uncertain, he manages to show the fear on even the most confident character's face. It doesn't hide the otherwise tame violence from the camera. It lets the viewer know when pain happens.
It does help that the brief introductions are just that. None of these characters have a deeper relation to the audience. Even then, it takes the same effect of watching a tragic news story. These people become real, even when they're grasping at straws. The violence has lasting consequences and even the discussion of death (it takes 90 minutes - fitting considering that it's also the running time - for someone to bleed dry) adds a sense of mortality. For a film that laughs so heartily at violence, it knows how to show its destruction.
Free Fire is a flawed film, but also one that is likely to be misunderstood. Even if part of its charm is the absurdity of gun violence, it also bites hard in its serious consequences. This may be an obvious issue that turns the more liberal audience away from the film, but does for weaponry what Full Metal Jacket does for war. It becomes numbing as it subtly changes a person's mentality. By the end, anyone who picks up a gun - even for self defense - is prone to become hostile. Free Fire manages to cross the line with its very simple premise that will likely be misconstrued by gun nuts wanting action. Still, it's a film that resonates beyond its capabilities and makes itself more impressive in the process. It may not be Wheatley's most successful film thematically (see: High-Rise), but at least it continues his impressive run as the underseen ingenue of modern British cinema.