Bullet Buffet – Free Fire

Director Ben Wheatley brought his latest film Free Fire to the ADIFF last week (the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, if you’re not into your abbreviations.) The film has already been seen at a bunch of other festivals, but it seemed appropriate for Wheatley to bring this film back to this side of the atlantic. With him, Wheatley brought the Irish actors who feature in the film, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor and Patrick Bergin.

It’s actually become something of a pilgrimage for Wheatley of recent years: he brought High Rise to last year’s festival (yep, went to that as well) and Sightseers made an appearance back in 2012, a much smaller affair in the great scheme of things. Wheatley has moved from humble beginnings, and based on the Q&A after this screening, it seems that people liked it.

Except for the woman clearly dragged by her man-friend sat next to us who sighed vocally through the film and then stood up and walked out after one question of the Q&A: I don’t think she liked it.

It’s the 1970s and Northern Irish paramilitaries Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Wheatley-regular Michael Smiley) are in the US for an arms deal. The deal’s been brokered by Brie Larson’s Justine, and they’ve brought locals Bernie and Stevo (Enzo Cilenti and Sam Riley) to load up he trucks. The teams are perfectly balanced when the buyers meet the sellers at an abandoned warehouse: dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay) are accompanied by Armie Hammer and they’ve brought their own goons to do the heavy lifting (Reynor and Noah Taylor as Harry and Gordon.) It’s an arms deal: you didn’t think that was going to go smoothly, did you?

Events begin to spiral as egos soar on both sides: Vernon’s mouthy South African larger-than-life personality grates against Chris and Frank’s stoicism, especially when he’s brought different guns than they wanted, while Harry and Stevo clashed at a club the night before. With both sides convinced they’ve been played and set up by the other, things get trigger-happy very fast as a slow burn becomes an over-the-top performance of machismo.

There’s a lot of similarity here to many a Quentin Tarantino film, but Wheatley’s work here is solid enough that such comparisons aren’t wholly fair: Wheatley maintains his own British black humour throughout, a stark contrast to Tarantino’s embrace of Americana. In fact, Wheatley’s cast use a number of different voices, not all of them their own native accent: Cillian Murphy maintains an Irish accent (even if its not his own); Reynor and Riley (from Ireland and the UK) flirt with the whole cast throwing in turns of phrase to give the film an international feel. (Wheatley admitted in the Q&A afterwards that the film was actually shot in the UK, near to his own home, and its a testament to him and the rest of the production team that the film feels so natural because of that. He also mentioned that he and wife Amy Jump played with the script throughout to ensure that, even actors putting on accents, sounded natural in their delivery.

Despite the film’s premise, this isn’t really a tense thriller: all of the characters are set up as terrible people (they’re at an arms deal, remember) so there aren’t exactly any characters that has just been caught in a terrible predicament and we are routing for. Instead, the film keeps its humour brutally dark, favouring surrealist humour from the characters and their personalities than any quirky accents used to give a moment’s relief from tension (I’m thinking here specifically of Mike Myers’ appearance in Inglourious Basterds. )

The beats and characters movements are amazingly choreographed: with such a large cast of characters, everyone gets decent amounts of screen time, each of them having something substantial to do at any different time. If any characters feel ignored or forgotten, there’s good reason, with sufficient pay-off when Wheatley’s eye returns to them.

Wheatley also gets the most from a surprisingly large cast: Hammar and Copley chew scenery every time they appear, but keep things low-key to maintain an ensemble where everyone gets at least one scene to shine.

Wheatley hasn’t put a foot wrong yet, and as his cast and budget grow with each film, he continues to keep things fresh and fascinatingly interesting. In some ways, I’m looking forward to see how his career goes from here, but that’s not entirely fair: the guy’s making amazing films right now, so you don’t need to look too far.


Also published on Medium.