Director’s Profile: Ben Wheatley
Though it may be true that, now more than ever, filmmakers are intrigued by the prospect of pastiche, it ultimately requires a singular vision to transcend imitation alone. In this regard, English writer/director/editor Ben Wheatley, born in 1972 in Essex, certainly has that ever-elusive magic touch that many of his contemporaries lack, in the sense that he decidedly wears his influences on his sleeve and yet his work retains a sort of strangely distinctive quality, as if the artist is conjuring visions of old to go with the new.
Wheatley began his career in animation and short films before 2009’s small-town crime drama “Down Terrace” marked his feature debut. If this wasn’t quite enough of a success overseas to guarantee the director’s household-name status, 2011’s “Kill List” certainly did the trick, combining kitchen-sink realism and gritty gangster-movie tropes with “Wicker Man”-style occultism.
2012 proved to be a busy year for the multitalented Englishman, as he directed a segment for the infamous “ABCs of Death” anthology as well as his third feature, the pitch-black romantic comedy “Sightseers.” 2013 brought the exceedingly trippy black-and-white phantasmagoria of “A Field in England,” thus signifying new horizons — ones which Wheatley would explore further with the brilliantly bat-shit “High Rise” (2015), a ‘70s-infused dystopian nightmare which was easily his most ambitious production yet.
Most recently, Wheatley directed the witty and ultra-violent “Free Fire,” which feels like an appropriate culmination of the filmmaker’s aesthetic obsessions even when it doesn’t aim as high, thematically speaking, as some of his earlier work. Even still, these films share common attributes; they are (almost) equal measures maddening and misanthropic, and totally committed to the chaos.
There’s something genuinely fresh in Wheatley’s evocation of mania, and one gets the sense that he’s always chasing after his own definition of excess; his films aren’t exorcisms so much as they are representations of what it looks and feels like to release what’s been fermenting for so long — and then bottle it all up again for observation.
Film Review: ‘Free Fire’
From wherever his ever-growing stateside audience stands, the bearded Englishman by the name of Ben Wheatley seems to be one of the busiest and most consistent minds working in the industry today, having sent no less than one feature film overseas per year since his debut in 2009.
If anything has changed since then — and plenty has — it’s the director’s unabashed penchant for pastiche; with the previous year’s “High Rise,” and now the similarly fleeting “Free Fire,” Wheatley no longer appears to be interested in entertaining subtlety where his influences are concerned.
Just as he conquered ‘70s occultism and dystopia prior, here we have Wheatley taking on the single-location action-thriller that’s become all the rage as of late. An arms deal gone wrong in a warehouse somewhere in Boston, men (and a woman) shooting off at one another according to no plan, you get the picture. A sort of misanthropic streak runs throughout and once the show’s on the road, it rarely stops for even a quick breather.
In the interest of maintaining its modest 90-minute run-time, this is perhaps the wittiest of Wheatley’s output thus far (once again, the director co-wrote the script with his wife Amy Jump), and it’s genuinely remarkable how even the most repugnant involved in the ordeal are able to elicit honest chuckles. This is as strong an argument as ever for stricter gun-control laws, and in that sense it’s unexpectedly timely, but first and foremost it’s a spectacle of stupidity where banter is as frequently hysterical as a bullet to the leg.
It’s all fun and games when someone is getting hurt, but Wheatley remembers to allow for the moment of the kill to be flawlessly articulated so that the impact can be felt amidst the immaculate absurdity. There’s no good guys here, just the bad — Ord (Armie Hammer), Justine (Brie Larson), Chris (Cillian Murphy), Frank (Michael Smiley), Vernon (Sharlto Copley) — and the ugly, the latter of which includes the likes of the spectacularly sleazy Stevo (Sam Riley), Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), and Harry (Jack Reynor), but the cast achieves such harmony that one hardly minds the commitment to the dark heart at the core of the affair.
Mileage will surely vary as to how the viewer receives the over-the-top violence and slick cynicism inherent in the film’s worldview, and it could easily have more of an agenda at the end of the day, but surely the film’s technical merits should not be overlooked. Reuniting with D.O.P. Laurie Rose for another crack at colorful claustrophobia, Wheatley (whose editing remains as sharp as ever) crafts a clever, condensed slice of psychedelic madness, albeit this time it’s notably more grounded than certain earlier endeavors, but that’s not to say that it’s any less delectable as a result.
In fact, more than anything, it seems to suggest a smoother path for the director moving forward. He thankfully has yet to lose even a sliver of the flair that marks his strongest work, and while this is hardly an abstraction à la “A Field in England,” it’s still well within Wheatley’s wheelhouse. The obsessive, snarky, bloodthirsty spirit remains intact, providing a much-needed pick-me-up for the wicked — simplicity as a sly cinematic illusion. As deadly as it is positively delightful.
Ryan Marshall is a Communications & New Media major focusing on cinematic journalism. You can also read his writing at http://www.podcastingthemsoftly.com