4/10 After a blockbuster-a-week March, April has mostly been quiet, with studios giving a week’s deference to The Fate of the Furious and two weeks to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, sure to be two of the biggest movies of the year. While Fate was the month’s highlight for casual moviegoers, most of the excitement for cinephiles was around Free Fire. It had recent Oscar winner Brie Larson backed up by Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copely and Cillian Murphy, A24 distributing, Martin Scorsese attached as executive producer and a trailer that looked like that group having all the fun in the world-
Where the trailer is vibrant and alive, the movie is static and sickly.
In the 1970s, Justine (Larson) and Ord (Hammer) broker an exchange between extravagant arms dealer Vernon (Copely) and IRA leader Chris (Murphy). One of Vernon’s muscle men, Harry (Jack Reynor), shoots one of Chris’ crew, Stevo (Sam Riley), over an incident at the bar the previous night, and it all goes south from there.
The last opening credits for Free Fire go to writers Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley. This is highly unusual — the coveted spot has traditionally been reserved for the director. It’s completely warranted. The movie’s dialogue jumps off the page so high that you can see it even in the finished product. It clearly started life as a gleeful, seat-of-your-pants shoot-em-up bottle movie, and was completely ruined by the direction of… Ben Wheatley. Huh.
Free Fire is undeniably shot and performed with much less energy than it was written. Its execution seems almost tailored to knock the wind out of the script, to the end that lines that should be drawing two or three belly laughs per minute instead get intermittent snickers from only the most game audience members.
Visually, it’s almost completely random. It’s never clear what viewers are supposed to be looking at, or how long they’re supposed to be looking at it — shot length varies wildly, from some that are a split second to others that take ages despite clear points at which they should cut away, mangling the movie’s pace. It’s a clear failure on the part of editors… Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley? Really? OK…
It’s not just that the shot choices seem random — Free Fire breaks several basic rules of photography, to the point that I begin to wonder if there was a person behind the camera at all or if it was floating haphazardly around the set the way it seems to be. Characters are frequently cut off in the frame at weird places. Despite taking place almost entirely in one dilapidated warehouse, viewers are never given the layout of the space. This is a huge problem, since this is essentially a feature-length action scene and who can see who and who’s behind cover is central to the plot. Without understanding where everyone is in relationship to each other, viewers can’t understand the consequences of any given action and the movie has no tension.
The most annoying part, though, is the sound design. Free Fire’s sound people go out of their way to quiet anyone who isn’t in the shot, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. The film’s best aspect is its dialogue, and mixing the sound this way deliberately wastes it. It’s not even diagetic — in an echo box like that, everybody would be able to hear everyone else just fine at any distance. It’s a puzzling and crippling decision by… not Ben Wheatley, the main sound guys are called Rob Entwistle and Martin Pavey. But they’re Wheatley’s guys, having worked with him on his previous three films, so…
It’s beyond easy to see how Free Fire should have been made. More wide shots at the beginning to establish the space, consistently have the person who’s talking in frame, don’t arbitrarily mute your characters, cut quickly and consistently to control pace, give a ton of reaction shots to this wonderful cast you’ve assembled — this is kid stuff! They should have pulled together a five-star movie here blindfolded!
Maybe they literally tried that? It would actually explain some of these shots.
With such a hand in Free Fire’s making, one has to assume Wheatley got the movie he wanted, but at the same time it’s tough to fathom that this is the best product from its script. A British filmmaker, he’s a bit of an unknown in the U.S. — his widest release before Free Fire was Tom Hiddleston starrer High Rise, which debuted in a whopping 39 theaters — and I’m not familiar with his work. What I can find seems much better than Free Fire.
As far as this movie is concerned, it’s poorly made and you shouldn’t go see it. If you do, bring a ton of friends and turn it into a classic, then in 20 years or so it’ll hopefully be remade into the romp it was meant to be.
Leopold Knopp is a professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.