I respect the hell out of Ben Wheatley for his drive to make new film. A good 90% of what he’s done, for better or worse, is actual original cinema — not an adaptation of a beloved novel, not a bastardization of a classic film, not a superhero flick that takes bits and pieces from comic books and cobbles them together into a weak installment of some neverending box-office-driven franchise. A Field in England and Sightseers are sort of the pinnacle of this criteria for Wheatley, with Field as a particular achievement — weird as hell, quite unlike anything you’ve seen to date, but importantly a cohesive experience that you can mine for deeper meaning and rewatch ad nauseam without feeling like you’ve exhausted it. Field does more with five or six actors and a muddy pasture than most movies do with $250 million, and so the prospect of Wheatley returning to ragtag roots with his latest film In the Earth was a promising one.
This is largely due to his most recent efforts: a workmanlike remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca this past year, in which Armie Hammer wore the same yellow suit in like nine different scenes; High-Rise in 2016, an ultimately joyless adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel; and Free Fire, an original movie which zips along on first watch and positively drags on subsequent viewings. If each of these films was successively bigger — in budget terms, but also in scope — they also felt less and less like the scrappy Wheatley who made A Field in England in 12 days on just £300,000.
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Free Fire. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Prolific director Ben Wheatley followed up 2015’s High-Rise with Free Fire, another film about the disintegration of a boxed-in mini-society. Both efforts are similar in this sense, observing a group of strangers forced into close quarters, casting us as the voyeuristic witnesses on a direct descent away from normalcy. Both films begin methodically, High-Rise introducing a futuristic all-inclusive living complex and Free Fire peeping in on an arms deal in an abandoned warehouse. And both can only ever end one way: in chaos, loud and bloody.
But it’s still remarkable how different these two films are, despite the apparent similarities and the fact that both were crafted by Wheatley (with co-writer Amy Jump) in the span of a single year. Free Fire justifies itself in the approach, heavily drawing on Reservoir Dogs-era Tarantino to convey vital information through seemingly innocuous dialogue as much as visual staging. Words do all the work here, with snippets of conversation managing to develop characters and propel the narrative at the same time. The arms deal brings buyers, sellers, intermediaries, muscle-for-hire and assassins-for-hire into a confined space, but before the guns come out it’s dialogue that each party attempts to weaponize.
Having just finished and thoroughly enjoyed The Night Manager, I thought I’d know more or less what to expect from High-Rise. This is due largely in part to the sexy sexualization of Tom “Sexy” Hiddleston, who stars in both and is also sexy. I assumed his character in High-Rise to be the sterling yuppie with the isn’t-it-perfect life structured in service of the concealment of darker, truer impulses. In Night Manager Hiddleston’s attractiveness is essentially made into a plot point; so too, probably, would High-Rise note the perfection of the specimen before delving into a personality far less desirable. A six-pack and a violent extreme, per American Psycho, per marketing stills like this:
But High-Rise isn’t sexy for very long. The prologue is a glimpse of the messy future, wherein Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing seemingly resorts to making food out of the dog, making paper airplanes out of the electricity bill, and making a ramshackle life in the husklike ruins of the tower block. It is suspiciously unsexy. Then again, though, resorts isn’t the right word: Laing has very definitely chosen this. He’s in a sort of hell and is more or less enjoying it.