On Free Fire

I’ve just finished watching Free Fire, the newest film from director Ben Wheatley (and Amy Jump who he cowrote and coedited it with), and while it’s very late I have some thoughts I want to get down about the film.

Back when John Wick was released, I wrote this piece about it in which I argued that the most interesting part of that film was how it replaced fists with guns in the martial arts film. In that genre, a protagonist navigates the world via their martial prowess, and its their mastery of their hands and feet that carves their protagonist film through the trials and tribulations of that world. Within John Wick, the intimacy of that martial combat was maintained, but the navigating tool was the gun instead of the fist.

Free Fire performs the exact same conceptual maneuver, but instead of fists becoming guns, language becomes guns. It’s apparent even from the trailer that Free Fire is a kind of locked-room drama in which the characters move through their arcs in a very tight physical space. It’s very theatrical, very David Mamet, but the actual spoken dialogue is all one-liners out of 1970s films.

The pacing of the shooting, how it wounds those who are assailed by it, and the consequences that are reaped from it all have the feeling of language. There are “conversations” in the film that happen purely formally: a gun fires, another gun fires in reverse shot, and then another, and another. It spins around this factory, never landing anywhere, and the characters joke that they don’t know whose side they are on anymore. There are slow gunfights and there are fast ones; there are spectacular ones and boring ones. And they all function as conversations, punctuated arguments between one character and another.

It’s critical that the constant gunfight opens with a failure of language, or more precisely, a failure of language to produce justice. One character has supposedly “bottled” another’s cousin, and honor has to be restored between both these men and the injured woman. Justice has to be done, and everyone agrees to it, and someone gets beat up. And then language bubbles up again in an insult, and the gunfights begin.

If guns become language here in the sense that the function of language is usurped by the firing of a gun, then we have the assumption that only guns can deliver justice (and this is a familiar argument from a lot of media from a lot of time periods). But even weirder, it means that language can be liberated from its deliberative capacity; in Free Fire, language exists almost wholly to crack jokes around the more serious, deliberative function of the gun that delivers justice. Language gets to play at whatever it wants, while guns have to take over the heavy work of working on group dynamics.

Sharlto Copley’s body is the posthuman image par excellence. From District 9 to Elysium to Free Fire, we have watched this one particular guy become things other than human, and in this film we have seen him become a crappy dude from the 1970s. He’s materialistic, manipulative, willing to sacrifice anything for money, and vicious. More than that, we see some actual horrifying physical transformations that are cringe-worthy. I think that someone should probably write about this at some point: this South African guy who has stood on the precipice of the inhuman, the posthuman, and the neoliberal sleazeball.

Free Fire is a movie that is all about people shooting each other, but it’s very sedated for a long time. Guns don’t necessarily punch massive bloody holes in people. Bullets penetrate and stick, or they go through, or they enter and bounce around. Bullets are not what we’re presented with in The Expendables; they’re much less exciting and much more terrifying for it.

By dialing down the extreme violence for much of the film, the director is able to do some truly surprising and brutal things. A wound being sewn up or a used needle stuck in someone’s hand isn’t shocking in the context of a John Wick or a Bourne film, but in this movie they become cringeworthy, horrifying things. By turning the thing that we associate most heavily with have-to-look-away violence into something banal, the “less interesting” violence becomes that much more difficult to watch. It’s a honed idea, and it works here.

I liked Free Fire, and I think you should try to see it in a theater while you can.

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