Somewhere between the deep-thinking morbidity of David Cronenberg and the genre-head auteurism of Quentin Tarantino lies the singularly provocative cinematic turf where British filmmaker Ben Wheatley hangs out. It’s a place of hypnotic dread, fearlessly dark humor, and feel-bad endings that hurt so good. It’s also a place that’s not for every connoisseur of art-house aberrance: Wheatley was welcomed, for instance, by the 2015 Toronto film festival with his outré J.G. Ballard socioeconomic satire, “High-Rise,” but passed over by Cannes. (Could it have been the image of condo dweller Tom Hiddleston barbecuing a dog?)
It was another yes from Toronto, no from Cannes, for Wheatley’s latest, “Free Fire,” which just opened in area theaters. There figures to be at least some audience-broadening potential in the wryly comedic, ’70s-set crime yarn, which bears Martin Scorsese’s producing stamp, and casts Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, and Sharlto Copley as players in an arms deal gone sideways. They and their cohorts spend most of the movie in a badinage-filled battle royal while trapped in a derelict Boston factory (actually a warehouse in the UK). But Wheatley drew his biggest inspiration less from Southie, say, than South Beach.
“I started getting the idea as I was reading a transcript online about this horrible shootout in Miami in the ’80s,” says Wheatley, 45, clad in Comic-Con dress-casual and enjoying a pint during a recent stop in Boston. “It was between the FBI and armed robbers, very close quarters, and it went on for ages — 30, 40 minutes. The transcript was a forensic report, but it read like a story, it was so full of drama.
“I wanted to make a film that was a bit realistic about that kind of experience,” continues the director, a veteran of commercials who made his feature debut with the microbudgeted 2009 crime entry “Down Terrace.” “This certainly isn’t a documentary, but from what I’ve read, unless you’re a Navy SEAL or something and you’re in firefights all day long, you’re understandably terrified, and people are really bad shots. That never seems to happen to movie heroes — they blast everyone, even from miles away.”
And so we get this hour-long gun battle, filled with grotesquely bullet-clipped characters — if not bullet-riddled ones — continually dragging themselves, bodily, toward loot or cover. It’s a novel undertaking for director and viewer alike. But it begs the question: How was the cast persuaded to sign on for all that shooting and crawling around? (Action that was generally filmed, incidentally, as an all-hands-on-deck effort.)
One answer is that Wheatley and Amy Jump, his co-writer and off-set partner, had a storytelling reputation that preceded them. Word had gotten around about their stomach-churning thriller “Kill List,” chronicling a hit man’s journey into the surreal. And “Sightseers,” their romp about caravan campers turned misanthropic killers. And “A Field in England,” a black-and-white phantasmagoria about mushroom-tripping Civil War deserters, recently cited by Anne Hathaway as viewing that inspired her to climb aboard her own cult vehicle, “Colossal.”
Another explanation: These weren’t typical genre roles. “Remember that scene in “Austin Powers” where the minion is killed,” asks Wheatley, “and they’ve got to tell his wife and kid? I really liked the idea of all the characters going into this film with backstories, and seeing the guys who drive the trucks and move the boxes, and knowing that they have lives. Then, within half an hour, they’re all reduced to, ‘If I don’t crawl over there, I’ll die.’ What do they do when their options are just taken away?”
For the IRA hardcases played by Murphy and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, this backstory is unstated, but wrapped up in the director’s research into old reports of weapons being smuggled from Boston to Belfast aboard the QE2. For underling Harry (Jack Reynor, “Transformers: Age of Extinction”), these bits range from a recently assaulted cousin to the recording of “Annie’s Song” lilting from his van’s eight-track. (“That’s not used ironically,” notes Wheatley, who admits listening to his share of John Denver — but also that he simply searched YouTube for another prominent vintage soundtrack pick, “Do the Boob” by local rockers The Real Kids.)
Meanwhile, we get a ready handle on Copley’s arms dealer, Vernon, from prattle about his sharp new Savile Row suit — which, like the proverbial knife, really isn’t the thing to bring to a gunfight. And if the South African actor liked the preening, he loved Wheatley and Jump’s eagerness to customize their characters during production. “You could see from the script that this was going to depend a lot on one-liners and funny little moments,” says Copley, who knows from offbeat genre material after “District 9” and “Hardcore Henry.” “Ben and Amy would see what the characters were becoming, and Amy would go away and change stuff for the next day based on that, which was fantastic.
“I think people can all agree Vernon is obnoxious,” Copley continues with a laugh, punctuating a phone interview from Los Angeles. “But hopefully they’ll say, ‘and entertainingly so!’ ”
If the movie as a whole garners a similarly amused response, there should be plenty of anticipation for Wheatley’s next project, “Freakshift,” a sci-fi thriller about monster-hunting cops that stars Hammer and Alicia Vikander, and that begins shooting in August. Until then, Wheatley is just going to finish his beer, and picture what today’s interview spot must have looked like before its luxe makeover, when it was still the Charles Street Jail. But not because it strikes him as some missed opportunity for an ultimate destination for his “Free Fire” felons.
“What this film [ostensibly] should be is much bigger, a caper with Armie Hammer and Brie Larson chasing around, having adventures,” Wheatley says. “But I really like that it never gets there. Smaller characters smash the movie before it can even escape from its first scene.”Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.