I was the only person in my theater this morning for an 11 AM showing of Free Fire. The theater I regular has its ushers introduce the movie before they begin. Since I was the only one in the seats, the young man’s introduction was a touch more casual.
“You’re here for Free Fire?” he asked me.
“Yep. Private screening, I guess,” I answered.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “You’re going to love it. I bet this thing’s going to be a huge hit.”
“Alright,” I said. He twirled his index finger in the air as if to work a bit of magic. The lights dimmed, and Free Fire began.
Free Fire is more of a concept than a story. Two groups of gun-packing criminals meet in an abandoned factory to trade a brief case full of money for a few boxes of guns. The buyers are IRA nationalists. The sellers are a cosmopolitan bunch. The barter is presided over by a woman, Justine (Brie Larson), and a man, Ord (Armie Hammer), with allegiance to both sides, or, rather, to neither side, really. Since the movie is set in 1978, the costumes are fly, and 70s standards fill the soundtrack, sometimes played on 8-track cassettes, Creedence Clearwater Revival and ironically, John Denver. Things go awry.
That’s really all the story there is. Eschewing plot, the you might think the filmmakers—writer Amy Jump and writer/director Ben Wheatley—would people their nearly plotless film with rich characters instead. Not so. While the characters are each quirky enough in their own ways to allow us to tell them apart—personal grooming decisions do the lion’s share of the work here—none of them are particularly complex, and their relationships with each other are merely Etch A Sketched.
No, the filmmakers have decided to go all in on suspense here. The film is strung tighter than one of John Fogarty’s vocal cords, and it maintains that tension throughout. Free Fire is edited into a brisk ninety minutes, and only once did I lose track of exactly who was shooting at whom. That was probably my fault too, since a late comer came into my theater about forty-five minutes into the movie and sat a couple of rows in front of me, disturbing my private screening. I was distracted momentarily. I was mystified why someone would enter a film half-way through, and then I realized Free Fire is the kind of movie you can pick up at almost any moment and enjoy equally.
When the final bullet had ricocheted, and the credits rolled, I looked for that young, enthusiastic usher to tell him I did, indeed, enjoy the movie. I couldn’t find him. I wanted also to tell him that if he enjoyed Free Fire, he might also enjoy any number of art house films that do exactly what Free Fire does but with different emotions – conceives of a scenario that teases a particular emotion out and then holds that tone for as long as possible. Free Fire is more Stan Brakhage than it is Star Wars, but of course, so are the films of Free Fire’s top-billed Executive Producer Martin Scorsese. It’s pure affect, like a roller coaster ride or a shot of tequila or a guitar solo, one by John Fogarty not John Denver.