Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The best and worst of Ben Wheatley

It's not often I see two films by the same director within a two-week span, and it's really not often that those would be the director's best and worst films.

But that's what's happened with Ben Wheatley. And for those of you who like current releases, I'm pleased to say that his best is the one that's in theaters right now.

That would be Free Fire, a giddy, goofy action comedy that also gets away with being downbeat and even melancholy in spots. It reminded me most in spirit of The Nice Guys, but really, anything directed by Wheatley has a spirit all its own. I saw it on Tuesday night.

Unfortunately, that would leave the worst as A Field in England, which I watched two Friday nights ago, and which I couldn't properly follow from its very first moments. Heavy accents had something to do with that. A muddled concept and extremely poor execution of that concept had a lot more to do with it.

Until a few moments ago I thought two other things about Ben Wheatley that I no longer think:

1) That A Field in England was his first film. It being a first film is the only way to excuse its miniscule-budget, single-location aesthetics. In fact, he made it in 2013, after his two best films I'd seen before now: Kill List and Sightseers.

2) That I had completed the Ben Wheatley filmography. His actual first film, Down Terrace, was a 2009 release that I have yet to have the pleasure, or possibly displeasure, of seeing.

That's right, as I was discussing with a friend last night, Wheatley is a really hit or miss filmmaker. It seems like you are always getting either his best or his worst, in terms of what he's capable of if not in absolute terms. He's just as likely to hit as to totally misfire, if we want to use the gun lingo inspired by Free Fire. You really have no idea whether a film of his will be a pleasure or a displeasure.

In my own personal Wheatley viewing sequence, it's been pleasures followed by displeasures. Kill List and Sightseers really interested me, the first for its unwillingness to be shackled to the genre it starts out with (and that's all I'll say for those of you who haven't seen it), the second for following its black comedy into casually murderous arenas.

But then I fell off the Wheatley wagon a bit. Actually, it's all come this year as Free Fire is actually the third Wheatley I've watched in 2017. The year started out, almost literally, with High-Rise, the fourth full feature I watched in 2017, an unsatisfying satire on class warfare played out in an apartment building set against a barren landscape. Then A Field in England, which I had a sense would be pretty WTF, was WTF in all the wrong ways. A black and white period piece with unintelligible dialogue in which the survivors of some poorly specified battle cross over the same patch of land about a hundred times while searching for treasure and eating mushrooms? I tried to make it sound bad just now, but it sounds a lot better than it actually is.

But hey, Free Fire! It's a ton of fun. And it's certainly the director's biggest move toward the mainstream, starring the likes of Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer and Cillian Murphy. But where that kind of slouching toward commercialism can really queer an artist's vision, Wheatley has figured out a way to make his work accessible (possibly for the first time) without compromising his own particular perspective. I have a lot more I could say about it, except I already did, here.

Who knows if Wheatley will give us more of his best or more of his worst with the next film I see, but I can tell you that the next two films of his I see will continue to represent another type of dialectic within his filmography: his newest and his oldest. Since some of his old stuff is better than some of his newer stuff, but then his newest is the best, I have no idea whether I'll gravitate more toward Down Terrace or toward Freakshift or Untitled 'Ideal' Film (IMDB is unclear on which might come out first).

Either way, I do think Wheatley will continue to make interesting films. Whether they are interesting successes or interesting failures remains to be seen.

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