and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Free Fire (2017), easily (though you might want to heed the ambivalence in this expression) the best men-with-guns-in-an-abandoned-factory movies since Walter Hill’s Trespass (1992), which I always somehow forget was written by the Bobs Gale and Zemeckis, probably because it is not a steaming pile of shit like the latter Bob’s films usually are, is not the sheer amount of talent (e.g., even Armie Hammer is good) visibly being frittered away on such a fundamentally frivolous project designed for teenage boys younger than the certificate, nor the occasional lines you are pretty sure you can hear Amy Jump insisting had to be in the script in order to preserve some measure of dignity, such as the 90 minute rule or Brie Larson’s exasperated ‘Men!’, nor the fact that guns never need reloading until it becomes essential to the ‘plot’ that they do, nor even its nuanced and sensitive delineation of the Irish Republican struggle in the 1970s, no the very best thing about Free Fire is that everything would have been fine and dandy, and deadly violence would never have erupted, if Sam Riley hadn’t attempted to do an American accent, at least I think that’s what it was, I’m not sure, but whatever it was it made me want to shoot him, too…
After the varying degrees of self-importance, humourlessness and bloat Spielberg, Cronenberg and Weiss brought to their respective Empires, Crashes and Exhibitions, the very first thing screenwriter Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley get right with their High-Rise is that Ballard is a comic writer.
A master of the modestly proposed deadpan preposterous, his dry technician’s prose fakes repression, barely concealing the glee with which he drones shock and flattens affect. This is pretty much impossible to reproduce in film. Cronenberg attempted it with Crash, and failed (Shivers got a lot closer, and is still the best version of High Rise that is not actually a version of High Rise).
Jump/Wheatley’s humour is much more their own, and they are sufficiently confident about it to have some fun with Ballard. There is, for example, a nicely played moment when Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) says something to Royal (Jeremy Irons) which is precisely the kind of impossible-thing-for-a-real-person-to-say that a character in a Ballard novel would say, prompting bemusement and discomfort in them both.
The second major thing Jump/Wheatley get right is to not update the setting of the film. Instead, we get a slightly different version of the 1970s, as if the decade went on a little bit longer and somehow became as attractive to look at as it clearly – and mistakenly – thought it was.
But this also reveals a problem with the film as an adaptation (as a Jump/Wheatley film, it is second only to Sightseers).
Ballard’s novel is very specifically about that moment in the early 1970s, when decrying post-war Corbusier-spawned high-rise developments was transforming from merely a fashionable posture to received wisdom (typically and conveniently forgetting that for many people moving from the slums to the new developments was headily utopian – indoor plumbing!). It was written when councils were withdrawing maintenance from post-war housing projects, and their residents were being blamed for the disrepair into which the untended buildings inevitably fell. It was written when working class residents were being demonised as intoxicated, glue-sniffing, violent, criminal – as creatures incapable of not fouling their own nests. It was written when the extent of the corruption behind many housing schemes was being uncovered (as in the John Poulson case, which reached all the way up to Home Secretary Reginald Maudling – you know, like in Our Friends in the North).
And so whether or not Ballard bought into this potent myth, nothing could have seemed more natural than to retell it, but with a cast of middle class professionals, with yuppies avant la lettre. The closing moments of the film do nod to Thatcher, and it is certainly the case that she – conveniently forgetting that many of the worst post-war developments were built by private companies, not by the state or local councils – drew on this myth to drive through her ideological war on council housing, thus creating the ongoing housing crisis in the UK.
But the conditions in which Ballard’s novel was written no longer exists, and the film – despite the way it captures middle-class social sadism – lacks that element of specificity that would provide a vital resonance. Consequently, Ballard, who should be shocking the bourgeosie, is suddenly heritage cinema, and that is just plain wrong.
Probably the most telling moment for me in this regard comes in the sequence when Richard (Luke Evans), slowly making his battered way up the building to exact his revenge, assaults Charlotte (Sienna Miller). A montage, which includes her timidly serving him a tin of dog food for breakfast the next day, plays out to Portishead’s cover version of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’. It is a beautiful version, transforming the pop song into a languid, mournful piece of music, as self-consciously ‘serious’ as one would expect from them. And in all kinds of ways it works brilliantly.
But it is completely the wrong choice.
They should have gone with the original version; not because it is better, but because the last thing the film needed was to fall into such clichéd caution. This is not to say that rape, even if only implied rather than depicted, should be treated frivolously; but rather that the film loses something by choosing to treat this particular moment as so very exceptional. At least using ABBA’s version might have been sufficiently inappropriate to shock audiences out of their complacency. But that was never going to happen. Despite all the potentially offensive material the film contains, it also wants to be respectable, and that is budget speaking, not art.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s an enjoyable film, and full of nice little touches, from sets which bring the brutalist concrete inside the apartments to an unexpected nod to Aladdin Sane and some great dancing.
But you know the way The Cabinet of Dr Caligari‘s static camerawork makes it not so much an expressionist film as a film of expressionist sets and performances? So High-Rise is a film of a Ballard novel, not a Ballardian film.
[Thanks to Mark Cosgrove for blagging me into the preview after the ticketing fiasco.]