Ben Wheatley shoots for full-on fun with this single location ensemble actioner. And he scores. Big time.
For his follow-up to High-Rise, Ben Wheatley seems to have kept his eyes both in the rear-view window and locked on the target in front of him: the all-out crowd pleaser. While themes of desperation and a taste for extreme and absurd violence remain, the weight these topics had been given in his ambitious, Brutalist drama have been entirely lifted. Wheatley allows his notorious black humour to resurface, and with 90 minutes of mindless shootouts, he reaches his goal.
Once again, a star-studded ensemble cast is thrown into an enclosed, labyrinthine space and left to their own devices. Yet the stakes are this time much simpler and higher: shoot the others before they shoot you. When a gun transaction is interrupted by the personal rivalry between Stevo (Sam Riley, who should definitely be given more comedic roles) and Harry (Jack Reynor, made to look a lot like Wheatley himself), all hell breaks loose and the other characters find themselves involved in a prolonged battle.
Wheatley gloriously embraces the utter absurdity of such childish and dangerous behaviour, portraying everyone as blasé and bothered, but nonetheless ready to take on the challenge. Armie Hammer deserves a special mention for his ability to make his character, Ord, at once annoyingly smug and charmingly clever. Elsewhere Cillian Murphy’s (who should wear a moustache at all times) Chris comes across as the most down-to-earth and relatable of the bunch, bringing a much needed reality check when counterpointed with the crazy personalities around him.
Only someone like Wheatley could have made a film where humour stems from a chaotic shootout in 2016. His determination to go all the way into both nihilism and (eventually) gore makes his position on gun violence very clear, and does so with a simple yet effective sense of humour. Despite their evident familiarity with rifles and handguns, the characters are terrible shooters. More worryingly, they are also extremely impulsive. Wheatley strikes that balance between unnerving stupidity and amusing cluelessness, spiking it up with intensely disgusting moments that make the characters themselves want to reconsider the importance of continuing this confrontation.
Everyone, including Justine (Brie Larson, the sole woman involved), endures countless injuries and spends most of the film crawling in the dust. With often most of their limbs wounded and rendered useless, these characters never stop fighting. They’re not in it to simply defend their lives, but rather something apparently much more important: their honour. The hilarious Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is more bothered by the damage done to his suit than to his flesh, and through him, Wheatley brings the others to not only acknowledge their own stubbornness, but also to reinforce it further, as each remains convinced they have a better chance at surviving than the idiots around them.
The tendency for denial that is part of human nature appears as both extremely absurd yet not too excessively exaggerated, partly thanks to the wonderfully playful and stupid dialogue (take a bow Amy Jump). Boastful and desperate, Stevo and Ord in particular drop the weakest jokes, which are so terrible that they end up making for the funniest moments. Wheatley seems to enjoy exploring such extreme situations for what they reveal of people: pettiness, arrogance and plain idiocy. And it’s all the more amusing when handled with such a fine balance of seriousness and mischief.
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