Nasty, brutish and not short enough, Ben Wheatley's Free Fire has a simple -- and ultimately simpleminded -- premise: to protract what would normally be a brief shoot-out scene to the majority of the movie's 90-minute running time. On the surface, this reductio ad absurdum has a kind of pleasing Conceptual-art clarity; Free Fire's animating idea could serve as the prompt for a performance piece, one that's all climax, no denouement. But Wheatley's gallows humor has flimsy scaffolding: Only the spectators hang.
Free Fire finds Wheatley -- who co-wrote and co-edited the film with his regular collaborator (and spouse) Amy Jump -- returning to the 1970s, the same era of his previous feature, last year's botched J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise. And like that earlier movie, which was confined to a 40-story Brutalist tower, an edifice in which the tenants descend deeper into savagery, Free Fire takes place almost entirely in one building, a derelict warehouse in Boston where bodies start to pile up.
Wheatley's films were once full of the unexpected, the uncommonly explored. Down Terrace (2009), his first feature, about the pathetic dad-son kingpins of a two-bit syndicate in Brighton, plays as a zingy, caustic kitchen-sink black comedy -- one clogged up with a fetid hairball of filial rage, parental scorn, regression and humiliation.
Free Fire is Wheatley's sixth film; following High-Rise, which does little more than dramatize the tableaux of bedlam and rot laid out in Ballard's source text, it suggests that Wheatley may now only be interested in staging orgies of violence rather than thinking much about the psychological writhing that leads to them.