Ben Wheatley: A hidden treasure unearthed

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Ben Wheatley goes Tarantino in Free Fire

Ben Wheatley goes Tarantino in Free Fire

With Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire set for release and an appearance at FACT from the man himself Getintothis’ Del Pike ponders why people still don’t know who he is.

One of the most baffling things about British film director Ben Wheatley is that seemingly no-one has heard of him. Outside of your fine-tuned film buffs, mention Wheatley’s name to anyone and you’ll no doubt be greeted with a sense of bewilderment. You may be feeling bewildered now, if so read on.

You would have thought that High Rise may have done the trick. The director’s foray into the semi-mainstream has stardom written all over it. Tom Hiddleston beaming out from the beautiful Clockwork Orange referencing poster but no. As Free Fire, his Tarantino style actioner prepares to open this Spring, it feels like High Rise never happened.

Here’s the thing, the man is a national treasure. For the past eight years, he has been producing some of the most challenging films this country has to offer, possibly too challenging but believe me, they are worth the effort. His rise coincided with the demise of British cinema’s former throne warmer, Shane Meadows.

There was a man who followed a similar pattern, a string of incredible little-noticed films (Twenty Four Seven, A Room for Romeo Brass, Once upon a time in the Midlands) who only really rose to recognition with his love letter to 1980s skinhead culture, the semi-autogiographical This is England in 2006. Whether this was due to the controversy surrounding the film due to its issues of racism or just because it was a bloody great film remains in question. The fact that he is known more for his This is England CH4 series, reveals a lot about the regard British cinema-goers have for home grown movies. Stay at home, it’s better!

It’s been nearly ten years since Meadows made a decent feature, 2008’s Somers Town, shame he wasn’t appreciated more at the time.

Wheatley’s first feature, the little seen Down Terrace (2009), a low key / low budget crime thriller set the scene for Wheatley’s dark violent humour that would rear its head for seemingly the rest of his career. Kill List (2011) however remains his first classic. A dark as hell tale of violence that starts out as your average run of the mill crime caper and spirals into a modern-day Wicker Man. Like most great filmmakers, Wheatley was already showing signs of building up a cast of regulars with the sinister pairing of Michael Smiley (Spaced) and Neil Maskell.

Creating a very similar disturbing atmosphere to Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, Kill List does so by setting his horrific tableaus in Suburbia, that place we usually feel safe. After one particularly horrible act of violence the audience spends the remainder of the film in dread of what is to follow.

2012’s Sightseers looks much brighter at first glance. The colourful promotional materials depicting a pair of caravan geeks looks almost Carry On, but look inside. Another grim tale.

Steve Oram and Alice Lowe play the happy campers with a deadly secret.  As their road trip unfolds, so does the body count. Lowe is a perfect foil of Wheatley’s dark humour with her balanced mix of innocent mischief and brooding evil. Her comedy background in TV’s Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and The Mighty Boosh serve her well here and almost alleviates the dark material elsewhere. Not a box office smash by any means but the film found fans on its DVD release, it’s not entirely typical of Wheatley and jars greatly with his next release.

A Field in England is a difficult film to watch. It’s slow to the point of stopping, the dialogue is rarely accessible and the whole film is literally set in a field. Oh and by the way, its brilliant.

Owing much of its atmosphere to 1970s British horror, although not strictly a horror itself, think Blood on Satan’s Claw meets Witchfinder General and you might get the idea. It’s visually stunning too, shot in black and white, it uses its bleak static landscape to great effect.

A bizarre alchemist captures a group of deserters from the English Civil war and takes them on a treasure hunt across the field. It’s a hard film to sell. The inclusion of Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen) as the alchemist, and The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt adds to the dark comic feel that helps the film to stay legit. A key sequence which involves the consumption of mushrooms and much hallucinating raises the sense of surrealism to a higher high and the film slowly evolves into something quite unique; not too far removed from a Fonda / Hopper Psych out movie from the 60s.

The otherworldliness of these films, particularly A Field in England may well put the audience in mind of Michael Reeves, the young director responsible for only a handful of films including the Anglo/European The She Beast, the Boris Karloff starring Brit horror The Sorcerers and his masterpiece of pagan horror, Witchfinder General. Reeves died at just 25, leaving behind one of the great “What ifs” in cinema history. Reeves’ influences on Wheatley are obvious and in some ways, there’s a sense he is somehow carrying on that great director’s work.

Like all his films, up to this point, the budget was low (£300,000 in the case of A Field in England) and this in some way makes Wheatley’s work all the more appealing, not relying on CGI or big stars to bring the crowds. But all that was to change.

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Wheatley had worked in TV before, writing for comedy shows including Time Trumpet and The Wrong Door, but in 2014 Steven Moffat offered Wheatley his chance to shine as a small screen director with the first two episodes of Peter Capaldi’s debut Doctor Who series. Deep Breath and Inside the Dalek set the tone for the rest of a series that would have a relentless theme of death and decay. Deep Breath particularly has all of Wheatley’s trademark humour, Moffat clearly wrote this work with Wheatley’s style in mind. Both episodes stand out as being particularly cinematic and showed what he could achieve with technology at his disposal. The natural successor to these episodes was High Rise.

J.G Ballard’s 1975 book about a crumbling society, ensconced in a tower block has been waiting so long for the right director to come along and bring it to life onscreen. An attempt to adapt the story into a Doctor Who serial was attempted with a surprising degree of success in 1987’s Paradise Towers. The story found Sylvester McCoy’s 7th Doctor dealing with a class war and implied cannibalism in a rotten block of futuristic flats.

Wheatley’s from the page adaption is a revelation, reaching No 2 in our 2016 films of the year, it showed what Wheatley could achieve with a budget. It had it all, sexy stars, Hiddleston and Sienna Miller taking the leads, a great soundtrack including Portishead and The Fall, and a grasp of garish 1970s style that as the poster suggests captures the nightmarish world of A Clockwork Orange perfectly. Ballard’s world is a parallel universe, recognisable enough for readers to care about the subjects but alien in every other way. Wheatley gets this and presents a London bathed in a fantasy sunlight, a suggestion of post apocalypse and he also gets the underlying sexuality that is ever present. From this he borrows heavily from the High Rise-like David Cronenberg chiller Shivers (1975), but this is no bad thing.

The £6m budget for High Rise offered Wheatley a rich pallet to realise his vision, but did this lose any of his subtler qualities. Thankfully not, for within the splendour, the Eyes Wide Shut parties and the Shining like claustrophobia, lie smaller stories. Wheatley’s ability to portray human emotion on a lavish studio set or in an empty field remain constant.

Free Fire opens at the end of March with a special pre-screening at FACT including a Q and A from Wheatley himself. The film looks less glossy than High Rise with a warehouse setting reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs. Like Danny Boyle and Shane Meadows before him, Wheatley has recurring themes but avoids being pigeonholed into a specific genre. It will be interesting how he fares in the crime thriller category.

He’s gone for a 70s setting again and the film is set in Boston, which could shake up the dynamic. With a reported budget of £10m and once again a stellar cast including Cillian Murphy, Luke Evans, Armie Hammer and Brie Larson who set the screen alight in Room last year, it appears that Wheatley is now a key player who can do pretty much what he likes.

His production company, Rook Films saw the release of the acclaimed Peter Strickland directed The Duke of Bergundy, Steve Oram’s Aaaaaaah! and the already cult comedy / horror, The Greasy Strangler.

With all this booty under his bonnet it is incredible that he remains almost invisible, Wheatley is without a doubt a National Treasure and unless he takes the Meadows route, should still have many delights to offer. There is still time to check out his previous work before Free Fire opens on National release on March 31. The Q and A event is on Feb 16 and pre-booking is recommended at the Picture House at FACT box office.

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