Ahead of a special double bill screening this Sunday at Picturehouse Central to celebrate the release of Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE, Elena Lazic spoke with film critic Adam Nayman about Wheatley, his cinema and the pairing of KILL LIST (2011) and DON’T LOOK NOW (1973) as a double feature. Nayman is author of Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage (Critical Press, 2017).
EL: What made you want to write this book?
AN: When I saw KILL LIST at TIFF in 2011, I thought that here was a style, director and sensibility that is quite amazing, I wanted to see everything that this guy did going forward. Once Ben had made a few more films, right around the time that HIGH-RISE was coming out, my publisher was happy to let me pitch an idea for the book. They didn’t mind that I was doing a monograph on someone who was only five or six films into their career, because of the strength of the body of work.
EL: What do you think makes Ben Wheatley’s films stand out within the realm of British cinema and cinema in general?
AN: There’s a piece by Raymond Durgnat, that I cite in the book called ‘The Great British Phantasmagoria’ which talks about why for all kinds of social, political and artistic reasons, a simultaneously socially-conscious, political and aesthetically aggressive British cinema started in the late 1950s-1960s, whether it’s in the films of John Boorman, Ken Russell or Nicolas Roeg and even someone like Peter Watkins. Durgnat’s article is almost thirty years old but it makes the same kinds of observations and connections between those filmmakers and their culture and film history, as the ones I see in Wheatley’s work.
I’m also very interested in the collaboration between Wheatley and his partner and screenwriter Amy Jump. Mark Kermode just made a video about the two of them where he argues that you kind of get the best of both sides, not just because it’s a male and a female filmmaker working together, but because it’s the combination of someone who talks about the work a lot – which is Wheatley – and someone who doesn’t talk about the work at all – which is Jump. One of the things which I tried very hard to do in the book was account for her contributions because they really are a filmmaking team. I find that duality in their working process really interesting and when you get to a movie like SIGHTSEERS (2012) which is literally about a couple who both want to do the same thing and compete with each other as they are doing it, I think the authorship is pretty fascinating.
EL: Something that really struck me with KILL LIST was the humour. I was not expecting it to be funny.
AN: Wheatley’s first feature film DOWN TERRACE (2009) is hilariously funny and in a very verbal way. It’s banter. It’s tense dialogue exchanges and a lot of it is very nasty. In KILL LIST, there’s also a very familiar trope which originates with PULP FICTION (1994) and I mention that film in my book, though it is not a direct influence. What KILL LIST echoes is this vogue in the 1990s for having contract killers as main characters, people who wisecrack and talk about popular culture. If you lived in North America you got pretty sick of that by 1996 because every other movie was doing it.
I think KILL LIST is funny because the two hired killers have such a funny sense of detachment, and they argue over different kinds of professionalism in a job that involves killing people. Depending on your sense of humour, that’s either funny or sick. Some people have a hard time reconciling that humour with the cruelty of the movie and I can totally understand that. On the other hand, the humour eventually bleeds away. The films stops being funny after a while, right after the hammer sequence which is the exact midpoint of the movie in terms of the running time, story and in terms of the film style. In the funny moments after that, the sickness of the humour is really emphasised, as when Michael Smiley is skinning the rabbit in the woods and singing this little song about the little bunny and his coat.
But to me the funniest of the movies is SIGHTSEERS. Not surprisingly, I think that’s the one that’s proven the most popular because it remains funny all the way through. It doesn’t make a full left turn into something truly horrifying like KILL LIST or abstract like A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013). I think HIGH-RISE (2016) is funny too. But not many people agree with me.
EL: I think that the one thing that makes FREE FIRE really funny is that although in the trailer it looks like the typical gangster movie – where the cool characters wisecrack and are really good at killing people – in the film they’re actually really bad at killing each other. That seems in line with what Wheatley does in KILL LIST where the guys are funny in a very British way but their killing is very basic and grim, not cool at all, anyone could do it.
AN: Yes and it’s funny in FREE FIRE that you have all these mercenaries with all this swagger and ego, people who are semi-professional death merchants and they’re all really bad at it. It shows it’s not something you can really be ‘good at.’ It’s not a hugely noble or skilled profession. I think conceptually FREE FIRE is very funny. The question of how successful people find the acting or how line-to-line hilarious the dialogue might be is deeply suggestive. When I saw the movie at home, alone, for the first time (because I had to see it early for the book) I had a different reaction to it than when I saw it at TIFF with a big group of people laughing along. But I do think it’s fascinating that after HIGH-RISE which really had an alienating effect on a lot of viewers, Wheatley has now made something that people are receiving as a kind of crowd-pleaser.
EL: In line with those pathetic hitmen all of Wheatley’s films seem to be about satirising machismo.
AN: Yes, and I think that’s where the presence of Amy Jump is fascinating. A movie like A FIELD IN ENGLAND has an all-male cast. Given the time and place of the film, this absence of women is understandable. But this lack of women is also suggestive, especially when it comes to how foolish, selfish and tragic these men are. In HIGH-RISE, Jump’s script takes the division between men and women – something that was subtle in the Ballard novel – and really pushes it as an agenda. While the men are all fighting, yelling and posturing, the women have formed this more functional community, which anticipates at the end, in a sort of twisted way, the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. So it doesn’t necessarily scan as a purely positive, feminist reading of the movie, but in terms of satirising machismo, for sure. In DOWN TERRACE you have this father and son who have almost a teenage competitiveness between them.
But there’s also so much female power in the movies, even if it’s behind the scenes. The most dangerous character in DOWN TERRACE is Maggie (Julia Deakin). Shel (MyAnna Buring) in KILL LIST is completely complicit with what her husband does. It would be a very different movie if she thought that he was a salesman. In SIGHTSEERS Tina (Alice Lowe) is really happy that she has a boyfriend, because she’s very lonely, but she’s also better at all the things that Chris (Steve Oram) wants to do than he is. She’s a better killer than he is. Actually I think that a lot of women recognise the dynamic in SIGHTSEERS, even if it’s a very absurd version of it. It’s this idea that when she becomes interested in something and wants to express herself, he becomes really possessive, jealous and territorial, and she really comes to hate him for it. I don’t want to say that that’s common in all male-female relationships, but I think it is an observant aspect of that particular movie.
EL: That’s particularly interesting in the light of the WAGES OF FEAR remake that Wheatley is going to make with female characters in a film previously devoid of women.
AN: Supposedly FREAKSHIFT is going to be an action movie with a female lead. That’s why I sometimes wonder if the book is a little premature because the more movies he makes, the more these interests and these trends are going to deepen. On the other hand, I love the idea of starting a book about DOWN TERRACE which takes place in a tiny little house and ending with HIGH-RISE which is this giant structure, because there’s an ascendence arc to Ben’s career. If the rumours that he’s also going to make this Warner Brothers Frank Miller movie are true, that would put his career on yet another level, on another floor so to speak. So it’s very exciting to think about going forward.
EL: Talking about the changes in his career, what do you think about the contrast between KILL LIST being almost a psychological study of two killers and Wheatley’s move towards action cinema?
AN: In his TV work there was always a very playful, post-modern thing going on. In THE WRONG DOOR he’s doing satires, parodies, pastiches and homages to science-fiction and special effects movies. Wheatley has a background in sculpture, in art, in cartooning, he did a lot of CGI stuff in his old commercials so I think the impulse to make things that have a bit more spectacle and a few more special effects in them has always been there. There’s some similarity in his career to people like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, the difference being that I don’t know if that exact late-80s trajectory is even repeatable anymore. But it seems like when a young director makes a big blockbuster, that’s when we know people have made it. Make a couple of well-received independent movies then make a superhero movie. In Wheatley’s case, what’s funny is I think he’s actually interested in superheroes, and I don’t think he would reject that assignment if someone gave it to him.
EL: Why did you pick DON’T LOOK NOW to go with KILL LIST?
AN: I think the relationship between those movies is not a direct homage, but they’re both studies of grief. KILL LIST builds to the site of that grief, whereas DON’T LOOK NOW builds out of it. The movies move in different directions towards something of the same idea. More generally, there’s also a similarity in terms of editing. I’m a great fan of Nicolas Roeg’s 1970s films because of how they’re constructed. Roeg makes the medium of film central to how the story is being told. He’s not just pointing a camera at a story. The camera is the story, the editing is the story, the editing rhythm is the interior life of the Donald Sutherland character and I think that is true of KILL LIST as well. KILL LIST has these montages that, like in DON’T LOOK NOW, prophesy what’s coming in the film or reflect back on things that have already happened. They give you a way to apprehend the story beyond the plot.
There’s also a relationship between the two film endings. The ending of KILL LIST is kind of an inversion of the one in DON’T LOOK NOW. One of the things about DON’T LOOK NOW that I like the most is that it’s not really about that final reveal. Rather it’s about John (Donald Sutherland) and Christine (Julie Christie) and the fact that John hasn’t learned how to let go and deal with his daughter’s death. That reveal is just a symbol of the danger of that grief. KILL LIST takes that same idea of mis-recognising a loved one as a monster, and the way it uses it is just as devastating, if not more so.
Ben Wheatley in Focus: Kill List + Don’t Look Now screens at Picturehouse Central on Sunday 9 April, 1pm.