Contributor Lee Kolcz brings us a not so brief conversation with himself about the films of Ben Wheatley, the director most likely to direct a future James Bond film.
If you haven’t heard of Ben Wheatley before now, allow me to fill you in: He’s great. You may have seen his segment in The ABC’s of Death (2012), “U is for Unearthed.” Or perhaps you saw his name attached to two episodes of Doctor Who back in 2014. Or maybe it was more recently, this summer when he teamed up with Radiohead to direct a short vignette for the song “Ful Stop” off their new record? Regardless of whether you’ve heard his name before, don’t worry. You’re about to. Because I’m going to repeat it multiple times throughout this profile.
Ben Wheatley is an English filmmaker from Brighton who has directed five feature films and has another on the way in 2017. He never went to film school, so he’s been learning about film as he makes them. According to Wheatley himself, “I didn’t even know that films were edited. I was very naïve about it. It seems ridiculous now to think I could be so innocent about it, but I just didn’t know.” Speaking about his humble beginnings, Wheatley claims, “It took me a long time to work out what was inside the movies technically, and how you make one yourself… I’m still on a journey of just trying to work out how things fit together in terms of emotions, and what different types of shots mean, and what sequences mean.”
Wheatley originally found success after making a short video clip that went viral around the time the term “going viral” was brand new. I personally remember watching this clip early in my days of surfing the web. It’s simply a video of Wheatley’s friend successfully running and jumping over a moving car only to be hit by another car coming even faster from the opposite direction. It’s clearly edited and elicits laughter and shock, which are two things Wheatley would come to be known for throughout his career as a filmmaker. He took jobs making short clips and animating for companies before eventually breaking into mainstream media through British television.
In 2004, he began directing a television series called Modern Toss, an adaptation of a running comic series. Wheatley admits that he was given a lot of free reign when working there, which is where he began experimenting with framing and camera movements. While he learned about the technical side of film through practice, his early work is influenced by classic British cinema and the kitchen sink dramas of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.
For those who don’t know, kitchen sink realism is a style of filmmaking that deals with issues of working class domesticity in everyday life. The hero is usually a young man disillusioned by society who tends to complain a lot. The characters often live together in cramped conditions and speak in local dialects. This approach to filmmaking contrasts commercial escapism films. They are often low-budget, low production value, and heavy on dialogue in order to explore social and political issues of the time such as poverty and abortion. Some examples of these films include Look Back in Anger (1959) and Alfie (1966).
Wheatley’s first feature film, Down Terrace (2009), plays like The Sopranos, but through a kitchen sink lens. The story is about a man who returns home from prison only to be sucked into a revenge spree that spirals out of control. Wheatley shot this film in only eight days with the help from family and friends. In order to get a more honest performance from his actors, Wheatley employed a semi-improvisational style of filmmaking. However, he never restricts the inclusion of a good script.
Wheatley is fortunate enough to work with his wife, Amy Jump, on most of his projects. Jump has written or co-written all of the films directed by Wheatley. This husband and wife duo gives Wheatley’s films a unique voice. While he is keen to kitchen sink realism, Jump contributes to the dark themes and dialogue, which adds to Wheatley’s idiosyncratic style of profanity and violence. This style lends itself to the type of genre-hopping films created by the pair.
The blend of realism with dark, often violent, themes is highlighted in his sophomore outing, Kill List (2011). This film follows a traumatized soldier who returns from Iraq to discover he doesn’t have many skills that translate to domestic life. He and an old army friend decide to become hit-men for hire in an attempt to use their specific skill set to survive in working class England.
Kill List is a difficult film to classify by genre. Wheatley uses a blend of action and melodrama along with a concentrated dose of horror to make Kill List standout from any other film that’s attempted the same. The mystery doesn’t just come from the plot. It comes from figuring out where the film is headed due to Wheatley’s restraint in exposition. As a filmmaker, he’s compared his approach as being in sync with the early seasons of Lost, opposed to later seasons of the infamously ridiculous series. He’s focused on asking questions, not answering them. Wheatley’s films combine genres and thus make it more complicated for audiences to follow tropes native to any specific genre. He’s playing hard to get with his audiences and caters to the type of fan attracted to a good challenge. In other words, his films aren’t a good recommendation for the impatient cinephile. The challenge is to try and figure out where Wheatley is going with each film before its running time winds down. His films have such a wide range of tone and mood that even his comedies can end up in the horror section of the video store.
The humor in Wheatley’s work is subtle, but present. Wheatley believes that “most comedy is about someone else’s misfortune,” which explains why his pitch black films are cheekily entertaining. For example, there’s a scene in Kill List where a wife urges her husband to see a doctor for wounds received while killing someone on the “Kill List.” The idea that a wife is so worried about her husband’s health that she would send him right to a person with the power to expose his illicit source of income is a good example of Wheatley’s clandestine humor. There aren’t any punch lines, but it’s hard to miss the comic tension in this ostensibly awkward moment. This makes sense, however, because it appears Wheatley is inclined towards embarrassing his characters, as seen in his Edgar Wright produced horror-comedy, Sightseers (2012).
Sightseers is another example of Wheatley blending genres, once again through the lens of kitchen sink cinema. The film follows a couple caravanning on a holiday road trip through the United Kingdom countryside. A deadly accident opens up a door of catharsis for the couple as they succumb to the urge to kill anyone who simply annoys them, leaving a trail of bodies in their path as they continue their trip. As is the status quo here, Wheatley goes for the full tonal shift to a different result than Kill List, while still remaining unique and “Wheatlian”.
In Sightseers, the dark themes are present but the film is a clearer cut form of comedy than his other films. The film is loaded with excruciating moments of hilarity best described as “cringe” humor. While the comedy in his early films was collateral damage from the realistic and shocking violence being used, Sightseers appears to use violence as punch lines. Each time the couple claims another victim, they react so nonchalantly. In theory, what they do is horrifying but the way Wheatley captures these moments essentially exonerates them from the audience’s judgments. The film constantly calls out the audience by suggesting, “we’d probably do the same.”
Hence, the theme that so far appears to be streamlined through Wheatley’s entire filmography,
“It’s the whole idea of what evil is – evil is such an unwieldy concept, in that the reality is it’s just us. Given the right circumstances, or the wrong circumstances, you are ready to do terrible things quite quickly. I really felt it a couple of years ago, when the banks were about to fail, what would happen the next morning when you tried to get money out? Because they came really close to failing, and I thought – what food have I got in my house? What’s next, you know? What happens on Day Three? It wouldn’t take long…”
It appears Wheatley believes we aren’t so different from the anti-heroes of cinema. Heroic do-gooders are more of a fantasy than those corrupted by desperation, which honestly, applies to most people in the world. In Kill List, it’s easy to relate to a man taking “under the table” payment for sketchy jobs when financial times hit his family hard. It’s the Walter White effect in AMC’s Breaking Bad. We understand meth is bad but we also understand why he starts cooking it. The protagonists in Sightseers are similar in the sense that they’ve been pushed to their limits and are done obeying rules. Who hasn’t fantasized of a world where all people that aggravate us, no longer exist? We get to live these fantasies vicariously through Wheatley’s characters. That guy who wouldn’t give his seat to a pregnant lady on a crowded bus? Kill him. The lady who made you feel like trash after you explained to her that the establishment is currently out of soy milk? Off with her head.
Wheatley’s films aren’t meant to glorify these fantasies. The anarchy of his films always comes with proper consequences, but that’s not too important in his grand scheme. Lessons can be found in his films, but he’s not here to preach. He has a talent of exposing the faults of humanity without being accusatory at all. He’s focused on the extremely thin line between his characters and his audience. At first, it’s easy to label his characters as immoral and insane. By the end, however, it’s hard to judge them without inadvertently judging yourself.
He does the same in Kill List. The film is full of scary moments but one of the scariest is a scene featuring an argument between a mother and father as their kid watches from a short distance. To Wheatley, recognizable reality is always scarier than melodramatic fantasy. Wheatley’s characters all have evil within them and it usually takes a trigger or a breaking point before that evil is unleashed. The same can be said about society as a whole. He held onto this idea in his 2015 feature adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel, High-Rise.
High-Rise sees violence and class issues affecting an entire society as opposed to small groups or characters like Wheatley’s prior films. It’s about the near future, where whole societies are contained within huge skyscrapers. The high apartments are a lot nicer. They include better amenities and more privileges than those on the lower level that experience electrical blackouts regularly. The class gap, as it always has, creates a discourse among the tenants leading to a small sample study of the anarchy we may face soon. This satirical, sociopolitical critique on capitalism is all sorts of bonkers. Wheatley definitely shifted away from his pseudo-documentary, cinema-verite style towards a more stylized vision of chaos in the absence of law and order.
High-Rise deviates from Wheatley’s earlier efforts by being very energetic, including many uses of montage in addition to being much more focused on music and sound design. This is proof that Wheatley is still learning how to make films. Every new film of his keeps adding a new element without losing his signature feel. High-Rise is still “Wheatlian” because we see actors moving freely within the shot. It’s noticeable that he isn’t using markers for his actors. They move freely as the camera does its best job to capture all the action. By catching these natural performances from the actors, Wheatley created a vivid and believable state of anarchy.
Although all of Wheatley’s films fall outside the status quo of commercial cinema, Wheatley made his most distinctive film in 2013. A Field in England tells a tale about two men who capture a group of deserters during England’s civil war. After the group ingests some wild mushrooms, they fall victim to the powerful energies of a mysterious field. The film is borderline impenetrable. If you look down for a second, you’d be completely lost for the rest of the film. Shot completely in black and white, the film uses beautiful imagery of vast landscapes to hypnotize the audience down a cinematic rabbit hole of sorts. The film tests viewers’ patience in many ways by including a nonsensical storyline. Written once again by Amy Jump, had any other working filmmaker made this film, it would be vastly different.
Wheatley edited the hell out of A Field in England. The schizophrenic editing combined with intricate cinematography practically allows this film to be watched on mute and still retain its artistic value. But it shouldn’t be seen without sound due to its exceptional soundtrack and sound design which includes baroque guitars and percussion. The sound design is integral in regards to the film’s trance-like style and atmosphere. Staying in line with its story, the film itself ends up feeling like a drug induced hallucinogenic trip gone wrong. The last film I saw that had a similar effect was Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu (1977). Both are experiments in slowly escalating an unnerving aesthetic that will either assault your senses, take you on a wild ride, or both.
A Field in England is Wheatley’s most divisive film to date for all these reasons. It’s more art house than any film he’s ever made yet it holds onto his signature improvisational dialogue technique to remind viewers it’s still a Wheatley film. Featuring great performances from some of Wheatley’s regular acting crew, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando and Reese Shearsmith, A Field in England has the makings of a cult classic that has yet to find its audience. It’s a film that I possibly only enjoyed because I had done research on Wheatley and had a basic understanding of his filmmaking style. My advice to those interested would be to watch any other Wheatley film before A Field in England. Just to get your bearings.
Wheatley’s most recent effort, Free Fire, premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and has yet to be released. The film has a simple premise: a disagreement during an arms deal turns into a full-blown shootout between everyone involved. Wheatley appears to be going back to what he knows best by focusing on a small group of people who use violence as a means of survival. He’s back to studying that thin line between those who judge gun-violence and those who have no other choice than to use a gun. Judging from its trailer, it looks like a high-octane thrill ride with the laughs to match. It’s equal parts comedy, action, and thriller.
From the sound of it, Wheatley’s most accessible film might be on the horizon. Dare I say it could be his breakthrough film? Yes, the same was said for Kill List, Sightseers, and High-Rise but while those films weren’t necessarily huge hits, none were failures. Critics have already noticed. They know Wheatley and mostly praise his work but even they seem to be waiting for the inevitable “lightning in a bottle” moment where one of his films just resonates with audiences across the board.
Free Fire is a film that tackles the controversial and relevant topic of gun violence. Its premise alone appears to say something about the nature of men who own guns, assuming that if they have them, they’re going to use them for one reason or another. Which perhaps is a statement of why no guns should ever be put in the hands of men? Wheatley turns to a new batch of indie rising stars for this outing with recent Academy Award winner for Best Actress, Brie Larson, in the starring role and other heavy hitters such as Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, and Sharlto Copley make an appearance in this genre transcendent action-comedy-thriller which was met with a good amount of positive buzz during its festival run. The film currently doesn’t have a U.S. release date, but will be released in March 2017 for the U.K.
This is a good time to repeat that Ben Wheatley never went to film school. He just uses the medium with such understanding that he’s bound to find success. His films are like handwritten letters to the world, which I suppose can be said for all great films, but his “handwriting” is better. It’s just easy to see ourselves in his films. He sometimes writes, directs, and edits his films, which gives them a focused and complete vision. Those who don’t enjoy his films usually claim to be put off by the tonal shifts and simple plotlines being stretched into feature length. However, most naysayers would agree that those films would be worse had Wheatley not been behind the camera.
With five films in the can and one on the way, audiences are still getting to know him. The more we see from him, the less off-putting his films should be to audiences once they understand his style and voice. In my opinion, that’s something that great filmmakers all have. Patterns in tone, style, composition and thematic content can be predicted amongst the Scorceses and Finchers, yet they rarely disappoint in practice. The idea is to remain consistent in creative distinctiveness. Ben Wheatley has done exactly so. He stands apart from filmmakers who think good films and original films are mutually exclusive. He’s a filmmaker who’s in no rush to get a star on the walk of fame. Instead, he’s a man of the people who’s politely allowing us a spot on the ground floor before inevitably rising to prominence in Hollywood’s version of a meritocratic high-rise.
TLDR: EVERYONE SHOULD WATCH HIS FILMS AND TALK TO ME ABOUT THEM.
Author: Lee Kolcz is a senior at Columbia College Chicago, where he is studying Journalism and Cinema Studies. He is particularly interested in the horror genre and documentaries. This Fall he is the Editorial Intern at Facets.