We’ve come a long way since American Psycho. And also not.
When co-writer/director Mary Harron premiered her Bret Easton Ellis adaptation in 2000, the kneejerk assumption for audiences who’d only seen the trailer was that surely a man had made the ultra-bloody black comedy. The film was dismissed before it was later embraced by women as a manifesto on misogyny and the female gaze. But what’s most surprising about Harron's movie — in which prostitutes are dismembered willy-nilly like a slicked-up Frankenhooker — is that it’s one of the few big films to break through and showcase the wicked-dark sense of humor of female screenwriters.
At the Toronto International Film Festival this year, two films finally get to follow in American Psycho’s footsteps, presenting the magic match of extreme violence and hilarity from female minds: Free Fire (co-writer Amy Jump) and Prevenge (writer-director-star Alice Lowe). What’s not so strange is that the two writers had previously collaborated on 2012’s serial-killer road-trip rom-com Sightseers, directed by Jump’s husband, Ben Wheatley, which also premiered at TIFF. (Note to self: TIFF is into this shit.)
Free Fire is a svelte 90 minutes of continuous gunplay, gore and running gags. Quentin Tarantino would probably sell his soul to be able to write one-liners like Jump and co-writer Wheatley, who also directed. When a firearms buy goes sour in an abandoned warehouse, it’s suddenly every man (and woman, specifically Brie Larson as Justine) for him-/herself. Every character gets a story or a joke or a grudge. The ex–Black Panther Martin (Babou Ceesay) gets zero respect from his loudmouth South African partner, Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the two of them bickering about Vernon’s expensive suit (it takes a lot of wear and tear) while trying to put on a tough-guy act for the mediator Ord (Armie Hammer) and the buyers Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), who are dealing with their own problems in the form of hired goons who turn to smack when they can't find Advil for their headaches.
Most of the film plays out inside the abandoned warehouse, with tension ratcheting up every 10 minutes. Bullets ricochet and blood spatters everywhere, but every time I found myself thinking it was too disorienting and revolting to take, Jump would throw in one hell of a joke, and I’d be back in it. I have never laughed so hard at a man’s head getting shot off by another man who’s just been flash-fried like a steak, and I don’t know if I ever will again.
Prevenge is one of the more gruesome films at TIFF, and the fact that Lowe is actually seven months pregnant in the movie makes it all the more wonderful and dark. As Ruth, Lowe slits throats on her unborn baby’s behalf. The doctor dispenses the kind of bullshit language new moms always get from a society that treats mothers like birthing vessels: “Baby knows what to do. Baby will tell you what to do.” Ruth says, “I think she already is,” but she means homicide.
Ruth keeps a bizarre baby book of all the people she’s knocked off for her fetus, who’s angry that her daddy is gone and wants to take it out on the kinds of people who don’t deserve to live in the world — like Dan, a balding, disco-loving mama’s boy who likes “fat birds,” because they’ll let him do “stuff” to them on account of their low self-esteem. Bye, Dan! And while Jump and Wheatley’s film tends toward a ’70s crime style, Lowe’s is closer to Sightseers, with a flourish of drama and emotion and artful editing.
So, yeah, a lot of people think women are averse to violence, but I’m going to proffer that maybe after millennia of being on the receiving end, we might actually see it as cathartic to be in control of the violence being depicted. For Lowe, it certainly seems as if there’s a hint of a real vendetta lingering on the surface of her film. Here’s hoping those of all genders rally around these two original, ovaries-to-the-wall murder machines, because I’d love to see more women embracing their dark sides, and more of the money men allowing them to do it.
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