Maybe it’s the fashion or the facial hair, but Hollywood’s got it bad for the ‘70s right now. From the world of television (Showtime’s upcoming comedy series I’m Dying Up Here or HBO’s The Deuce) to film (Sofia Coppola’s remake of 1971’s The Beguiled), there’s a marked uptick in returning to the world of the 1970s. This isn’t new; the decade’s been a popular source for pop culture since it ended. But with our current political administration — the comparisons to Nixon, and such — it’s feeling very prescient at the moment.
But where many aren’t drawing comparisons between how these films are being utilized today is through gender. Known as the era of second-wave feminism and mythical “bra burners,” the ‘70s were the best of times and the worst of times for ladies. Director Ben Wheatley is no stranger to the decade, as evidenced by his last film, High-Rise. It’s in his latest, though, the hyper-violent Free Fire, where ‘70s feminism is being explored with a 2017 mentality.
Brie Larson’s Justine is the only female in Wheatley’s drama. Like the rest of the characters present in the gun deal from hell that Wheatley (and co-screenwriter Amy Jump) reveal, Justine has a history with the others that’s never explicated. She’s worked with Ord (Armie Hammer) and Vernon (Sharlto Copely) on previous jobs, but otherwise her life is a closed book. Justine is no different from the men, at least from a professional standpoint.
For a film set in the ‘70s, Wheatley and Jump refrain from overt declarations of misogyny towards Justine. The majority of the male characters fail to discuss her sex, with the exception of Vernon, who refers to Justine exclusively as “bird,” “doll,” and other similar terms of endearment. Justine plays on Vernon’s chauvinism, giving back what he dishes out. When Vernon gets shot, Justine emphasizes his presumed benevolence, declaring that he’d never hurt her and is being unduly persecuted. Justine relies on both Vernon’s indignation and their past personal connection to control the situation.
That’s not to say other characters aren’t in line with the stereotypical ‘70s “male chauvinist pig.” Sam Riley’s Stevo’s sexual assault of a young woman (discussed, not shown) acts as the catalyst for the ensuing firefight, a feminist spark that lights the powder keg. Wheatley and Jump don’t have to write aggressively sexist male characters; instead they rely on ingrained, subtle chauvinism that ends up undermining the men’s control of the situation. Vernon demands Justine be the one to get the money because no one will “shoot the bird,” a prediction that ends up being false and justifies Justine’s own aggression. Considering how Justine is placed on the same level as the men, there’s no doubt that she’d fall back on shooting everyone for her own survival.
It is this survival that’s paramount to her character and isn’t different from the men. They want to make it out with the money and/or the guns; Justine wants the same, though the male characters see her as an innocent. When the violence intensifies, those left alive agree Justine should be allowed to leave under the auspice of calling for help. This logic makes sense narratively, but also illustrates the male characters’ sense of chivalry, the “women and children first” mentality that sees females as pure and thus worthy of being spared from the senseless violence men perpetrate. This ends up being ironically comical, as it allows Justine to enact her own violence against the men and bonds the audience to her; her survival takes on greater stakes. Not only do the male characters want her safe due to her femininity, but the audience roots for her because of it as well.
Wheatley and Jump send up the assumptions of the female heroine, both in the ‘70s and today. By removing overt displays of sexism that second-wave feminists responded to during the decade, they are able to comment on modern chauvinism predicated on feminine fragility, which Justine ends up overturning.
Justine adheres to heroines of the ‘70s like Jane Fonda’s Kimberly Wells in 1979’s The China Syndrome. Kimberly does puff pieces for her news station because the higher-ups like how she looks. Like Justine, Kimberly is objectified, referred to as “Kimbo” by her freewheeling cameraman (Michael Douglas), who has no compunction about sexually harassing her in the workplace (complete with a “good-natured” slap on the ass). There’s nothing bad about Douglas’ character, but he still reverts to falling into clear gender roles of masculine and feminine, much like how Cillian Murphy’s Chris in Free Fire can’t help but ask Justine out for a drink before things go sideways. Kimberly’s perceived “fragility” ends up placing her at the forefront of reporting on a massive scandal involving a nuclear meltdown. She’s given the story of a lifetime because the executives at the top assume she’ll be treated with kid gloves. Later, upon interviewing Jack Lemmon’s Jack Godell, she avoids injury not because she holds any power in the situation but because no one wants to be known for shooting the pretty reporter — proof of Vernon’s “no one will shoot the bird” mentality.
Comparisons can also be drawn between Justine and the cold-hearted Diana Christensen of Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). Network removes Diana’s sex from the film, commenting that her mad drive for power and ratings de-feminizes her. This makes the men second-guess her in a desperate attempt to find her inner humanity (and femininity). The same can be said for Justine. Justine isn’t perceived as a threat — the men are content to remove her from the equation entirely — yet when faced with her loaded gun it’s hoped that she’ll be a “nice girl” and not shoot them. Justine retorts, “We can’t all be nice girls,” a rallying cry not too far removed from what the women of second-wave feminism wanted in the ‘70s: an allowance to be less than pure.
Second-wave feminism gets a bum rap nowadays, enhanced by a series of films in the ‘80s that acted as a backlash for the movement. Free Fire is a flawed film, but by adhering to and subverting the past and celebrating the strides of second-wave feminism, Justine is a solid foundation for future female heroines.
Kristen Lopez kicks butt in Sacramento.