Dark Comedy and ‘Free Fire’

What makes guns and shooting people funny?

What is it about dark humor?  Why do I find myself laughing at something so gruesome or so depressing?  Or why do I think Jewish stereotypes are funny despite being Jewish?  It must be the set-up.  That’s why.

Somehow, that was the question that was posed today in my head.  I had gone to see Free Fire over the weekend because (1) it looked like a fun shoot-‘em-up with humor to get over the nauseating gore, and (2) going to the movies has been an activity that I’ve been doing often during the past three months.Like history says, when there is an economic depression or the world looks like it’s turning into a piece of crap, we go to the movies to escape our problems for a good hour and a half to two hours.  But the idea of laughing at people in the middle of an ego-centric firefight is really sickening.  On the one hand, we are introduced to all of the participants in twenty minutes and their quirky personalities.  This creates the comedy because these characters are over-the-top, self-centered, sometimes wimpy, and sometimes too determined to get a grip.  On the other hand, these people are inferred to be excellent gun users, but their use of arms during the firefight at the center of the film showcases another side of gun control nobody talks about: even those trained and licensed to have guns should really not be allowed to have guns.

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Brie Larson in Free Fire (Ben Wheatley 2017)

In the past couple of days, I started reading this online publication called Man Repeller, and last week there was a think piece about inappropriate laughter.  You know, the giggles that come on during inopportune times (ex: funerals).  Apparently, there is such a thing as having a case of the giggle fits at the wrong time.  As the post states:

Responding with laughter in deeply sad circumstances, for otherwise healthy people, is called an inappropriate affect — meaning, an emotional response to a stimulus that is either incongruous, or not quite as acute as it should be. For instance, think of times when you’ve watched someone getting hurt in real life or on TV and found yourself laughing uncontrollably even though you’re concerned, even scared, for the person affected. Generally speaking, studies say that this is a way for our subconscious to assuage our fears and convince us that everything is actually okay. Sometimes we laugh because we’re having trouble accepting what we see — we’re in shock. So we distance ourselves from the fear or pain of the circumstance by laughing it off.

– Helena Bala, Man Repeller (April 13, 2017)

So when we are laughing at the characters in Free Fire shooting one another, we are laughing off our fears of the characters’ safety.  But this doesn’t make up of the times the audience has groaned at the more disturbing visual elements (all of them I’m not going to repeat here).  There has to be a limit to when the laughter stops becoming an automatic reaction to pain and cringing begins.  For many people, that may be at different places depending on their thresholds for blood and gore.  For instance, mine is at a minimal place.  I don’t have interest in watching Game of Thrones because of the well-known violence levels, but something like South Park, where it is cartoonish, or Logan, where it has a reason behind why it needs to be shown.  It also helps if there is a glass of alcohol inside of me to calm my anxiety, but I highly recommend not going about it that way if you are prone to be an alcoholic or can‘t consume alcoholic beverages.

Dark comedy is attested to dark subject matter or characters injuring themselves in an un-slapstick way that allows the viewer to react to humorous moments allowed in the narrative.  In the case of Free Fire, it is more about how much damage can each person do in between quips, bad situations, and an unresolved crisis that takes two people and drags everyone into their mess.  The fact that blood squibs are minimal to after effects of a bullet would and our anti-heroes having quite a bite to their character allows a situation that should be terrifying because a hilarious riot.  The film does question how far can violence go to still be a joke, but it is a much deeper discussion to be had at another date.

Author: Samantha Felmus

Samantha Felmus is a writer with a cinematic vision. She holds a BA in Liberal Arts with concentrations in film from Sarah Lawrence College and a MFA in writing and producing for television from Long Island University - Brooklyn, specifically the TV Writer's Studio Program. In her downtime, she likes to cook and watch all the random things available on Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. She currently resides in New York City.

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