Review: ‘The Free Man’ Stands Alone as Something Entirely Original

In a world where you have free access to endless amazing extreme sports videos on YouTube, how do you make a film about extreme sports work? By making it a poem about the human condition that only works in feature length form.

Toa Fraser continues to be New Zealand’s most interesting filmmaker, pivoting back from intense action dramas The Dead Lands and 6 Days to something more like his 2013 ballet film Giselle. The Free Man stands alone as something entirely original again, however – a strangely quiet, meditative piece despite its focus on the truly extreme behaviour of some fairly wild real-life characters.

The Flying Frenchies are the main players here and the footage of their base jumping, wingsuiting and so on is, of course, spectacular. They’re an odd group of bohemians, some with a weird ability to throw out sentences that are highly simplistic but supremely insightful.

Acclaimed freestyle skier Jossi Wells of New Zealand joins them in his search for ever greater thrills, somewhat as an audience surrogate. His learning some of their tricks is meticulously presented, carrying with it a palpable sense of accomplishment along with an uneasy sense of the very real danger.

Towards the end of the film, the craziness gets ramped up quickly, to the point where men in clown costumes slackline between hot air balloons in the sky, eager to fall as clumsily as possible thanks to their parachutes. Inevitably, tragedy strikes, but throughout it all The Free Man maintains its calm, observant self.

The over-arching question about what it means to be truly free doesn’t have a satisfying answer, but this is nonetheless a fascinating look into the lives of some incredible people.

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