In a short amount of time, British director Ben Wheatley has become one of the most renowned genre filmmakers alive. And the great thing is, he doesn’t seem to give a damn about breaking into the mainstream. Case in point: his new film, A Field in England, is his fourth film and easily his least accessible. It’s an experiment in mood and abstruse narrative that is probably a parable for…something. Much like his celebrated hitman-folk-horror success Kill List, A Field in England demands multiple viewings. It’s difficult to grasp after seeing only once, that’s for sure. What I can confidently say is that Ben Wheatley’s rabbit hole is an exhilarating and horrifying place that refuses to be easily pigeonholed – all reasons it should be seen and celebrated. Sober or on the hallucinogen of your choice.
On the surface, the story is about four people who decide to take a break from the 17th century English Civil War to go for a beer. They’re not cowards deserting the battlefield – no, they’re just thirsty. One of them, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) doesn’t even belong in battle. He’s an alchemist’s assistant who enjoys lace-making in his spare time. His “master” has tasked him to find a former partner who’s stolen some crucial documents. He’s joined by soldiers Cutler (Ryan Pope) and Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), and a nameless man with a penchant for singing and rising from the dead (Richard Glover). Together they travel across the eponymous field in search of a pub.
Whitehead finds the man he is looking for, an Irishman named O’Neil (Michael Smiley), at the end of a rope that he and the others pull in. This is, of course, only after they’re tripping on the hallucinogenic mushrooms peppered throughout the field. This film might be the first drug movie set during the English Civil War, and if it’s not, it’s got to be the best. While the moments leading up to this point contain a strong sense of mystery, the rest of the movie is a terror of audio-visual surrealism and bravado.
The power struggle between the five men provides the core of the film’s conflict, but any formal narrative structure is tossed aside in favor of more visceral experiences. You know, like when you trip on shrooms and vomit up stones inscribed with runes (yes, this happens). The film also contains the most mesmerizing and unsettling scene I’ve seen in a movie all year: a man coming out of a tent in slow-motion. It may not sound like much, but it’s a long shot that crawls under your skin and filled with me an unshakable feeling of dread.
Frequent Wheatley cinematographer Laurie Rose’s stunning black and white work adds serious weight to the film’s horrific beauty. He succeeds in making a quiet, breezy field the last place in the world you’d want to be. There are several tableaus throughout the film in which actors are frozen in place while the camera moves around them. These gorgeous but unnerving moments resemble eerie religious paintings. Backing up the beautiful visuals are some seriously incredible audio flourishes that range from bursts of hellish screams to indecipherable whispered prayers. Everything in this film is part of a gloriously wicked puzzle.
The film never sinks too deep into the abyss though. Wheatley and writer Amy Jump offer up moments of relief in the form of their trademark dark humor. The language in the film is a clever mix of olde English and contemporary cursing. It’s a blast to hear the five actors relish every line they deliver. Michael Smiley (Kill List) is hypnotically sinister as O’Neil, the junior alchemist obsessed with locating a treasure hidden in the field. It’s unclear what his purpose is or what exactly this “treasure” may be, but what is clear is that if O’Neil wants it, it’s probably not good for the rest of the blokes.
The breakaway actor in the film is certainly Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen) as Whitehead. He’s the most level-headed of the bunch and he possesses strong convictions towards astrology and magic. Eventually though, he out-insanes and out-trips everyone else. If anyone gets something resembling a character arc in the film, it’s him. Whitehead’s journey bookends the film, as he goes from A to B and back to A again. What isn’t evident though is why he makes such an arc. His character, who is also a man of God, doesn’t find redemption or any sugary bullshit like that. If anything, he becomes the devil incarnate.
Following the mother of all 17th century hallucinatory barrages (it comes with a strobe warning), the film does stumble a bit. It ends then starts up again a few times – the screen oftentimes cutting to black in between. Then again, I didn’t want the film to end at all, so I shouldn’t be complaining. With A Field in England, Ben Wheatley further establishes himself as a sentinel of contemporary arthouse genre cinema. Anyone who needs a traditional narrative will find it difficult to sit though this cinematic assault, but those who enjoy having their minds blown out the back of their skulls will certainly enjoy the remarkable trip.