British filmmaker Ben Wheatley has, over the course of three previous independent features, established himself as a director who likes to jump from genre to genre – often right within a film itself, sometimes from scene to scene. His fourth film, A Field in England, follows that same template but is also something new: a surreal, experimental effort that bends time, space and logic while abandoning conventional narrative structures for a more abstract sensory experience. While cryptic and occasionally maddening, A Field in England is also relentlessly gripping and thoroughly unsettling, marking another overall triumph for this fascinating talent.
It’s 1648 AD and England is locked in its bloody Civil War. A handful of men stumble away from an unseen battle into a vast, windswept field, banding together as deserters. Whitehead (the excellent Reece Shearsmith) identifies himself as an alchemist’s assistant, pursuing the person who stole his master’s formulas. A second man named Cutler (Ryan Pope) has a hidden agenda of his own: he secretly feeds the others – except Whitehead — mushrooms from the field that cause them to hallucinate, allowing him to draft them into pulling something out of the ground with a heavy rope that turns out to be a fifth man, O’Neil (Michael Smiley, from Wheatley’s The Kill List) – a sinister figure and the object of Whitehead’s pursuit.
O’Neil quickly brings the quartet under his power, using Whitehead as a human divining rod to hunt for a treasure that he believes is buried somewhere in the field. Once the men start digging, however, it seems that even more powerful, elemental forces are being unleashed from beneath the ground – forces that lead the men even further into madness and chaos.
Laurie Rose’s black and white cinematography evokes Ingmar Bergman, while Wheatley’s use of tableaux-like imagery and stark sound and music bring forth echoes of Kubrick. The bucolic setting, on the other hand, is reminiscent of pastoral British horror gems like Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Haunting sequences abound, the most unsettling being a scene in which we only hear Whitehead’s excruciating screams as he is being tortured into submission by O’Neil inside a tent, followed by a slow-motion shot in which we watch Whitehead emerge from the tent, an utterly deranged rictus on his otherwise unseeing face.
Wheatley distills all this into something unique and almost beyond classification, constantly challenging the viewer to keep up. The script by Amy Jump (Wheatley’s regular collaborator and wife) does not offer any easy answers yet retains some of the trademarks from their previous films, including moments of shocking violence and sharp, witty exchanges of dialogue. It’s a credit to Wheatley and Jump, not to mention their terrific little ensemble of actors, that they can make you laugh out loud with a throwaway joke about the Devil being an Irishman amidst the film’s grueling twists and turns.
A Field in England is being released in theaters, on VOD, on DVD and on TV (the latter in the UK) at the same time, a rather bold distribution campaign that makes the movie’s aggressively uncommercial approach all the more surprising. The film is decidedly not for everyone; even if you like it, as I did, you may find it to be slow and frustrating going at times, with an ending that seems like more trickery than resolution. Overall, however, if you are able to stick with it, the experimental nature of the movie suits its bizarre story and becomes one with it; from a man vomiting runestones to a black sun swelling in the sky to an unexpected reanimation or two, the film is never predictable yet specific within its own vision.
And it’s the fourth straight success from Wheatley, who is definitely a filmmaker to keep watching. He recently directed the first two episodes of the next season of Doctor Who, which should give us an interesting look at how he works within a larger, more mainstream framework. Sooner or later some studio will give him a crack at a big-budget Hollywood effort, and it remains to be seen whether his own voice will take a back seat in that setting. For now, however, fans like me are more than happy to watch him plow new territory in films like the hypnotic A Field in England.