Director Ben Wheatley has gotten so much attention from his last two films that we can probably now think of him as a buzzed-about name whose projects are greatly anticipated, and no longer as an underappreciated talent who needs to be treated like a discovery. With Kill List he showed off a unique ability to jump from genre to genre within the same movie and always keep his viewer guessing, and then with Sightseers he showed an ability to mine dark humor out of even the most violent and disturbing behavior. When you go into a Ben Wheatley movie you never quite know what to expect, but you can expect to see something unique.
His newest film, A Field in England, opens on an empty field that’s on the outskirts of what appears to be a large battle. It closes on that field too. As a matter of fact, the action of the film never leaves that field, but a good amount of interesting things manage to happen anyway. The story starts with the promise of a road picture, as a quartet of men who have all deserted the battle in various ways come together and decide to travel to an ale house. After they come upon a patch of flourishing mushrooms and consume a good quantity of them though, the situation then becomes altered.
Post-mushrooms is when the film goes from being a simple deserter’s tale to being about encounters with an Irishman who may be the devil (or at least some kind of dark wizard), hunts for buried treasure, psychedelic freak outs, and, ultimately, death. Grisly death. Whether or not you stick with it will likely depend on your tolerance for feeling confused.
The entire second half of this movie could just be an extended freakout derived from some sort of hallucinogen in the mushrooms that were consumed, or it could be the results of the characters being trapped inside of some sort of magic vortex. That much is up for debate. But what isn’t up for debate is that the script written by Wheatley and Amy Jump doesn’t go out of its way to hold your hand and explain things to you. A Field in England is the sort of movie that drops you in a place, has a bunch of strange events that you’ve never experienced before happen, and then ends. Its detractors will have needed more concrete meaning to hold onto so that the bulk of the action didn’t play as frustrating alienation. Its defenders will say that it’s an exercise in mood-building and visual experimentation that you need to allow yourself to be swept away by. Probably one won’t be able to win an argument with the other.
The good news is that you don’t completely have to be taken in by the abstract imagery of the film’s second half in order to enjoy it. Wheatley and Jump’s script, in addition to including lengthy sequences of engaging though abstract visuals, also includes quite a few clever quips, a dose of shit humor, and even some splattery gore that pops up when everything gets all murdery in the third act. The finale, at least, should keep any horror fans in the room happy.
The cast is really strong too. Reece Shearsmith is probably the actor who gets the most to do, because his character goes through a pretty drastic transformation over the course of the film, and he shoulders that weight well and is able to keep you with him every step of the way, even when you don’t quite know what’s happening to him or why. Richard Glover is really charming as the idiotic comic relief (he even gets to sing a little ditty at one point). His dumb act is one of the main things that people who don’t respond well to extreme artiness will have to help them through to the end. Michael Smiley plays the evil Irishman, O’Neil, whose presence turns the story dark, and he’s always able to project enough menace and intimidation to give the struggles of the protagonists stakes, even after certain events that happen in the film later seem to get erased. Watching these guys all interact with one another is quite a bit of easily digestible fun.
That’s the type of stuff that people who aren’t into artsy filmmaking will be able to pick out of A Field in England to enjoy. For the people who have happily sat through a film studies class without rolling their eyes, who watch Ingmar Bergman movies for pleasure, and who maybe have even made a home movie or two that looks like Jay Sherman’s L’artiste est Morte, however, the visual experimentation of the second half of this movie is going to play as being a real treat.
A Field in England was clearly shot on a minuscule budget, to the point where it probably all took place in a field behind someone’s house and was shot creatively to make it look like a larger space, but it rarely feels like a small movie. The first few scenes, where we’re supposed to believe that a huge battle is being waged just beyond a tree line, is pretty claustrophobic and low-rent, but the film manages to open up quite a bit as it goes along. Shooting it in black and white lends it an air of the other, and shooting a lot of the dialogue scenes from a low angle helps to give it a bit more of an epic feel, but that’s not the whole story.
As the film truly breaks loose later on, Wheatley allows sequences that exist purely as eye candy to go on for long stretches of time. He mixes landscape shots with closeups in a blur of fast-editing and image manipulation to create a theme ride of visual discovery. The effect is something like the star gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but presented using the sensibilities of Gaspar Noé. Things get so intense they had to put a warning at the opening of the film, and all of that intensity works pretty well to reach inside of your brain and pull your consciousness into another place, even if only for a few seconds here and there. And isn’t taking us to another place one of the main things we’re always asking this crazy thing called cinema to do? In that respect, at least, one has to admit that the strangeness of A Field in England was fairly successful.
The Upside: Good performances, a few laughs, some trippy visuals, and a whole lot of effective mood-building; the trim 90 minute run-time doesn’t ask for too much of your time
The Downside: Story being told is bare-bones and obtuse; many will think of the film as being pretentious; some of the fast-editing may cause nausea
On the Side: Wheatley has said that the battle raging in the background of his film was a part of the English Civil War, which was the cause of hundreds of thousands of casualties. By comparison, Wheatley’s film’s body count is very low. So everyone who always says that his movies are too violent should crunch the numbers and think about what he could have done, given the subject matter.