Film Reviews

A Field In England Ben Wheatley

Rating - 9/10

In 2011, Ben Wheatley astounded moviegoers with Kill List, the story of an ex-soldier turned contract killer who is plunged into the heart of human darkness. His last effort, last year’s Sightseers, introduced us to a pair of traveling lovers who go on a homicidal bender, killing just about every person they encounter. This year, Wheatley brought us A Field in England, a film that takes the trappings of its genre -- the period war movie -- and slowly, yet deliberately warps them beyond recognition. Blending elements of black comedy, horror, and non-narrative film, A Field in England is probably the most outwardly experimental and, consequently, the least accessible of Wheatley’s releases to date.

In the aftermath of a brutal battle during the English civil war, a starving group of army deserters (Richard Glover, Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope) and an academic named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) slowly stagger across the country with the utterly fantastic hope of finding an alehouse along the way. Their travels ultimately lead them to a broad, open field, where they fall under the malevolent power of O'Neil (Michael Smiley), an Irish alchemist and purveyor of black magic. O'Neil mutters ominously about a treasure that lies somewhere within the field and bewitches the men, commanding them to search and dig for the riches on his behalf. However, what they ultimately unearth is far more significant than any trove of precious relics or pot of gold. After accidentally consuming a crop of magic mushrooms growing along the field, tensions begin to rise and the men’s collective fear of pain, death, and the potential non-existence of God are ignited, gradually building towards a solipsistic, psychedelic fever pitch in the film’s climax.

Wheatley wastes no time in making sense of the film’s distinctly 17th century stylings and turns-of-phrase to 21st century minds. Instead of tediously laboring over every minor plot point and over-contextualizing the setting, Wheatley simply drops the audience right in the middle of the action -- cleverly allowing us to experience the grisly, visceral qualities of war alongside the characters, relating to them on an instinctive, humanistic level. Screenwriter Amy Jump plays on distinct, yet familiar character types -- Whitehead the weakling, O’Neil the fiend, Cutler the bottom-feeder, Jacob the gruff deserter, and Friend the lovable oaf -- and essentially sets them against each other. This undoubtedly gives the actors a lot of wiggle room, and Smiley is particularly great as O'Neil -- scary and dominating, almost reminiscent of Vincent Price in Witch Finder General/The Conquer Worm. Scenes between Smiley and Shearsmith are especially disturbing, often involving Shearsmith’s Whitehead writhing in wanton misery whilst Smiley amusedly looks on.

Truly, plot is of little importance to this film. Instead, A Field In England is almost entirely an exercise in generating an intensely sublime discomfort through the use of inventive editing and carefully posed, yet capacious shots. As the characters’ mescaline-induced psychosis comes to a peak, the film begins to frantically strobe between two distinctly surreal sequences at such a rapid pace that my head began to feel like it was about to split in two. Another sequence involving the appearance of an “ill planet” harkens back to the recurring image of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, striking a similar tone of foreboding dread and atmospheric grandeur. It’s these sort of moment that transform A Field In England from a fascinating, psychedelic period piece to an all-encompassing experience that stimulates the audience, both mentally and physically.

The film was shot in monochrome black and white, which weirdly heightens its intense outbursts of psychedelia and horror all the more. Laurie Rose’s cinematography is absolutely stunning, balancing a delicate mix of ambience, exaltation, and eeriness in each individual shot. This is probably best seen in a long slow-motion shot of a dead-eyed, grinning Whitehead as he emerges from O’Neil’s makeshift torture tent. It’s a moment that sort of echoes the bizarre sensibilities of both Stan Brakhage and David Lynch. Paired with a rich, ambient soundtrack, the scene is physically overwhelming, yet visually simplistic -- leaving plenty of open space within the frame for your mind to wander about.

A Field In England is a purely hypnotic freak-out, a film that seems to have been channeled from the dwelling place of great, beautiful, and terrible things. What more can I say? The story is brilliant, the script is brilliant, the performances are brilliant, and the cinematography is brilliant. It’s a midnight movie for sure -- one that tests the boundaries of both visual and verbal narrative, not to mention the patience of its audience. Yet while it will certainly divide audiences now (right down to the weirdest avant-film buff), it’s not unlikely that A Field In England will become a future classic. But only time will tell for sure, right? Regardless, A Field in England is an oddity in and of its own -- a complex and bizarre odyssey that showcases Wheatley’s undeniable filmmaking prowess.