Just two years ago, Ben Wheatley blew away critics and audiences alike with Kill List, his starkly intense story of a hit man who finds himself caught up in forces way beyond his control. Last year, he followed that film up with Sightseers, a dark comedy about a pair of traveling lovers who begin killing the unlikeable people they encounter. And in 2013, he offers A Field in England, a psychedelic tale of 17th-century soldiers which, like its predecessors, simultaneously takes the conventions of the genre in which it’s set – this time, period war drama – and bends them into unrecognizable new shapes. A midnight movie that tests the boundaries of narrative storytelling not to mention the sobriety of its audience, A Field in England is a curio, a bizarre and challenging odyssey that showcases Ben Wheatley’s undeniable talent even as it undoubtedly polarizes even the filmmaker’s hardcore fans.
Reece Shearsmith (The World’s End) plays Whitehead, an alchemist’s assistant who runs across two English Civil War deserters, Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover), as he tries to hide from his commander in a field just beyond the battleground. Before the three men can find refuge in a nearby alehouse, they encounter O’Neill (Michael Smiley), an Irishman who stole documents from Whitehead’s boss, and O’Neill and his hand Cutler (Ryan Pope) quickly take command of the tiny group. But after forcing Whitehead and company to dig for treasure that he insists is buried in the field, O’Neill’s tenuous leadership quickly deteriorates, as the influence of psychotropic substances prompts in-fighting and eventually a rebellion against the man who would be their cruel and unforgiving commander.
Working from a script by longtime collaborator Amy Jump, Wheatley creates distinct character types and essentially pits them against one another: Whitehead is a coward, O’Neill a tyrant, Cutler a scavenger, Jacob a deserter, and Friend an idiot. The “plot” of the film is negligible – it feels mostly like Wheatley is staging random scenes in a location he had free reign to explore – but the chemistry of the ensemble is strong, and it creates palpable drama. Whitehead is probably the best-defined of the characters, a slightly educated man who is fully committed to subservience, but has grown arrogant from serving smarter and more wealthy men than his current companions. But O’Neill understands Whitehead’s strengths and weaknesses, and knows how to control others, imposing his will with a cruelty that feels as aspirational as it is unforgiving.
Wheatley shoots the film in black and white, which alternately gives its period setting a weird, antique feeling, and elevates its heightened, psychedelic impulses. Pairing his images with Brian Eno-like ambient pieces of music, he and Jump mold their set pieces into something that’s more of a sensory experience than a literal one, allowing the audience to project its interpretation of the material. His gift for striking cinematography is stronger than ever – the long slow-motion shot of a blank-eyed Whitehead emerging from a tent after being tortured will haunt your dreams – but by design, Wheatley’s use of it here is more moody and less purposeful, which creates an unsettling effect overall but also steers the film in a way that may disappoint viewers looking for a more palpable emotional connection to the characters and their adventures.
Suffice it to say that films needn’t be all things for all audiences. But Wheatley’s latest is likely to appeal to a very small niche, even among the folks (including yours truly) who loved his previous films, because it wanders – deliberately, but still – from the firmly-assembled narrative structures of his previous films to indulge in a pure drug-trip kind of experience, for both its characters and its viewers. That said, it operates in the same way Wheatley tackles the other genres he’s explored – using their conventions against them, or reinventing them outright – and still manages to create through lines for characters like Whitehead, for whom this could be seen as an empowerment story. But as a whole, A Field in England is more of an “experience” than a film, a black and white expedition into a drug-altered landscape, which is why it will earn the director scores of new fans, but they may be altogether different ones than those he’s previously attracted.
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