Imagine attempting a super-low-budget, rapidly shot mashup of the melancholic aesthetic of Ingmar Bergman, the comedic sensibility of Mel Brooks and the tonal uneasiness of Lars Von Trier — you’d probably end up with a complete mess of a film. However, that’s not the case for Ben Wheatley, whose willfully abstruse “A Field in England” more or less fits that bill (by way of Samuel Beckett, “The Wicker Man” and Sergio Leone, if you want to fine tune the comparison, but we could probably continue throwing names at it all day and finding most of them stick) and comes out as a totally unique, often brilliant, deliberate partial mess instead. Reteaming the director, who, off the back of his feature triptych of “Down Terrace,” “Kill List” and “Sightseers” has become something of an indie phenomenon, with regular writer Amy Jump, the film is the most formally experimental, and probably the least approachable, of the director’s titles to date. But it’s further proof of Wheatley’s singular sensibilities as a filmmaker: the film’s dark comedy, occasional gory violence and constant profanity are immediately recognizable as hallmarks, even as the black and white cinematography (often very beautiful), period setting and parable-like feel sees him move into new, uncharted territory.
Never one to bother with a lot of audience hand-holding or contextualizing as set up, Wheatley drops us in mid-action and leaves us scrambling to catch up for the first twenty minutes or so, but gradually the picture begins to emerge. It’s 17th century England and a battle is raging just out of sight, in the next field over. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) whose clothes, vocabulary and demeanor already set him apart from the soldiery elsewhere, is scrambling through the hedgerow gibbering and praying in mortal fear of being found by someone tracking him. His pursuer finds him, but is himself promptly killed by a third man, Cutler (Ryan Pope) to whom Whitehead is therefore somewhat beholden, and the two of them leave the battle together. Along the way they pick up two more strays — a soldier from the opposite side of the unspecified war (Peter Ferdinando) and a savant/fool type (Richard Glover) who is not, as he first appears to be, dead. Cutler leads this motley crew away from the skirmish with the promise of a nearby alehouse, but soon reveals a deeper agenda and, feeding all but the fasting Whitehead hallucinatory mushrooms, he sets them to work heave-ho-ing on a thick rope which is revealed to have a man in its coils at the other end. This man is O’Neil (terrific Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) and he completes the film’s central quintet as the de facto leader, who has a history with Whitehead already and a dark purpose in mind.
The plot staggers and reels about like a man whose ears are ringing from cannon fire while he trips on shrooms having been shot in the leg as he pukes up runic pebbles (yes, all of these thing happen at one point or another) but the plot is very decidedly not the point of the exercise. Instead the film is a study in absurdism and creeping dread (the slow motion shot of newly unhinged Whitehead after he emerges from the torture tent is one of the creepiest suggestions of derangement we’ve seen in a while) punctuated with just enough scatological humor and wordplay to repeatedly lull us into a sense of security, only to pull that particular rug out again. And the rug pulls are where Wheatley really goes to town on us, using every implement in his capacious toolbag to discomfit the viewer, from impossibly loud sustained screaming on the soundtrack, to hi-def extreme slo-mo, to fuzzy-focused close-ups, culminating in a wordless, fast-edited sequence of flashing intensity that totally earned the film’s strobe warning.
The language deserves a mention too, with Jump and Wheatley both clearly reveling in its opportunities and all the actors having a great time chewing on the olde worlde dialogue (the fool laments “’tis not the first time I’ve left a wave of indifference behind me”; Whitehead wryly diagnoses a diseased penis as being the result of “too much venereal sport” and so on) all liberally peppered with f-bombs and regional humor (it’s not the fact that he ate a stoat that galls the soldier as much as that it was a Welsh stoat.) But if there are many dazzling aspects to the film, there are also flaws: it ends too many times, it has more unformed ideas than it knows what to do with and the tableaux vivants in which the actors pose in the style of religious paintings from that era are very beautiful, but they feel contrived and oddly show-offy. Elements like these conspire to muddy up what is a deceptively precise film otherwise and the one-too-many-times twist that happens at the very end just slightly undercuts the directorial chutzpah of what went before: it almost feels like Wheatley is suddenly unsure where he’s going.
But that untidiness is a small niggle in an overall boundary-pushing picture. And in terms of release, too, it’s trying something new: it will be the first film to enjoy a simultaneous VOD, DVD, theatrical and TV release (in the UK) so that viewers can choose how they’d like to watch it. That’s if they’d like to watch it, of course, but we can’t help but feel that Wheatley’s cachet will pull enough people in regardless of his movie’s audience-unfriendly logline and lack of star power to make Film4’s £300,000 look like a very canny investment indeed. If prior films have positioned Wheatley at the rickety bridge between genre and indie/arthouse filmmaking, then “A Field in England” is him straying right out onto the middle of it in a high gale and jumping up and down. Some viewers will no doubt tire of trying to hang on out there but those who manage to do so have a bracing, sometimes exhilaratingly bonkers experience in store. [B+]
“A Field In England” opens on all formats and media on July 5th. Drafthouse Films will release the picture in the U.S. later this year.