When reviewing Ben Wheatley’s previous film, the delightfully dark “Sightseers,” I ended by saying, "As has been the case twice before, I can’t wait to see what the man does next." Now, I find myself faced with “A Field in England,” the director’s fourth feature and the first that hasn’t been quite my cup of tea. It isn’t a poorly made follow-up by any measure, but one intended for an audience more open to psychedelic cinema that I’ve ever been.
The story drops us right into the thick of the English Civil War, as four deserters tumble over a hedgerow and flee across a field towards the nearest alehouse. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is an alchemist’s assistant, self-educated and generally timid, unlikely to otherwise associate with boorish Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), simpleton Friend (Richard Glover) and mysterious Cutler (Ryan Pope). Half of the group is soon subjected to the effects of some local mushroom stew and they all end up running afoul of O’Neil (Michael Smiley), an Irish sorcerer familiar with Whitehead’s master and keen on using the coward to locate a treasure buried in this very field.
That paragraph suggests a more plainly apparent narrative than the film ever does. “Field” is a sensory experience first and foremost, shot in crisp black-and-white by Laurie Rose and laden with all manner of hallucinatory imagery. After all, the 17th century was ripe for superstitious beliefs, and as several of the characters fall prey to food and drink of a particular potency — “Open up and let the devil in,” O’Neil repeatedly insists, an occult foil to Whitehead’s devout Christianity — it becomes difficult to discern reality from potentially otherworldly occurrences, an uneasy state reflected by Wheatley’s often disorienting audio-visual juxtaposition and puzzling inclusions of still-life tableaux.
"I am not a soldier!” Whitehead cries out. “I am not accustomed to this trajectory!" And yet the smoke of the otherwise unseen battlefield seems to haunt the men wherever they go before they become snarling, stumbling, sweaty slaves to one another, deprived of what Jacob calls the “civilizing influence of women.” Perhaps the director and screenwriter Amy Jump (his wife) share a disdain for the caste systems of the era, epitomized by Shearsmith’s convincingly anguished journey towards becoming his own master, or maybe they simply wanted to offer an antidote to traditionally stuffy period pieces, replacing romantic trysts with potentially seizure-inducing montages and suitably squirmy acts of violence.
Regardless of intent, the result is a challenging piece of work to be sure, due for eventual midnight-movie cultdom. I’ve given “A Field in England” two tries now and each time found it to be occasionally ferocious and funny, severely trippy for stretches and at times outright tedious. With that said, I still can’t wait to see what the man does next.
SCORE: 6.3 / 10
“A Field in England” is currently playing in select theaters, and is also available on iTunes and VOD.