PLOT: In 1600s England, during the English Civil War, a small group of men are held under the sway of a crazed former alchemist who believes buried riches are contained somewhere within a vast field.
REVIEW: Last year when the wonderful SHINING documentary ROOM 237 came out, it sported this tagline: “Many ways in, no way out.” That’s actually perfect for A FIELD IN ENGLAND as well, which encloses you in a weird mystery that may very well have no answers but clings to your mind all the same.
Director Ben Wheatley spins a rather strange web with A FIELD IN ENGLAND, which sees the Brit taking a fairly ordinary tale of treasure hunting in 1640s England and infusing it with a surreal, cerebral and experimental aesthetic that threatens to drive you just as mad as the central characters. Certainly not one to do things in a conventional manner, Wheatley continues to prove he’s one of the more thrilling, not to mention enigmatic, voices in genre films today.
But to simply label Wheatley a “genre” director isn’t really fair, or even possible. Look at his filmography; he’s tackled a small-time crime family dark comedy (DOWN TERRACE), a brooding gangster drama/occult horrorshow hybrid (KILL LIST) and a good-natured romantic comedy about a couple of serial killers (SIGHTSEERS). With A FIELD IN ENGLAND, Wheatley moves even further into his unclassifiable Twilight Zone of genre-blending, treating us to something that is part arty period piece, part psychedelic freakout, part Monty Python sketch, part philosophical rumination on man’s inability to be freed from his “master” or himself. (It plays a bit like a more light-hearted version of Nicolas Winding Refn’s VALHALLA RISING.) It’s a trip alright, guaranteed to leave you befuddled or enriched - perhaps both. One thing it won’t leave you is ambivalent.
The title properly serves as the film’s setting: during the brutal British Civil War of the 1600s, four men who have decided to abandon the battle in search of a pub take a long walk through a seemingly never-ending field. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith, absolutely terrific) is a cowardly apprentice of an alchemist, in search of an escaped former colleague; Cutler (Ryan Pope) is a suspiciously carefree soldier at the forefront of the pub search. Jacob (Peter Fernando) is an enemy soldier who is more than happy to join the ranks of his opposition if it means ducking out of the battle, while Friend (Richard Glover) is a simpleton encouraged by this new gathering of comrades.
After much aimless wandering, the group learns Cutler is in cahoots with a fifth man, O’Neil (the great Michael Smiley), who happens to be the fellow alchemist Whitehead is looking for. O’Neil has become a nasty tyrannical monster in his time away from Whitehead and their former master, and quite mad to boot; he has come to believe the titular field holds a buried treasure of some kind, and he plans on using Whitehead to seek it out, by any means necessary. This involves bewitching the man and enslaving the hapless Jacob and Friend via hallucinogenic mushrooms. A large dose of insanity ensues.
A fairly simple, if not typical, story, yet Wheatley and his partner-writer Amy Jump are not in the business of telling tales simply. The dialog is clever and dense, with so many neat flourishes and witticisms that you might feel compelled to rewind certain passages just to confirm you’ve registered every bit of it. (I had the luxury of watching the film on DVD; obviously your attention will have to be extra sharp if you’re seeing it in the theater.) The actors, thankfully, are more than up to the task; they handle their complex speeches as deftly as any ensemble since the cast of “Deadwood” hammered through that series’ brilliant Victorian speak. Shearsmith and Smiley are especially enjoyable, both staying this side of over-the-top, yet remaining consistently theatrical.
When we’re not having to weave your way through the very particular language of the script, we are confronted with several hallucinatory sequences, the result of the ingestion of the field’s mushrooms by some of the men. Wheatley doesn’t hold back during these bits, utilizing every trick in the Psychedelic Experimental Film handbook to unnerve us: mirror images, slow-mo, strobe effects and every other imaginable optical effect is revived to construct these nightmarish moments. These scenes alternate between hypnotic and irritating. Certainly a few of them are comparable to the most basic wannabe-trippy visual motifs of a music video hack or film student; I dare say anyone can repeat a shot over and over again ad nauseam and pretend it’s really deep when in reality it’s like a substitute for something substantial to say. Wheatley may indeed be unaware that dragging out these tired visual tropes comes off as pretentious - or it’s entirely possible he sees greater meaning in their repetitive crudeness. As he’s clearly a smart filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and bet on the latter, but I’ll still admit I don’t have much use for these sequences. They get old fast. (Also not very successful are several strange moments when the actors stand perfectly still, almost as if waiting for a picture to be taken. These tableaux jar us out of the narrative and call attention to themselves; but again, perhaps that's the point?)
But A FIELD IN ENGLAND still gives us plenty to think about, long after it’s over. Unsurprisingly, its ending is abstract and open to interpretation - not exactly satisfying for those who are eager to find out just what the hell all of this means, but also completely consistent with the vivid and troubling film that came before it (KILL LIST shares this trait as well). It can’t be said that A FIELD IN ENGLAND walks away a complete success because by design its intentionally cryptic nature won’t allow it to claim a flawless victory, but there’s no denying there’s plenty of frenzied joy to be found in this maze of a movie.