Ben Wheatley has asserted himself as the new face of avant garde cinema. From Down Terrace’s darkly comedic family crime story in 2009, to 2012’s bleakly hilarious Sightseers, nothing is by-the-book. Wheatley’s latest venture is no exception. Desolate, oddly funny, and visually volatile, A Field in England, while not a perfect film, certainly solidifies Wheatley’s role in the contemporary culture of cinema.
Set in the thick of the English Civil War, the story focuses on a band of merry deserters. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), an alchemist’s assistant, flees the field of battle. Terrified, he runs from the chaos, and encounters a threatening man named Cutler (Ryan Pope), and his two companions, the slovenly Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and simpleton Friend (Richard Glover). Attempting to find a nearby alehouse, they inexplicably discover a lost alchemist, an Irishman by the name of O’Neil (Michael Smiley). Holding them captive, O’Neil forces the men to help him find a treasure presumably buried in the field they’ve been trudging through.
In spite of its relatively straightforward plot, the execution of the film is far more mystifying. A highly visceral sensory experience, the film is shot in stark, at times flat, black and white. The dutiful warning at the film’s start that there are strobes used is, by the film’s end, not nearly warning enough. The experience is jarring, and at times physically difficult to withstand. Unless you’re into less accessible, more confounding content.
Yet the dialogue is witty, though at times bleak. Wheatley and fellow scribe Amy Jump master accessible dialogue in an otherwise otherworldly cinematic experience. About half of our troupe find themselves eating a soup made of mushrooms grown in the namesake field. Little do they know that these mushrooms are of the hallucinogenic persuasion, opening the floodgates into the twisted world that resides in Whealtey and Jump’s collective consciousnesses.
This film is not for the masses, and it firmly asserts itself as such. It’s avant garde and art-house to an almost inaccessible level. Almost. But if you’re partial to Wheatley’s absurdity, this may ring as true with you as Kill List or Sightseers before it.
Wheatley and Jump playfully represent the relationship between religious faith and madness without hesitation. The delusions of a holy and educated man, Whitehead, barely differ from that of the intoxicated laymen, Friend and Jacob. Meanwhile, O’Neil’s dictatorial reign over his captives is peppered with demonic incantations and satanic proverbs.
Wheatley asserts himself as an undeniable voice in contemporary cinema without remorse or hesitation. He is relentlessly unapologetic regarding his vision, leaving a potent mark on the legacy of the medium. His work is dogmatic in tone, and Kubrickian in style. While he’s unapologetically unique in his voice and visual approach, he’s never antagonistically so. It’s clear he doesn’t attempt to alienate the audience. He’s rebellious in his representation, and you will either love or loathe the work he creates. In either case, he doesn’t seem to care. He refuses to be pigeonholed. Either he’ll be accepted, or he won’t, but he continues to assert his vision without much concern of judgment.
A Field in England is an undeniably visceral film. It’s a shocking assault on the senses. While its intention isn’t entirely clear, and it’s not Wheatley’s best work to date, it certainly helps solidify his role in contemporary cinema. And I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.
A Field in England will play at The Royal starting this Friday, March 14th, through until the 27th.