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Zack Mosley [Celluloid 10.16.13] United Kingdom thriller arthouse

1648, the British Civil War. We are introduced to a coward named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) as he flees a pitched battle that we never actually see. Abandoning his master, he joins a ragtag collection of three other deserters (one Roundhead and two Cavaliers, I think, based on their funny hats) and they tromp across the titular field in a very British quest for an elusive alehouse. A dichotomy develops between Whitehead, a pious academic, and the ignorant and blasphemous soldiers.

Shit goes from curious to curiouser and curiouser. The master that Whitehead abandoned was a powerful alchemist/physician/astrologist, and together they were pursuing an Irish sorcerer named O'Neil (the criminally under-appreciated Michael Smiley.) Whitehead and co. now locate O'Neil with a play straight out of the private detective's handbook, by tying a rope around a pole and pulling on it until he materializes out of the ground. Whitehead speculates that O'Neil was using some "diabolical method to conceal his presence in a field". Sure, why not?

O'Neil immediately takes charge of the group, employing them in his quest for buried gold. He uses Whitehead like some sort of divining rod, torturing him and coaxing him to “let the Devil in”, and then letting him gallop around the field in slow motion until he finds a suitable place to dig. But this, along with the field's only supply of sustenance (mushrooms, probably a Psilocybin producing variety), seem to unlock Whitehead's latent supernatural powers. What follows could be described as a psychedelic battle between sorcerers.

I've taken some liberties in summarizing the plot of A Field In England, dropping a few “spoilers” and expounding where I've seen necessary, because it resists attempts at description. This is Ben Wheatley's most bizarre film yet, seemingly designed to constantly throw the audience off guard. The narrative becomes more hallucinogenic as it goes along, unspooling with its own trip logic as Whitehouse forgoes a self-imposed fast and begins to feed on the mushrooms. Even before the mushrooms are introduced, there are slow motion sequences, fast motion sequences, disorienting close-ups, musical interludes, odd tableaus where everyone holds a pose, sudden graphic violence, an orb made of billowing black smoke, copious shots of frogs and insects and grass blowing in the wind, ambient score, funny hats, you name it. By the time we reach the blowout stroboscopic finale, reason and logic have left the building.

If Kill List left you mildly confused, A Field In England will leave you utterly gobsmacked. Not everyone is going to be on the right wavelength for this movie. For some viewers it will be the same thing the characters find at the bottom of the hole they dig, “dirt and old bones”. Whitehead is a practitioner of pseudo-science, maybe Wheatley is making pseudo art. Is this cinematic alchemy? On the face of it, this film is just five guys wandering around a field for an hour and a half. It doesn't have the dramatic heft of, say, The Seventh Seal. Does the emperor wear clothes? Does it matter? Maybe you have to be stoned to go with the flow. Whitehead wasn't going with the flow, then he got stoned. Problem solved.

There's more than alchemy going on here in my opinion, and it's a beautiful mindfuck either way. Shot in a rich and evocative black and white, A Field In England is not only Wheatley's most bizarre film, it's his most technically accomplished film as well. While the production is minimal, the film is a potent sensory experience, full of strange moments and experimental technique. Attentive viewers will discover many cinematic, literary and historical references to pore over. A second viewing was rewarding, when my expectations had settled into a stable holding pattern. But I'm sure I have not truly grasped this film yet, or if it is even meant to be graspable.

Working again with Amy Jump, who wrote and co-edited this film as she did with Kill List and Sightseers, Ben Wheatley continues to challenge our expectations. Whether he leaves you vexed or compelled, you have to admit that Wheatley is making singular, iconoclastic cinema. Whether you want to let the Devil in is up to you.

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j.j. (5 years ago) Reply

This film was complete and utter shite. However I did like Kill List.


antonyw999 (5 years ago) Reply

"just five guys wandering around a field for an hour and a half" sums this up beautifully. It's the most boringly pretentious piece I've ever seen.


uncleB (5 years ago) Reply

i have to agree with JJ.

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