Written by: Amy Jump
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando, and Richard Glover
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Open up and let the Devil in!"
Only 370 years—a relative blink of the cosmic eye—separate us from the historical context of A Field in England, yet director Ben Wheatley’s film might as well transport its audience back to some ancient, primitive time when barbarism and mysticism haunted cruel, unforgiving landscapes. Less a story and more an incantation, it summons distant shades and primal yearnings to find order in chaos but essentially cackles at the notion. Its horrors are unconventional in that it has been crafted to completely alienate, to leave one fumbling for reason in a maelstrom of drugs and violence.
Alienation guides it immediately, as Wheatley drops viewers into the fog of the English Civil War, where fidgety astrologer Whitehead (Reece Sheersmith) flees a battle and meets with a trio of fellow deserters. Florid, period-accurate dialogue rolls from their tongues, carried by almost impenetrable accents. Everyone’s purpose–much less which side anyone is on—isn’t made clear. What is clear is that everyone is in need of a drink, so they begin to trek across desolate, grassy field, a monochrome dreamscape with a sinister figure lies in wait. As the men approach, Whitehead recognizes the man as O’Neill (Michael Smiley), a necromancer he’s been tasked with apprehending for the theft of his master’s occult documents.
But this man—who cuts a Satanic silhouette in his Witchfinder General-inspired garb—holds a mysterious, almost supernatural sway over the group. Insisting that treasure is buried somewhere in the field, he sends his ragtag bunch of miscreant servants on a search that becomes an unsettling existential nightmare as the minutes tick by. Any sense of time is lost as the group toils away, digging holes and engaging in idle chatter. A Field in England begins to feel like the most ominous hangout movie imaginable, unfolding under a familiar, druggy haze, and settling into a miasmic languor where characters discuss venereal diseases and contemplate the nature of the stars. “You never looked up?” Whitehead asks of one of his compatriots, who obviously has had little time—or reason—to contemplate his place in the universe during his life.
These conversations reveal men bound to a superstitious, almost pagan age (rather ironic considering the war in question). Most of them seek treasure but not introspection and are surrounded by death without considering anything beyond the base pleasures of life. In looking for buried wealth that may not exist, they become metaphors for the aimless, worldly lusts of men doomed to find nothing but destruction. Only a skull awaits at the bottom of the dull earth, the lone fruit of a barren quest. Wheatley may indulge in oppressive, Kubrickan atmosphere and freak-outs while exploring the sort of biting satire of Luis Bunuel, but his existential despair recalls Bergman’s crises of faith, only he’s dealing exclusively with devils and madmen.
Uncoiling like a hallucinogenic, avant-garde chamber play, A Field in England is a sparse production hovering around this lunatic quintet, whose misadventures are confined to a small patch of land. Such a minimalist approach lends itself to experimentation (of which there is plenty, formally speaking), but the sharpness of Amy Jump’s script and the exactness of Wheatley’s visuals guides the film through its feverish frenzy to pick out the desperate longing of these characters. Sheersmith is especially transcendent as Whitehead, a quick-witted man full of answers but whose drooping eyes betray his own confidence in his superiority. When he speaks of sorcery and astrology, you wonder if he isn’t trying to convince himself more than anyone.
In O’Neill, Whitehead confronts an almost preternaturally assured foil with a craggy, toothy face forged from the fires of hell; if he didn’t speak a word, Smiley would be terrifying as a walking death’s head adorned with a wide-brimmed fedora befitting of an Old West undertaker. His supernatural stature increases as Wheatley stages inexplicable scenes of torture and growing madness. Eventually, Whitehead ingests the field’s mushrooms like a Satanic Eucharist in order to transmute and combat his foe’s power. Here, the druggy haze yields to an unfiltered, psychotronic delirium of strobe effects and bifurcated visuals. Like an alchemist leading you to the Twilight Zone via an acid trip, Wheatley blends the previous hour’s scattered unease into a synapse-scorching assault of pure cinematic oblivion. Parsing its meaning is secondary to the rhythmic throbbing culled from a previously cacophonous soundscape of buzzing synths and folk ballads, a strangely calming moment within the eye of the storm.
Viewers don’t emerge on the other side so much as they stagger into it, as the nightmare logic becomes even more unloosed: characters mysteriously resurrect only to continue a cycle of bone-shattering violence that mocks the film’s odd sense of camaraderie. Half-whispered confessions in the throes of death become as farcical as the notion that the lone survivor can glean meaning (much less glory) from this chaos. I am reminded of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier,” a poem that offers the solace of immortality with its promise that war-torn battlefields will forever be a swath of English land. On the contrary, this particular English field reflects the country’s preoccupation with rural, occult horrors that shake the foundation of its religious comforts and civility.
Wheatley has grappled with the struggle between dark impulses and civilized facades throughout his filmography, and A Field in England is his most stark exploration yet, one that only uncovers an ephemeral nothingness. Its most indelible images pit distant silhouettes against pale skies, an appropriate reflection of the film’s elusiveness. After it drags viewers through a psychedelic rabbit hole, it slips away into the mist, stranding viewers in purgatory, among the smoke and haze of lingering ghosts. Even among the company of familiar faces, we are all of us bewildered and alone.
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