Sunday, February 9, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2014)

(UK - 2013/US release 2014)

Directed by Ben Wheatley.  Written by Amy Jump.  Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Julian Barratt.  (Unrated, 90 mins)

With his working-class, financially-strapped characters and his "kitchen sink" aesthetics, British filmmaker Ben Wheatley is frequently described as the Ken Loach or Mike Leigh of horror cinema.  Wheatley established a name for himself with his second feature, KILL LIST (2011), which found much praise in cult horror circles but suffered from a young filmmaker too eager to show his hand, thus dampening what he thought was a shocker of a twist ending when in fact, any horror fan worth their salt should've seen it coming 20 minutes into the movie.  While KILL LIST could've used some work on the writing end, it was extremely well-made, and Wheatley's next film, SIGHTSEERS (2012), a deadpan black comedy about the world's dullest couple on a serial-killing road trip, was a significant improvement, though some of that may be due to it being written by others.  Wheatley's usual writing collaborator is his wife Amy Jump, and she gets sole writing credit for Wheatley's latest film, A FIELD IN ENGLAND, released in the UK last summer but just now arriving in the US, complete with a glowing recommendation from none other than Martin Scorsese.

The kind of film for people who found Nicolas Winding Refn's VALHALLA RISING a little too mainstream, fast-paced, and audience-friendly, A FIELD IN ENGLAND is a departure from Wheatley's usual downtrodden killers and miscreants in bleak surroundings, a psychedelic, mind-altering period piece set in 1648 at the time of the English Civil War--Cromwell is invoked at one point--that could almost be titled VALHALLA TRIPPING.  Opening at the conclusion of an offscreen battle, alchemist's assistant Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) meets a trio of deserters--Jacob (Peter Ferdinando of the Brit cult film TONY), Friend (Richard Glover), and Cutler (Ryan Pope)--and the four make camp in a field as Cutler prepares soup with some mushrooms found in the vicinity.  From that moment on, nothing is as it seems as a rope appears as the men seem to engage in a one-sided game of tug-of-war.  Materializing at the end of the rope is O'Neil (Michael Smiley, looking like Vincent Price in WITCHFINDER GENERAL), a renegade alchemist who was being hunted by Whitehead.  O'Neil has other plans, turning the tables on the four men and forcing them to dig in the field for an alleged buried treasure.  Before long, the men are turning on each other, Friend is killed but resurrected, and all are haunted by visions of a black, pulsating sun--even Whitehead, who didn't even eat any of Cutler's soup.

The film opens with a warning that it contains flashing images and stroboscopic sequences, and that's when all hell breaks loose near the finale as O'Neil's psychological grip on the men reaches its apex.  It's basically the kind of trippy visuals where any random shot could be freeze-framed and used as a '70s prog rock album cover.  Wheatley and Jump are never explicitly clear on anything, but there's obviously some other world/other dimension stuff going on, and classical "death/rebirth" mythic elements.  Witness the fact that O'Neil doesn't appear until they've ingested the mushrooms, but it almost feels as if they're "pulling" him from another place during the tug-of-war sequence--or perhaps he's pulling them.  Either way, A FIELD IN ENGLAND has "midnight movie" written all over it, like it's gunning to be the EL TOPO of the streaming generation (there's some pretty clear Jodorowsky worship going on in the closing scenes).  Shot in black and white, there's no shortage of visually stunning moments, with Wheatley and usual cinematographer Laurie Rose using every bit of the 2.35 frame to maximize the vastness of the field and its simultaneous feeling of trapped claustrophobia.  Some of the character arcs are interesting, especially the spineless, cowardly Whitehead's transformation into a badass, earning the respect of the initially dismissive Jacob.  Shearsmith runs the gamut of emotions here, the high point being a scene of sustained offscreen screaming followed by a "rebirth" of sorts, emerging from a tent with the most disturbing, almost demonic facial expression you'll ever see.  It's a long shot that Wheatley lets play out in slow motion, and it's unforgettable.

There's a whole subgenre of films whose biggest fans insist "You gotta be stoned to get it," and A FIELD IN ENGLAND falls into that...not that I agree with that assessment, but this is that kind of movie.  Like VALHALLA RISING, it's an acquired taste (and VALHALLA really is an accessible crowd-pleaser compared to this), and for every person who loves it, there'll be one who loathes it.  I wouldn't call it a great film, but I admire its audacity and its individuality.  It refuses to be labeled and with every shot, you can tell Wheatley is making the film he wanted to make.  By design, it doesn't fully come together on a narrative level (though this is probably a case where layers reveal themselves on repeat viewings), and even with a pace that makes you feel like you took some Slo-Mo from DREDD, Wheatley's enthusiasm and stylish direction shine through.  I'm still not ready to anoint him a master of horror, primarily because I'm just not sold on all the KILL LIST love.  I still think SIGHTSEERS is his best work thus far, but there's a bold ambition to A FIELD IN ENGLAND that can't be ignored, regardless of your feelings about it.  It's such a radical change in style and tone from his past work that I'm wondering if even Ben Wheatley is sick of the Ben Wheatley hype (though it did get him the sweet gig of helming the first two episodes of the Peter Capaldi incarnation of DOCTOR WHO and he's doing the upcoming HBO series SILK ROAD). With shout-outs to the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ingmar Bergman, and Bela Tarr, A FIELD IN ENGLAND is bound to be a divisive film that provokes as many declarations of brilliance as it does sighs of "What a pretentious asshole," but that's likely the intent. 

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