Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a strange cinematic brew. Its dialogue is written in a curious amalgam of lofty Shakespearean English and Guy Ritchie-style tough-guy blather. Its grayscale photography of the English countryside achieves the nimble feat of being both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Drugs are central to the plot of the film, but this is probably the furthest thing from a drug movie in existence. But most striking about the film are the fits of formal bizarreness that it occasionally breaks into.
The film is ostensibly about four men who escape a battle of the English Civil War and go off looking for an alehouse instead. They get kidnapped by what appears to be an evil Irish wizard and are forced to dig for a hidden treasure. Most of the film consists of its five characters talking shit among themselves and/or acting under the influence of drugs or possession, but every now and again, Wheatley shakes things up by engaging in gratuitous displays of style: a My Own Private Idaho-like living tableau here, some over-the-top digital gore effects there. The sudden left turns into arch style don’t stop there: the movie’s centerpiece is a five-minute ‘shroom-fueled kaleidoscopic horrorshow where Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) gains control over a looming void and proceeds to bend the very fabric of space and time through the sheer power of drugs. I think.
While the weird stylistic exercises appear to be excessive at first glance, their role becomes compounded as the film goes on. The titular field appears to be a breeding ground for supernatural happenings and unexplained phenomena, which may or may not be controlled by whoever has the most drugs in their system (it’s telling that the only time anyone fights back successfully against the Irish alchemist is when they have a mouthful of magic mushrooms). As such, the movie doesn’t make strict linear sense (dead characters come back, time appears to jump forward and back, the aforementioned void), but where this would sink most films, it lends itself well to the film’s eerie universe. Between that, the amusingly bawdy screenplay, and the various stylistic exercises, A Field in England has tremendous vitality. The film manages to land each jarring shift in tone perfectly while taking the tropes of pagan horror (you can trace a pretty straight line between this and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man), and imbuing them with a heaping dose of avant-garde formalism and good ol’ black magick.
Head film qualities aside, this movie has plenty going for it. The performances are good across the board, including a genuinely unnerving performance by Wheatley veteran Michael Smiley as the evil Irish alchemist O’Neill. Amy Jump’s script manages to navigate between comedy, drama, and psychological horror with ease, and Jim Williams’ atonal ambient score lends the proceedings a palpable sense of dread. There is a near tangible dark alchemy at work during the whole film, almost as if the whole of A Field in England was summoned fully formed from Wheatley’s third eye by a malevolent warlock. It’s not scary in the traditional sense, but it does have the kind of soul-rumbling Shining-esque creepiness that you feel in your bones.
A Field in England will be opening in Miami at O Cinema Wynwood on February 7th. It is available to rent or buy digitally on Amazon, and is scheduled to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on April 8th, 2014.
Directed by Ben Wheatley; written by Amy Jump; starring Julian Barratt, Peter Fernandino, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Reece Shearsmith, and Michael Smiley; 91 minutes.