It begins with cannonades, musket fire, smoke, and presumed-to-be-dead men walking. It ends deep in the titular field, awash in howling winds, treachery, and madness. And it’s yet another marker in English director and co-writer (with Amy Jump) Wheatley’s exemplary catalog of films that are unlike any you’ve ever seen. Wheatley’s newest is unapologetically psychedelic in both tone and tempo. The director plays havoc with the story’s timeline, intentionally befuddling the audience alongside his equally bedazzled, bedraggled characters. A Field in England might not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s far and away the most enticingly original film to come out of the UK this year. (It killed at Fantastic Fest 2013.)
On the face of it, A Field in England is a seemingly straightforward story about a quartet of men (played by Shearsmith, Ferdinando, Pope, and Glover) trooping off to an alehouse during the English Civil War, and the nightmare that befalls these damned souls once they encounter O’Neil (played by Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), a catty sorcerer seeking something buried in the Earth. That description pales in comparison with the actual mind-warping surreality that plays out (in crisp, trippy, black and white, no less) even during the film’s opening moments. Jump and the genuinely visionary cinematic strategies of Wheatley will blow your mind out of your unsuspecting skull. A back-flashing musket ball couldn’t scramble your gray matter any better – and the results would be neither as sumptuous nor as painterly as Wheatley’s infinitely arresting camera eye, which is aided and abetted by cinematographer Laurie Rose.
As in Bastrop, Texas, so too in 1648 Surrey, England: Psilocybin mushrooms are devoured in haste, which offers the characters entry into heaven and hell, possibly simultaneously. Comedy, chaos, and a veritable smorgasbord of astonishingly beautiful camerawork ensue. But Wheatley affords his audience no simplicity nor easy answers even in this most verdant of English countrysides. Shot in a mere 12 days, A Field in England feels like a film both Ingmar Bergman and Ken Russell could drool over.
In many ways, A Field in England is a funhouse mirror of audience expectations and something of a filmic Rorschach test. What is all this hue and cry about, really? It’s about what you think it’s about. Wheatley offers no easy explanations. There as here, God, politics, and the devil rain down nothing but moldy crumbs for an all-too-starving – or in this case, thirsty – mankind. The lesson, just one among many: Be careful what you hunger for, lest it swallow you alive.
See “Field Trip,” Feb. 7, for an interview with Wheatley.