A FIELD IN ENGLAND – Fantastic Fest Review
Horrid and visceral, Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England is a monochromatic trip to oblivion. Equal parts impudent and indulgent, it’s the most authentic cinematic replication of a drug trip since Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. The film is, at times, maddeningly obtuse — to the point that you actually question if incoherence is Wheatley’s main goal. The “bad trip” anti-drug campaigns warn adolescents about in order to ward off even the slightest consideration of dabbling in LSD and shrooms. Only instead of Little Johnny taking the brown and running into traffic, this queasy, single location piece of psychedelia sends soldiers from the British Civil War onto their own, open air road to Hell.
Reece Shearsmith is Whitehead, a deserting Cavalier joining up with a group of Roundheads (those who supported the Parliamentary party during the War) after fleeing his post in battle. Together, the group head for a nearby pub, encountering a mysterious alchemist (Michael Smiley) searching for gold in the titular pasture. This seemingly fortuitous encounter proves to be anything but, as the alchemist lures the men down a mind-bending rabbit hole, resulting in madness and death for all.
The strength of Shearsmith’s performance cannot be stressed enough, as he is the sole rung on this wobbly ladder that the audience has to hold on to. While some might see him as a “passive” character, carried along by others’ decisions as events beyond his control envelop him, Shearsmith ensures that Whitehead’s manic desperation can be felt throughout. Until he unavoidably breaks down into madness, we develop sympathy for what feels like a little boy forced into playing soldier, ultimately scared off when real death and destruction begins to happen around him. Whitehead is a soul obsessed with foreseeing his own destiny, studying astrology before heading into battle, but his inaction leads to others rearranging the stars for him.
While most of the film alternates between leering close-ups and distancing, widescreen compositions, A Field In England achieves its stylistic apex during a trippy interlude in which the travelers gorge themselves on wild mushrooms. Wheatley folds and mirrors images as he cuts back and forth between the hallucinating cohorts, each having their own moments of dark epiphany. It’s a swirling, aptly disorienting sequence, and the closest that Wheatley’s film comes to achieving pure cinematic transcendence. Epileptics should heed the warning at the picture’s beginning, as this sequence is nothing short of seizure inducing.
Much like Kill List, where aural rumblings signaled doom for the two hit men anti-heros, A Field In England showcases Wheatley’s continued fascination with sound design. An early cannonball knocks all sound out until only ringing is left in our ears. Later, a scene is overtaken by the screams of a tormented Whitehead, being stripped off-screen as his companions cover their ears and beg God for it to end. And once the mushrooms begin to kick in during the film’s “climax”, there’s a throbbing that feels like it could be the sound of fleshy temples pulsating. The soundtrack, a mixture of traditional English folk songs, buzzing guitars and composer James Williams’ haunting ambient sounds, is just as disorienting as cinematographer Laurie Rose’s smoky, stark photography. More than maybe any director of his generation, Wheatley understands that the cinematic experience isn’t simply pictures in motion, but the complex way in which sonics play with and evoke emotions from an audience.
Wheatley’s style of cinema has always been confrontational, asking the audience to not only engage with it on an intellectual level, but an intensely visceral one as well. A Field In England is no different, and some might even say is the most bullheadedly combative of his budding filmography. Much like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, it is a work that is much more interested in philosophical ideas than it is linear narrative; a drugged-out treatise on the nature of cowardice, existence and religion in which the inner monologue is made external through inebriation. In short — one of the most audacious, odd and, quite possibly, best pieces of British filmmaking to be released in some time.