A Field in England, absurdist, Alejandro Jodorowsky, auteur theory, Ben Wheatley, black-and-white cinematography, British films, cinema, Down Terrace, England, English Civil War, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, horror films, Jim Jarmusch, Kill List, Michael Smiley, Movies, mushrooms, Nicholas Winding Refn, Peter Ferdinando, psychedelics, psychological horror, Reece Shearsmith, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, Sightseers, Top Films of 2013, Waiting for Godot
Even though this particular Sunday featured the first double-header in quite some time (and the last for at least a week, sadly), I still found myself having to split the reviews in half. The reason? The first screening on that particular day was Ben Wheatley’s eye-popping, amazing new film A Field in England. Suffice to say, I had more than enough praise to fill up its own entry. We’ll get to the second film, Walker, in the next installment.
When it came time for me to sit down and actually A Field in England, I found myself inexplicably thinking of the Sound of Music chestnut “Maria.” Specifically, I found myself running the line “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” through my head over and over again. You see, I had my own little problem here: how, exactly, do you review a film like A Field in England? Would it be possible to explain my complete and total love for a film that I only partially (and, most likely, imperfectly) understand? Will anyone but a complete and total weirdo like myself even care about this crazy, absurd, brilliant little bit of madness? I like to think that true quality will always shine through, however: if something is good enough, it will always make itself known, even if it can’t make itself popular. In that spirit, I feel that it’s my duty to help make A Field in England as visible as possible. You’ve been warned, fellow travelers…you’ve been warned.
There is a plot to A Field in England, of sorts, but the film really functions more as a visceral, emotional experience than as a narrative, intellectual one. Truth be told, there were so many points in the film where the visuals and ideas completely overwhelmed my senses (especially in the colossally mind-melting “psychedelic freakout” scene) that any attempt to follow a traditionally linear story-line was pretty much given up as a lost cause. I intend to watch the film many more times before I die and hope, with each viewing, to understand it a little more: by the time I’m 90, I may just have it figured out…although I doubt it.
The film opens on a chaotic battle, during England’s 17th century Civil War. Our “protagonist,” Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), has just seen his abusive commander get speared right before his eyes and, as skittish as a deer crossing a four-lane-freeway, hightails it for freedom. Whitehead meets three other deserters, Jacob, Cutler and Friend (Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope and Richard Glover, respectively) and the four set out to find some way out of the madness…or, at the very least, some place to grab a beer. What they find, unfortunately, is an express route directly into the gibbering maw of insanity.
Eventually, the group comes across the titular field. The field is covered in mushrooms and one of the men makes a tasty mushroom stew, which everyone but Whitehead partakes in. Continuing their trek across the seemingly endless field, the group finds a huge rope running down the center of the field. As anyone would do when confronted by a giant rope, the group digs in their heels and gets to pulling. The rope, it turns out, is tied to a strange man laying in the middle of the field: this man, O’Neil (Michael Smiley), just happens to have stolen some important documents from Whitehead’s master, who just happens to be a powerful alchemist. Whitehead wants the documents back but O’Neil has other plans: you see, he’s positive that there’s…something…buried in the field and he forces Whitehead and the others to help him find it. As the situation becomes more and more bizarre and otherworldly, everything comes to a head as the men are faced with a terrifying realization: either the world has gone completely mad…or they have. Either way, they’re now stuck in a very strange situation with a very dangerous individual. Will any of them, Whitehead especially, be able to retain their humanity? Will O’Neil ever find his “treasure?” And what are we to think of the black sun that seems poised to swallow the entire world?
If ever there was a film that could be done no justice whatsoever by a plot summary, than A Field in England is that film. At first glance, a black-and-white period-piece about a group of men digging in a nondescript field would seem to be just about as interesting as watching paint dry. Don’t make the mistake of assuming this is any regular film, however: this is another species of beast altogether, much more akin to the glory days of transgressive cinema than anything more modern.
A Field in England is a brilliantly constructed puzzle box, one of those seamless head-scratchers that depends not so much on 3rd Act twists and misdirection as on an omnipresent sense of skewed reality and insanity. It may seem strange for me to compare such a singular film to existing movies but I think there are at least a few that do bear mentioning. The films of Jodorowsky, particularly Holy Mountain, are a big reference, as are the films of Kurosawa, thanks in no small part to A Field in England’s beautiful, evocative black-and-white cinematography. There were many points were the film explicitly reminded me of The Hidden Fortress, particularly with the (occasionally) comic interplay between the deserters and Whitehead. Jarmusch’s Dead Man seems to be a huge point of reference, not only for the sense of absurdity that runs through it but also for the mystical, dream-like atmosphere that permeates every shot. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Refn’s Valhalla Rising, which often seems like a spiritual twin to Wheatley’s film. Toss Eraserhead into the mix, for obvious reasons, and mix in ample amounts of Waiting for Godot and voila: you get about as close to a good description of A Field in England as you possibly could.
Although I may not understand the film completely, I enjoyed it absolutely. In fact, A Field in England was both one of the most best and most infuriating cinematic experiences I’ve had in some time. On a purely technical basis, the film is flawless: the cinematography really adds to the overall experience (some of the still, tableau-like shots of the actors were truly haunting), the sound design is amazing and the script is very sharp: one of my favorite lines in quite some time has to be, “I just figured out what God is punishing us for: everything.” The dialogue manages to nail the absurd, nonsensical quality of writers like Beckett and Ionesco without sounding like a bunch of random sentences thrown together: there’s a disquieting but tangible sense that comprehension is just around the corner…if we allow ourselves to understand, that is.
The film opens with a warning about the use of stroboscopic images and, for once, the warning isn’t a bit of mood-setting fluff: when the film really kicks into gear, during the jaw-dropping psychedelic scene, the combination of sound, strobing images and bizarre visuals nearly overwhelmed me. For one of the first times in my life, I felt physically assaulted by a film…and it was amazing! Similar to coming out of the dead-man’s-drop on a rollercoaster in one piece, emerging from the other side of A Field in England with my psyche intact felt like some kind of a special achievement: woe to any who might try to view the film with chemical enhancement, since I could easily see that leading to a mental breakdown. Think that’s a little hyperbolic? Turn the lights off, turn the sound up and try to keep from turning away during the scene in question. That weird sound you hear? That just may be your brain crying for help.
Over the course of four full-lengths (Down Terrace (2009), Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012) and A Field in England) and one anthology segment (in the ABCs of Death), Ben Wheatley has quickly become my favorite 2000s-era filmmakers, next to Nicholas Winding Refn. I’ve never seen a Wheatley film that didn’t blow me away and I’ve noticed the absolutely delightful trend that his films just seem to keep getting better as he goes along: Kill List devastated me, only to have Sightseers top it, only to be bested, in turn, by A Field in England. With this kind of track-record, Wheatley is set to be one of the single greatest filmmakers since the glory days of the ’70s. Fitting, then, that his new project will be the first film version ever of JG Ballard’s seminal High Rise.
Wheatley’s ability to blend kitchen-sink British drama with absurd, horrifying situations has been honed into a razor-sharp point. There are some films that flirt with the strange and absurd (Donnie Darko, Dark City) and there are some films that ARE strange and absurd (Lost Highway, Eraserhead, Holy Mountain): A Field in England is definitely the latter. My early comparison to Waiting for Godot is particularly apt: until the introduction of O’Neil, when the film takes a decidedly dark turn, it’s nothing if not reminiscent of British absurdities like The Bed Sitting Room or, perhaps, a particularly low-key Monty Python. Anyone familiar with Wheatley’s other films will definitely recognize his M.O: begin in a familiar, blue-collar-setting/style before gradually drowning the proceedings in nightmarish insanity and uncertainty. A Field in England seems even more capable of throwing us off-kilter thanks to its quasi-fantastical, period setting, which automatically makes it seem stranger than Wheatley’s other “modern” films.
At the end of the day, A Field in England is that rarest of things: an honest-to-God experience in a day and age where such things, at least as far as films go, are all too rare. Even Martin Scorcese thinks so: the film’s poster prominently features a pull-quote from the iconic director that says, simply, “A most original and stunning cinematic experience.” There ya have it, ladies and gentlemen: if A Field in England is good enough for Marty, it damn sure better be good enough for you. If you haven’t joined the Wheatley fan club, now seems like as good a time as any to send in your membership.