Director Ben Wheatley is one strange dude. His last two movies defy description, although I'll give it a shot anyway by saying they are horror-drama-comedy hybrids with an aesthetic tendency toward extreme experimentation. At this point in his career, he can only be described as a cult director with minimal mass appeal.
I like him. I like him a lot.
Wheatley follows up last year's brilliant serial-killer comedy Sightseers with A Field in England, a low budget, black and white hallucinogenic period piece set in the hedgerows of 17th-century England. It's a consistently weird, sometimes indecipherable, but always compelling piece from a guy who doesn't want to paint between the lines.
As the film begins, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) emerges from tall grass during battle, scared shitless and begging for his life. Sent on a mission to find a manuscript thief, a mysterious Irishman named O'Neil (Michael Smiley), Whitehead is coming up short and his boss is losing patience. Whitehead soon meets up with three other deserters, including Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover). The four decide the war is not for them and set out to find a place to grab a beer.
Through a series of very strange occurrences, the men wind up in the presence of the dreaded O'Neil. He has a human appearance, but might be some sort of devil or warlock (at one point, he clearly states that he has "conjured" the men, and threatens to turn one of them into a frog). Friend comments that he isn't surprised that the devil is an Irishman.
He informs the men (one of whom he's already in league with) that they are in his servitude, and will be searching for a treasure in the field. After he leads Whitehead into his tent, we hear unholy screams, with some sort of malevolent force entering Whitehead in a way that isn't revealed. One can only guess how, and those guesses aren't pleasant.
Whitehead emerges with a crazed look, commences treasure hunting and finds a place for the men to dig. Massive amounts of mushrooms are consumed, genitals are stung by insect beasties, men are shot only to rise again, and big huge black planets look like they are going to swallow the Earth. With all of the hedgerows, dark planets and hallucinatory sequences, the film feels like a hybrid of lyrical imagery from Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin songs.
There's also a trace of Kubrick, because the main hallucination sequence, toward the film's end, is a flashy piece of filmmaking reminiscent of his 2001: A Space Odyssey finale. The film contains one of those warnings about flashing images and stroboscopic images. Yeah, I can see how the hallucination sequence could cause seizures. It's an optical workout, for sure.
Are all of these men dead already? That's certainly a sensible question considering how strange and otherworldly these proceedings feel. Is the whole thing just a hallucination after Whitehead eats what seems to be an entire field's worth of magic mushrooms? It's safe to say that at least part of the scenes being depicted is the product of hallucination.
This is one of those films, like Barton Fink and Mulholland Drive, where film historians and fans will have multiple interpretations. Perhaps Wheatley and his writing partner, Amy Jump, know exactly what is going on with these characters and their predicaments, but here's hoping they never reveal the mysteries. Films like A Field in England beg for multiple viewings, and they feel significantly different each time you watch them. A filmmaker giving the secrets away would spoil the fun.
Prepare to be a little frustrated if you walk into A Field in England looking for all of the answers. Like the men fruitlessly searching for treasure in the movie, you will not find much along the lines of concrete storytelling. If you are open to something a little (make that a lot) different, then I think Mr. Wheatley is somebody who might interest you.