Wednesday, February 05, 2014

A Field in England: Ben Wheatley Goes Historical

The ‘shrooms will do little to clarify the fog of war—not that they are supposed to. Instead, they will make matters considerably worse for a ragged band of English Civil War deserters trying to forge their separate peace in Ben Wheatley’s ultra-low budget historical mindbender, A Field in England (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Whitehead is coward, who is incapable of functioning as any kind of self-respecting soldier. He is such a sniveler he can barely summon the courage to desert. Essentially, he lets three of his former enemies pull him through the archetypal hedgerow serving as the battlefield’s boundary, in search of a pub. However, Whitehead has a secret mission to fulfill on behalf of his alchemist master. He is to capture O’Neill, an Irish sorcerer.

Unfortunately, Whitehead’s quarry has the jump on the mismatched comrades. Much to their chagrin, they will be forced to do O’Neill’s bidding as he searches for an ominous treasure buried somewhere in the deceptively peaceful meadow. Clearly, this will not turn out as well as the WWI Christmas Eve truce.

In one sense, the black-and-white uber-moody hyper-stylization of Field is quite a departure from the working class grit of Wheatley’s Kill List and Sightseers. Yet, there is a kinship in the way all three films place unassuming proles smack dab in the center of a burgeoning maelstrom of horror. Much as he did with Kill List in particular, Wheatley builds a sense of steadily mounting dread, while instilling the feeling something sinister looms just outside the audience’s range of vision.

To that end, Wheatley regular Michael Smiley fulfills all O’Neill’s villainous duties with malevolent aplomb. Considering Wheatley’s surreal approach often borders on the experimental, Smiley’s O’Neill adds that much needed element of fun. In contrast, the deserters are a motley lot of Falstaffian variations that only start to differentiate themselves during the third act.

Had Samuel Beckett ever collaborated on a horror film with Ken Russell for Sam Arkoff, it might have looked a lot like Field. At times, its absurdist impulses are rather exhausting, but when Wheatley unleashes his inner madness it is a sight to behold (but epileptics should take the opening strobe warnings to heart). Cinematographer Laurie Rose gives it all an extraordinarily eerie look, befitting the clammy, hallucinatory vibe. Consciously exploring the nexus between psychedelic cult movies and rarified art cinema, A Field in England is recommended for high-end horror connoisseurs when it opens this Friday (2/7) at the Cinema Village.