Writer/director Ben Wheatley has become something of a favorite filmmaker of the Toronto International Film Festival. He’s popped up at the fest over the last three years for the international premieres of Kill List, Sightseers, and now A Field In England. Though none of the flicks are easy sits in the best possible sense, his latest film is his most challenging to date. It’s equal parts gothic horror, European art cinema, drug fueled metaphysics, and vicious dark comedy. The film fits in well with what we’ve come to know is a Ben Wheately picture; however, how it fits into the world of mainstream cinema is a reasonable question. Challenging, alienating, and intense, there was really nothing else like the film at TIFF this year. Hit the jump to find out whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
The film stars Reece Shearsmith as an alchemist’s assistant who along with a few deserting soldiers, finds himself trapped in a peculiar empty field in England while trying to escape the horrors of the English Civil War. They are soon found/kidnapped by a terrifyingly mysterious figure named O’Neil (Michael Smiley, a Wheatley veteran) who is convinced that there is treasure to be found in the field and demands that his new friends/captors dig until they find it. Obviously violence comes into play while forcing those demands, as does hefty doses of paranoia. Then when the group starts feasting on the mushrooms in the field that offer their only sustenance, well things start to get a bit strange…or stranger anyways.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what type of film A Field In England is, falling somewhere between the grindhouse and the art house with influences ranging from flicks as diverse as Alan Clarke’s Contact, The Witchfinder General, Valhalla Rising, Onibaba, or even Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. It’s a maddenly complex film at times, while also harshly direct and realistic in the ways Ben Wheatley’s movie always tend to be. He shoots in gorgeous black and white, mixing his usual handheld realism with odd additions like still tableaus and tip out hallucination sequences (one of which is a seizure inducing show-stopper that rewards viewing the film on the largest possible screen). The film is philosophically evocative and viscerally thrilling in it’s blasts of psychological torment and graphic violence. As to what the experience represents, that’s a far more complex question than it has been in previous Ben Wheatley joints. It’s as elliptically mysterious as Kill List was a direct punch to the gut, but no less fascinating for it. That just also makes it a film that will appeal to an even smaller audience than his previous work. Thankfully the best movies tend to be the most niche.
As always, Wheatley stacks the deck with some strong British actors and in this case two really stand out above the rest. Smiley has danced with Wheatley before in Kill List and Down Terrace as well as racking up popular appearances on British TV shows like Black Mirror and Spaced. Yet, he’s never quite been as commanding or disturbing as he is as the heavy hear, cutting a terrifyingly powerful figure who could believably command four burly men through pure intimidation. Even better is Shearsmith, who is probably best known as one of the actors/writers behind the incredible dark cult comedies League Of Gentlemen and Psychoville. On those shows, Shearsmith tends to play disturbed horror archetypes for twisted laughs and here he finally gets to play one of the characters he’s parodied straight. He’s always been somewhat of a Peter Sellers in his commitment to comedy characters and it’s wonderful to finally get to see him apply his considerable acting chops to drama. Shearsmith commits fully to a twisted role, delivering possibly the movie’s most terrifying moment when he emerges from a round of torture in a creepy slow motion daze. The actor is strong enough here that he’ll hopefully get more dramatic acting gigs, because clearly he’s talented enough to pull of that career switch if he wants.
A Field Of England certainly won’t be the easiest 90 minutes you’ll spend with a movie this year. But even if you’re not sure to make of it all when the credits roll, it has an undeniable power from scene to scene that’s practically impossible to pull your eyeballs from. The performances are incredible, the ideas intriguing, the setting evocative, the visuals gorgeous, and the emotional impact pretty devastating. That’s all the makings of a good movie for me, but then I’m a weirdo so that might not translate to others. Ranked amongst Ben Wheatley’s other works, it feels more like a one-off oddball experiment than a project as carefully conceived as Kill List or Sightseers. However, after a damn impressive three-movie streak to kick off his career, Wheatley earned an arty wank to satisfy his pretensions. As far as one off self-indulgent filmmaking wanks go, you could certainly do far worse and at the rate he’s cranking out projects these days, at least it won’t be long before the next one. The film is worth a look, that’s for damn sure. It’s just hardly a crowd-pleaser.