However many movies you manage to see this year, you aren’t likely to see anything like A Field in England, the latest from Kill List and Sightseers director Ben Wheatley. An incredibly bizarre tale told in black-and-white and set during the British Civil War, it is extremely difficult to categorize, much like the director’s other films. It is also his least accessible work, and seeing it once might not be enough to accurately gauge one’s feelings about it.
We begin with a small group of soldiers fleeing the battlefront, which is heard but not really seen. Refusing to admit that they are deserters and cowards, they claim that they are merely “going for a beer.”
The group proceeds to travel on foot through empty fields on its way to a pub. Along the way, little pieces of information about them are revealed. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith, Shaun of the Dead), who is terrified of battle, is an assistant to an alchemist and frequently mentions his “master.” His master has tasked him with finding another man who has stolen documents.
That man is O’Neil (Michael Smiley, Kill List and Luther). He appears out of nowhere in the middle of a field, and Whitehead suggests that he was able to conceal himself with magic. O’Neil is in possession of occult tools in addition to what he stole from the alchemist. He is not a nice man and immediately makes the group his prisoners, placing a rope around Whitehead and ordering him to find a “great treasure” that is buried somewhere in the field.
There is a lot of strange and unsettling imagery, before, during, and after the hunt for the treasure. Wheatley plays with camera speed, slowing things down in some scenes while speeding them up in others. It’s rather disorienting. There are also scenes where the characters seem to freeze in place, and the camera just lingers on them for a moment or two. It all makes for an unnerving, mystifying mood. What exactly is the treasure? What is up with this field?
The viewer waits for answers, not exactly sure what to expect. Something supernatural? Something involving magic or witchcraft? Though it can be a little slow at times, the combination of the troubling, mysterious imagery with Wheatley’s proclivity for dark humor and startling violence keeps one on their toes. Tell my wife that “I loved her sister” a dying man pleads; “it doesn’t surprise me that the devil is an Irishman” another says after the group crosses paths with O’Neil.
What’s interesting about Wheatley is that he has become much admired in the horror community without really making a traditional horror movie. That admiration shouldn’t diminish after A Field in England, though it does seem like his most experimental film yet. Its peculiarities can be a little frustrating, and the conclusion doesn’t exactly provide a clear explanation, but there is no question that Wheatley is a supremely talented filmmaker with no apparent interest in doing things the easy way.