A grim and hilarious hallucination in monochrome, Ben Wheatley’s small-budget historical freak-out A Field in England ticks madly between unities-honoring classical drama, language-drunk existentialism, cock-brandishing Elizabethan ribaldry, and the muskets-and-sorcery madness of some as yet unconceived Vertigo comics series, one where the old ball-and-powder somehow has anachronistic power to blow right through a man’s head.
The film, Wheatley’s fourth, feels both reckless yet fully controlled, a jest that’s dead serious in the manner of Yorick’s skull, which gets a sort of cameo in the final act. Wheatley’s characters — deserters from a skirmish in England’s 17th-century civil war — wander about in the field of the title, a grand sloping meadow of the sort that British poets, rock stars, and teenagers have long considered the ideal place to get high in. It proves itself a fully singular and tough-to-shake experience even before its characters honor that national tradition by stuffing psychotropic mushrooms into their whiskery gobs. The next reel is best described by an exclamation uttered by one of Wheatley’s bearded, bespattered louts: “Shits and thistles!” Wheatley (who edited with Amy Jump, also the screenwriter) splits images in half and then flipbooks between them so that newer, stranger images emerge as other, vaguely threatening ones seem to swell up between them. It’s sweaty, disorienting, thrilling. Rarely has a narrative feature so marvelously integrated a sequence of experimental filmmaking, and that sequence alone guarantees A Field in England should thrive on the midnight circuit.
It’s got more going for it than such psilocybic spirit, of course. The story’s an unsettling series of fake-outs and take-backs, with the four deserters first agreeing to hunt down some ale (“Beer ‘as its own way of sorting things out, does it not?” one exclaims) and then applying themselves to mysterious tasks that make sense at the time. Everybody yanks together, with all their mettle, on a rope that runs out into the mist, its far end out of sight. The men find themselves hunting an enemy of Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), assistant to an alchemist-astrologer and the representative of something new and confounding to his compatriots: an educated middle class. Neither gentlemen nor yob, soft-handed Whitehead finds himself wholly out of place with soldiers and tough-guy drunks, never more so than when he corners his quarry, the cruel and wily O’Neil (Michael Smiley), who purports to be a conjurer. Whether there’s magic involved in any of this the filmmakers leave up to you, but credit O’Neil (and the persuasive, discomfiting Smiley) with this: the power to turn these men to still stranger purposes.
“I think I ‘ave worked out what God is punishing us for,” one man moans as he toils for yet another new master. “Everything.” Only Whitehead, who has lucked into a bit of book-learning, seems to believe his life shouldn’t be shaped by whatever bully happens to have more power than he does. “The only knowledge I have is that God controls my fate as he sees fit, and I try to draw consolation from that,” one man tells Whitehead, and the others, even one who fights against O’Neil’s tyranny, seem to agree. The dialogue is rich and sticky as English dessert, its archaic poetry one of the film’s chief pleasures. Just moments in, an officer shouts, “Your pretty parts are doomed, homunculus!”
Equally strong is the look of that field, shot in a sumptuous, silver-toned black-and-white. Fogs blow in, winds rub the tall grass, blood drips from a weed, and a black planet — perhaps an eclipse — sometimes seem to be just about to press down upon us all. There are magnificent reveries: a caterpillar inching along a branch, the mists melting into the sun, the cast occasionally arranged into still-life tableaux, standing motionless like they’re working with a painter rather than terrifically gifted filmmakers. (Kudos to director of photography Laurie Rose.)
Meanwhile, the men wield shovels and muskets and their own comic pricks toward each other, none of which is as effective as Jump’s plummy, gutter-foul language. Only the last few minutes, with their familiar violent standoffs, seem built of the stuff of other movies, but each image carries a peculiar, out-of-time resonance: These men, at the dawn of the modern mind, have the wits to abandon a meaningless war, but they still can think of nothing better to do than to shoot each other. That the filmmakers can’t think of anything better, either, might be an exposé of a culture in decline rather than a manifestation of it.