How best to describe Ben Wheatley's new film A Field in England, which arrived in U.S. theaters on Friday?
You could say it's a trip, which would be true in nearly every sense of the word. "Something that is crazy, chaotic, or cool." "A journey that takes you to another reality." "The state of acting whack." And, perhaps most accurately, "a single complete experience of using a powerful hallucinogenic drug."
Or you could go with the Hollywood elevator-pitch approach—you know, "X movie meets Y movie." In which case you might characterize A Field in England as, say, The Evil Dead meets Monty Python meets Stalker meets Last Year at Marienbad.
But ultimately none of these formulations really capture the psychotropic strangeness and malevolent genius of Wheatley's latest work. So let's just call A Field in England my favorite movie of 2014 (so far) and leave it at that.
Or, as some guy named Martin Scorsese recently put it: "audacious and wildly brilliant—a stunning cinematic experience."
The first few months of any given year are generally considered to be a bad time for film. All the good stuff—the Oscar bait—comes out in November or December; the dregs are reserved for January and February. Or so the thinking goes. The truth is, the dead of winter is a spectacular time to go to the movies—so long as said movies weren't made in the USA. Consider the current new releases: Gloria, Maidentrip, 7 Boxes, and Vic + Flo Saw a Bear. All of them scored over 70 on Metacritic. The coming-soon roster is even stronger: Le Week-End, The Lunchbox, The Missing Picture, and Omar—the last two of which were nominated for Academy Awards. Q1 is when all the finest foreign pictures of the previous year finally show up on our shores.
And yet even among such august company, A Field in England stands out. The plot is easy to summarize because there isn't much of it. The year is 1648 A.D. The place is England, or perhaps Monmouthshire, just across the border in Wales. The bloody conflict between the Royalists and the Roundheads is raging. Eventually, Charles I will be overthrown, and the puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell will take power. But for now our focus is on four mismatched men ejected, in a puff of smoke, gunpowder, and soil, from one particular skirmish: Jacob, a Cockney lout (Peter Ferdinando); Friend, a superstitious simpleton (Richard Glover); Cutler, a wily roughneck (Ryan Pope); and Whitehead, a cowardly, bookish alchemist-astrologer who is the closest thing the movie has to a hero. They quickly agree to desert and trudge across the titular field to an alleged alehouse. "Beer has its own way of sorting things out, does it not?" one of them theorizes.
Spoiler alert: our not-so-merry band of brothers never arrives at the pub. But en route they have some, shall we say, adventures. These range from the mundane (preparing stoat-meat stew) to the medical (inspecting one another's pricks for signs of venereal disease) to the scatalogical (taking a particularly painful and constipated dump). Things get even more interesting after Cutler slips Jacob and Friend some handpicked magic mushrooms and a self-mythologizing Irish chap named O'Neil (a frightening Michael Smiley, in full pilgrim regalia) materializes in the meadow. He quickly asserts control and forces the stoned bumpkins to dig for treasure that may or may not be there.
In terms of narrative, that's about it. But what makes A Field in England such a visceral, mind-bending and ultimately indelible movie isn't the plotting—it's the bewildering, beautiful oddness that binds the action together. Wheatley doesn't diagram his intentions or hold his audiences' hand; he simply hurls us headlong into his psychedelic universe, shifting tone and technique from scene to scene, leaving us as dizzied and disoriented as his wanderers. One minute Whitehead & Co. are bantering about sex (the dialogue, written by Wheatley's wife Amy Jump, is so rich and ribald it sounds as if it was excavated from some lost seventeenth-century London stage play). The next minute they are frozen in an eerie, extended tableau vivant——a still-life that's not actually still.
When I wrote that O'Neil "materializes," I meant it. The men encounter a mysterious rope. It is tied to a mysterious stake. They yank on it for many grunting minutes. And there, at the end of it, is the demonic O'Neil—no explanation offered. Combine this sort of enigmatic sequence with silvery black-and-white shots of dewy spider webs and skittering beetles and blood-soaked blades of grass; a lilting folk song sung directly to the camera; a heavenly black splotch that dilates like pupil, swallowing the sky; a grown man screaming at the top of his lungs as some unseen, possibly sexual horror is inflicted on him in a tent; and a lysergic, strobing climax of bravura editing that makes you feel as if Cutler has somehow spiked your popcorn with 'shrooms, too, and you can imagine how A Field in England winds up seeming less like a "movie" than like a pungent nightmare you can't quite shake.
That's a compliment, by the way. Wheatley is considered one of Britain's most innovative and thrilling young directors. He's beginning to attract a following in the States as well. A Field in England should be his breakthrough. Shot in 12 days for roughly half a million dollars, the film is just the kind of rogue cinema we could use more of in America—instinctive, personal, possessed, and utterly unique. It's not inert and self-involved, like most avant-garde movies; the characters are vivid, the acting is terrific, and it's actually very funny, for all of its bleakness. There's thematic depth, too—about man becoming his own master and the sort of Hobbesian violence such liberation always threatens to unleash. But that's for repeat viewings. For now, simply let A Field in England cast its dark spell over you. Succumb. Submit. Don't ask too many questions. The winter just got a whole lot weirder—and more wonderful.