There are few filmmakers working right now who seem as set on the expansion of the very definition of “genre” as Ben Wheatley. Film after film, he throws curve balls at the audience, trusting them to be adventurous enough to follow him as he explores some truly dark and oddball corners of human experience.
Anyone who saw his breakthrough film “Down Terrace” would probably be excused for thinking he was just another English filmmaker in love with working class criminals, a sort of collision of Mike Leigh and Shane Meadows. With “Kill List,” though, he made it clear that whatever you expected him to be, that’s probably not what he was interested in being. “Sightseers” is the sort of dark comedy gem that can be fiendishly difficult to pull off, but he made it look effortless. They’re all films that feel like they are drawn from a very British tradition of storytelling, but Wheatley has his own voice, and he’s bending and breaking expectation with a fiendish sort of glee at this point.
He has his key collaborators, of course. Amy Jump is his co-writer and co-editor on “Kill List,” “Sightseers,” and “A Field In England,” and she’s the writer on “High-Rise,” the J.G. Ballard adaptation that Wheatley is set to direct with Tom Hiddleston starring. She and Wheatley also collaborated on a script called “Freak Shift” that reads like their version of a big-budget Hollywood movie, which is to say weird and crazy and personal and way more interesting than the things they actually spend money to make. Laurie Rose has been his cinematographer on everything so far, and is just as sharp in terms of knowing what genre conventions they’re playing to or against in each film. Jim Williams is his composer in film after film, and Robin Hill not only co-edited Wheatley’s first three films, he also starred in two of them.
With “A Field In England,” Wheatley has created perhaps his most difficult commercial proposition, a black-and-white period piece set in 17th-Century England that deals with alchemy, psychotropic hallucinations, fear of cowardice, and the elusive promise of treasure. Reece Shearsmith is brilliant, something I would say of all of his collaborators on “The League Of Gentlemen” as well. I think that is a genuinely inspired piece of work, both as writing and performance, and Shearsmith is a chameleon, a bit of a blank slate of a man. He stars here as Whitehead, an alchemist’s apprentice who opens the movie cowering at the base of a bramble patch, hiding from the furious Trower (Julian Barratt). Whatever promises Whitehead made, he has more than failed to deliver on them, and Trower’s finished with him. Circumstance spares Whitehead, and he falls in with Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), Friend (Richard Glover), and Cutler (Ryan Pope), three disparate soldiers also struggling along on the fringe of the English Civil War.
There’s another guy, O’Neil, played by Michael Smiley, but even trying to describe who he is, how he’s introduced, or what role he plays to these men would take paragraphs, and that’s not the point. Following an experience these men have with hallucinogenic mushrooms they eat to survive one night, everything we see is suspect. There is magic in this movie, but we are in a savage age, and magic and madness sound like they are flip sides of the same coin. I am haunted by some of the images in this film. I’ve seen it three times, and it’s one of those experiences that isn’t a typical narrative, and it’s not remotely interested in that. Wheatley can do straightforward storytelling if he wants to, but this is more about making you feel like these men, disorienting you, creating a deranged reality that you have to buy into, the same way they do. There’s a moment where Shearsmith emerges from what sounds like hours of torture, and it is one long silent gorgeous moment in which my skin basically crawled continuously for a good three minutes.
There’s a big studio movie coming out this year that I’ve seen that establishes a theology that is both witless and offensive, in search of this weird phony schmaltzy something that we’ll get into once the embargo is up, and it struck me how poorly conceived that film’s entire world is. It bothers me because it asks you to swallow a lot, but it’s both incredibly literal-minded and also weirdly half-baked. What Wheatley does so beautifully here is he creates a landscape that could be internal, that could be literal, and he creates characters that could be specific or that could be pure symbol. He draws from a long tradition of English films that cover somewhat tangential ground, but in his own way. I remember being obsessed for a time with a Michael Reeves film called “The Conqueror Worm,” and I’m willing to bet Wheatley went through a phase of his own about it. He has made a movie here that articulates and exemplifies the struggle between the spirit and the flesh and their very different needs and desires, but he doesn’t hold your hand and over-explain in the process. He wallows in the stink of the earth, but he understands the ineffable pull of the promise of what lies beyond. He knows the power that the unknown holds, and he has his characters fall into this yawning mystery even as he rubs their faces in a very tangible filth.
The film is funny, freaky, and even frustrating at times. But it is alive and exciting from moment to moment because of this sense of dizzying momentum. That’s what happens when you have actors this good and filmmakers this talented and you’re shooting in 12 days, like someone’s chasing you. This could very well have been a failed experiment, a frantic style exercise, but instead, it feels like an important illustration of just how limber and daring a filmmaker Ben Wheatley can be, like Ken Russell with a sense of self-awareness. This is about as tough a commercial challenge as Drafthouse Films has taken on so far, but it’s a special film, and it’s easy to see why they’d feel compelled to try to help it find its audience.
It’s opening theatrically today in select cities. It’s also available via iTunes and other major VOD and digital plaforms today. It’s not rated, but it is full of strong, profane imagery, so be aware.