Friday, February 7, 2014

A Field in England

A Field in England
Dir. Ben Wheatley

4 out of 5

In the midst of the English Civil War, Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a cowardly alchemist's assistant, tumbles through a hedgerow to escape a bloody skirmish.  There he meets three other deserters - the briney Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), the dimwitted Friend (Richard Glover), and the stern Cutler (Ryan Pope).  Jacob and Friend insist upon locating an alehouse, claiming to have heard of one just a few miles away.  All they have to do is cross one tranquil, harmless-looking field.
A Field in England is the fourth film from British director Ben Wheatley (Kill List), who's garnered a reputation for jumbling dirge-like avant-garde filmmaking with profoundly visceral action and emotion.  Through its elliptical editing and shambling, druggy pace, Field initially scans as more of the same - the best bad trip of the 17th century, if you will.  But it's really more than that: A Field in England is nothing less than a psychotronic journey of self-discovery involving hallucinogenic mushrooms, buried treasure, venereal disease, and other sundry pleasures of a day out in the country.
Before a brief meal where the group consumes the mind-altering mushrooms - save for Whitehead, who is fasting for religious reasons - the alchemist's assistant explains that he and his master have been searching for an Irish troublemaker named O'Neill.  In war, many scores are settled which have little to do with the conflict at hand, and this elusive man was the alchemist's intellectual rival, and stole valuable artifacts related to the academic study of astrology: "prediction, prophecy, divination" as Whitehead explains to his uneducated colleagues.  The men are still sussing each other out when they arrive at a rope wrapped around a post.  With much difficulty they unravel the rope.  At the end of the rope, somehow, is O'Neill.
That's neither the first nor last thing in this Field that comes from completely out of the blue, but it all grows organically from the film's carefully cultivated sense of mysticism.  Wheatley does a tremendous job of establishing this field as a place that does not conform to the normal laws of nature, leaving it to the audience to speculate the cause.  Is it the drugs?  Is it the intense superstition that even learned men like Whitehead accept as common knowledge?  Is it real, genuine magic?  All we know is that there's something about O'Neill's sudden appearance that compels the three soldiers to buy his promises of a hidden cache of gold buried in the field - especially when O'Neill conjures a spell that turns the defiant Whitehead into a sort of human divining rod.
Though portentous at times - this is a black-and-white historical fiction drug movie, after all - A Field in England is an alluring tale of dark magic and darker intentions, bolstered by Wheatley's impressive technical chops (the way he uses sound design to create a lingering sense of dread is positively Lynchian).  Its "head" sequences are balanced by measured doses of humor and action, in addition to something that's a rarity in psychedelic cinema - an honest-to-god character arc.  Whitehead's book learning and genteel manners are of little import in this unfathomable scenario.  He may be an impressively self-educated man, but he was essentially just a slave to one of his social betters before the field.  Now, he finds himself at the odds with another master magician whose only weakness lies within the field itself, in the same primordial source of energy that gives O'Neill his power.  Similarly, A Field in England is a gutsy movie guided by little more than a surreal sense of logic, far from coherent but undoubtedly bold and singular in its wild, trippy vision

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