Wheatley has shown himself to be adaptable as a director, but at the same time there’s a level of carelessness to the proceedings that ruins things.
A Field in England (TIFF Review)
Over the last five years, Ben Wheatley has shown himself to be someone hard to pin down. His brilliant 2009 debut Down Terrace was a hilarious small-scale crime drama that got comparisons to Mike Leigh and Guy Ritchie. His two follow-ups, Kill List and Sightseers, are a genre-bending horror film and pitch black comedy respectively. Wheatley’s fourth film once again shows his versatility as a filmmaker, this time filming a period piece that slowly transforms into pure psychedelic insanity.
Unfortunately, every film since Down Terrace Wheatley has been displaying diminishing returns, and A Field in England continues his slow downward descent in quality. Taking place in the 1600s during the English Civil War, the film opens with an alchemist’s assistant (Reece Shearsmith) meeting a looter and two deserters. They decide to go off together through a field on their way to a pub, but end up meeting a different alchemist (Michael Smiley, who’s always great in Wheatley’s films) who plans to use them in his hunt for a buried treasure hidden in the field. The alchemist, using a lot of hallucinogenic mushrooms, convinces the group to dig for him, but soon enough things go bad in the worst ways possible.
There really isn’t much of a point to A Field in England’s story. Most of the story’s movements, from the group’s banding together to the alchemist’s heavy influence over them, feel inexplicable. That inexplicable feeling permeates throughout most of the film, as the psychedelic aspect lets Wheatley throw in experimental segues. The use of tableaux and some intense editing (the film opens with a warning about stroboscopic images, which viewers should take heed of) keep things interesting, but their execution feels amateur.
It’s a bit surprising how much the small budget (under half a million) shows, considering how good Wheatley has been at working with small production costs up to this point. The location gives off the feeling that it was shot in someone’s backyard, and the glossy look of the cinematography (shot digitally, of course) doesn’t work with the film’s time period. Granted, the film does look very nice, but there’s a sheen to the images that comes into conflict with the griminess on display.
As the last act brings things to a berserk, seizure-inducing finish, there are a few fun moments to be had. The major drug tripping sequence, where someone eats a pile of mushrooms and goes seemingly insane, is filled with so many split-second cuts and mirrored images that it’s hard not to be transfixed. The scene is a reminder of Wheatley’s talents, but it also shows how wasted those skills feel here. With each successive film, Wheatley has shown himself to be adaptable as a director, but at the same time there’s a level of carelessness to the proceedings that ruins things. A Field in England feels like it was tossed off as a quick project rather than something carefully made. And if the filmmakers don’t seem to really care about what they’re doing, why should we?