No two people who see “A Field in England” will agree upon what happens in the godforsaken clearing where helmer Ben Wheatley’s latest mind-bender takes place — a phenomenon that is both testament to Wheatley’s imagination-teasing ingenuity (the freakiest moments are those you don’t see) and byproduct of a startling lapse in basic storytelling competence. Brazenly rendered in black-and-white, and set against the creaky backdrop of the English Civil War, this defiantly unclassifiable cross-genre experiment blends elements of Sartrean soul-searching, Tigon-style folk horror and late-’60s psychedelia, an acquired-taste offering that simultaneously reinvents and regurgitates low-budget British cinema as it goes.
Though rapturously received by the London critics, who’ve rightly anointed Wheatley Brit film’s most dynamic new talent, this perplexing and ultimately tough-to-export project challenges not only existing narrative forms but also traditional means of distribution in the U.K., rolling out July 5 in theaters, on demand and via homevid and Film4’s free-TV formats, ensuring a quick flash of broad exposure on its home turf. Domestically, Drafthouse Films will have a far trickier time when it releases “Field” in the U.S. next year, since the most receptive potential viewers will have already sampled it via illegal means.
In what amounts to a battle of wills between five deserters who must also contend with supernatural forces, Wheatley extends the low-budget approach of “Kill List” and “Sightseers” (“Field” was reportedly shot for £300,000 over 12 days), while amplifying his pitch-black sense of humor and overt refusal to conform to well-laid genre conventions. Clearly, Wheatley is bored with the paint-by-numbers approach of his horror contemporaries, but has swung so far in the opposite direction here, the result feels almost amateurishly avant garde at times, guilty of the sort of indulgences one barely tolerates in student films.
The film opens with a warning of “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences” to come, and it achieves its stylistic apotheosis during the trippy interlude. After the characters have gorged themselves on wild mushrooms, Wheatley and writer/co-editor Amy Jump (also his wife) hypnotize the audience by cutting back and forth between shots of the various characters, folding and mirroring the images into disconcerting hallucinations (reminiscent of the symmetric tintype mutants Mark Mothersbaugh explores in his art).
Such tricks provide novelty value, but a gaping vacuum still looms where conventional narrative might go — not unlike the ominous dark star that appears above the field at one point. Although Wheatley and Jump have gotten away with eliminating exposition and traditional character detail in the past, it’s frustratingly difficult to follow what this motley group is searching for, much less to distinguish between the various personalities (unless one recognizes the actors from their previous cult film and TV credits).
Some of the characters have been lifted directly from other low-budget British movies. As the sadistic Irish necromancer O’Neill, Michael Smiley openly channels Vincent Price’s wicked turn in “Witchfinder General,” for example. Others appear redundantly clownish, buffoonishly preoccupied with getting drunk and/or scratching their private parts, but could be less confusing to Blighty auds familiar with the class caricatures they represent. The fellow who leaves the strongest impression is Whitehead (“The League of Gentlemen’s” Reece Shearsmith), an alchemist’s assistant whose loyalty to his offscreen master backfires in ways his piercing one-minute-long scream only begins to suggest — and the film pointedly refuses to reveal.
Stylistically, this unique undertaking is a mixed bag, alternately casual and contrived, graphically brutal and maddeningly obtuse. Occasionally, the action freezes in striking tableaux vivants, as the cast hold poses suggested by classical paintings; elsewhere, they come off as bumbling Civil War reenactors, blending Ye Olde vernacular with salty modern expressions. Peculiar as it all is to process, the experience feels quite unlike anything else, as if Wheatley is reaching for new devices with which to frighten his decidedly jaded audience.
The commitment to monochrome brings out a beauty largely absent in previous collaborations with d.p. Laurie Rose, though his handheld style and axis-breaking setups often disorient — and not necessarily in ways that help the psychic imbalance the pic means to achieve. The black-and-white lensing also serves to advance another low-budget British cinema tradition, evoking scrappy period pics by Peter Watkins (“Culloden”) and Kevin Brownlow (“Winstanley”), rendered fiendishly diabolical in Wheatley’s hands.
Though the team easily might have broadened the pic’s appeal by transposing their peculiar tale to a post-apocalyptic context (changing only the costumes in the process), the historical setting nicely emphasizes its undercurrents of sorcery and the dark arts. This occult dynamic is alluded to at points, but mostly left to the imagination. At times, it seems that literally anything could happen, and those who take most keenly to the film will be those who fill its gaps with vivid horrors of their own invention.