Ben Wheatley is a bit of an enigma to me. It doesn’t really make sense to try to decode his films through A Field In England, which is probably the most opaque of them, but it is—in my opinion—his most striking film. High Rise was cool, if mostly thanks to good casting, Free Fire had its European premiere about a fortnight ago but has had largely ambivalent reviews, and I never really got the appeal of Sightseers myself (it was billed as a “black comedy” but I didn’t really think it was hugely funny…)
All of these are made up for by the inspired A Field In England. Coincidentally the second film in black and white on this blog in a month, it watches like a Rorschach Test, as four men—deserters from an unnamed battle in the English Civil War—search for buried treasure in the eponymous innocuous, sunny field, consuming magic mushrooms and tripping out in the process. The real pull factor of this film is the way it hints at something, a part of English culture, that has been left dormant for quite a while and largely sidelined by modernization and capitalism. It’s something that could be described most simply as “the weird”.
I first saw A Field In England a couple of years ago, but was reminded of it by Mackenzie Crook’s amazing Detectorists, which—perhaps initially unexpectedly—shares a lot of themes with the film, and despite a stylistic gulf between them, also shares a respect for the magic and material history of the English landscape. There are stone circles and burial mounds out there that have remained undisturbed for centuries or millennia; in a way, mankind’s battle to conquer them are the subject of A Field In England.
The film taps into a part of English folk tradition not hugely acknowledged in the mainstream. The idea of normal people dabbling in sacrifice and divining and so on has become associated with Romani. Taking mushrooms and tripping has become associated with hippies rather than druids or seers. And yet that weird vein of the uncanny and the occult is still strong in the UK, if unfashionable; in essence, it is nowadays the preserve of beardy men who look like Alan Moore and live in provincial towns like Northampton or St Albans (as well as Alan Moore himself, of course), or single women who practice Wicca.
Anyway, in looking for the treasure, they come into conflict with one another, too, with three of the four dying in the field as a result of seeds planted by the alchemist O’Neill (played to unnerving effect by Michael Smiley). O’Neill, not coincidentally an Irishman, is strongly hinted to be the Devil in the film. It’s a violent film, featuring scenes of gore and torture, but the true horror of it comes from the depravity wrought by the inscrutable Irishman; the corners of the human mind opened and allowed to run free, literally and metaphorically, through the tall grass of the field. The 17th-century language the characters use lends the film’s occult hints a further credence.
I haven’t ever seen a film like it. Of course, I haven’t (to my shame) seen Witchfinder General either, but with regards to black-and-white modern films with a cast of five, shot on location and following a 17th-century drug-fuelled search for buried treasure, the point stands. There aren’t many films like this; it’s worth watching.
Edit: It seems I beat the AV Club to mentioning this—the modern trends in witchery and occultism—by a few hours. They’ve published an interesting article which goes down a tangential path to mine: read it here.