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LONDON — A strikingly original historical thriller spiced with occult mysticism and mind-warping hallucinations, British director Ben Wheatley’s fourth feature has all the midnight-movie intensity of a future cult classic. Specializing in low-budget hybrids of dark comedy and bone-chilling horror, Wheatley so far seems to be following a career path akin to Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi. A potential mainstream crossover lies ahead in his next project, Freakshift, an effects-driven monster movie shooting in the U.S. Meanwhile, A Field in England is his most boldly experimental work yet, a black-and-white psychedelic bloodbath set during the English Civil War of the mid-17th century. It was shot in just 12 days on a super-lean budget of £300,000, comfortably below half a million U.S. dollars.
A Field in England is also an experiment in film distribution, in Britain at least. The day after its public premiere at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this week, it will be released simultaneously on U.K. cinema screens, DVD, VOD formats and the free-to-air channel Film4. Wheatley and his team liken this unusual multiplatform launch to the free music-download model pioneered by rock bands like Radiohead, which ultimately proved a lucrative marketing exercise. Of course, like Radiohead, it helps that the director already has a solid cult following, and that his new film is so strong. Drafthouse has already secured U.S. theatrical rights for this crazed trip into the twilight zone.
The action takes place entirely in one location, a remote corner of English countryside shortly after a nearby battle. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is a cowardly amateur alchemist on the run from his stern master. An apparently chance meeting with the wily Cutler (Ryan Pope) and two other simple-minded travelers, Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover), turns out to be a trap. Using hallucinogenic mushrooms and deadly threats, Cutler coerces his three captives into helping a Machiavellian Irishman named O’Neill (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) locate a sinister treasure buried deep beneath the field.
O’Neill and Whitehead have a shared history and mutual interest in the occult, which leads to one of the film’s most jarringly creepy sequences: an off-screen torture session with psycho-sexual overtones and a disturbing slow-motion payoff. As the story progresses, the initial tone of comic realism is disrupted by surreal visions, frozen still-life tableaux, spooky resurrections and even a straight-to-camera folk song that becomes a recurring musical motif.
Scripted by Amy Jump, Wheatley’s wife and regular collaborator, one of the film’s pleasures is its rich dialogue — a ripe blend of Shakespearean finery, salty swearing and lowbrow toilet humor. Jump sets up some interesting tensions between Christian faith and Pagan witchcraft, science and sorcery, soldiers and scholars, vaguely hinting that these ill-matched protagonists may even be dead souls trapped in an infernal purgatory. All these threads remain unresolved, but we are clearly not in Harry Potter’s world of benign toy-shop magic anymore.
A Field in England looks terrific, its ravishing monochrome vistas punctuated by extreme close-ups of plants, animals, insects and tormented human faces. Sound designer Martin Pavey and composer Jim Williams also deserve special mention for underpinning these ostensibly calm pastoral scenes with a constant undertow of clanging, churning menace. The period costumes and setting may also be sly homages to Michael Reeves’ cultish 1968 Brit-horror film Witchfinder General, which starred Vincent Price.
Infuriatingly opaque at times, Wheatley’s fourth feature may prove too forbiddingly weird for some. It lacks the genre-friendly accessibility of his previous work, particularly last year’s comically macabre road-trip comedy Sightseers, as well as the nerve-jangling crescendo of tension that made his 2011 hit-man thriller Kill List so powerful. The tone here is more episodic and elliptical, alternating between Monty Python and David Lynch, sometimes at the expense of narrative coherence.
But for all these minor flaws, A Field in England is a rich, strange, hauntingly intense work from a highly original writer-director team. Even if it leaves you with more questions than answers, this microbudget experiment still succeeds as a purely sensory experience. The climactic explosion of super-fast jump cuts and disorienting mirrored images is particularly powerful, a bravura exercise in Lynchian high-art horror that almost swallows the rest of the movie whole.
Venue: London press screening, June 27
Production companies: Rook Films, Film4
Producers: Claire Jones, Andy Starke
Starring: Michael Smiley, Reece Shearsmith, Ryan Pope, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump
Cinematographer: Laurie Rose
Editors: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Sound design: Martin Pavey
Music: Jim Williams
Sales agent: Protagonist Pictures
Rated 15 (U.K.), 91 minutes
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