Bounding across all forms of genre lines in a surreal vision of dreamlike logic and subjective density, "A Field in England" is almost guaranteed to leave everyonemainstream audiences and gung-ho supporters of adventurous cinema alikescratching their heads. Directed by Ben Wheatley (the "U is for Unearthed" segment in 2013's "The ABCs of Death
") and written by his wife, Amy Jump (who previously collaborated with Wheatley on 2013's "Sightseers"), the film requires concentration and patience, and not just because the British accents are thick and the five central male characters share many of the same physical traits (thank goodness for the different hats they wear). Those who like to always shut their brains off, so to speak, when they see a movie need not apply. Those who enjoy dissecting challenging works, however, will find enough here to warrant multiple viewings. Having seen the picture twice in two days, I cannot attest to being able to explain everything going on within this 90-minute mindbender, yet I remain intrigued by the loaded material Wheatley has orchestrated for viewers to discover. He isn't entirely successful at presenting a satisfying point-A-to-point-B narrative, but it is safe to assume that was not his primary goal, anyway.
As a violent skirmish wages on during the 17th-century English Civil War, alchemist's assistant Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) deserts his comrades, escaping through a hedgerow to supposed safety. Meeting up with three other menFriend (Richard Glover), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Cutler (Ryan Pope)they quickly form an alliance and set out through the vast field before them. Their intention is to seek refuge at a nearby inn and alehouse, but their plans take a doomed turn when, in succession, they come upon a circle of mushrooms and are faced with the appearance of Whitehead's intimidating colleague, O'Neil (Michael Smiley). Whitehead is determined to detain this necromancer for the theft of his superior's documents, but O'Neil promptly turns the tables on the group. Demanding that they find a buried treasure hidden somewhere in the field, he becomes partial cause, witness and participant in the men's splintering psyches, their hallucinations threatening to destroy them all.
Is "A Field in England" a psychedelic drug trip? A horror fable of madness, murder and folk singing? A cautionary tale of religious oppression and ignorance through the visage of the so-called Age of Reason? It is all this and anything else one chooses to take away from director Ben Wheatley's accomplished, if uneven, $500,000 experiment in unconventional storytelling. Because the filmmaker has no interest in logic, ensuring that anything can happen at any time, the narrative is exceedingly unpredictablebut also somehow less urgent for it. Characters shift from level-headed to crazed and back again with no discernible continuity, while the title field, hauntingly lensed in starkly detailed black-and-white by cinematographer Laurie Rose, doesn't seem quite big enough to believe that one couldn't flee from it if they wanted to. Then again, who is to say what can and cannot be done in a nightmare that inextricably shackles the five men together as they begin to literally fold in on one another?
From a mystical black scrying mirror which O'Neil possesses, to a tent of unseen torture and sadomasochistic dominance, to evocative human tableau frozen in time like live-action artwork, "A Field in England" grows curioser and curioser by the minute. Frustrating in parts but uncontrollably hypnotic, the film, bizarre as it can be, works better as a study in offbeat, new-wave form than as an experience that frightens or emotionally engages. Instead, Wheatley provokes, using his tight budget, singular location and visual savvy to expand and explore beyond his limited resources. Even if he doesn't succeed without exception, even if his focus sometimes gets lost in pretension, there is no denying his uninhibited ambition and daring.