AWOL, by Matt Warren
I’m pretty much in the tank for any movie that begins with a warning that the visuals in the film may make me vomit and/or obliterate my higher neurological functions. Such disclaimers were placed in front of both Enter the Void and Simon Killer—two of my favorite movies of the past decade—and now there’s one in front of A Field in England, director Ben Wheatley’s weird new Brecht-by-way-of-Shakespeare Renn Faire nightmare. GET IN MY BRAIN NOW!!! I screamed, frothy-mouthed, at the online screener, I NEEEEEEEEED YOU IN MEEEEEEE!!!
Warnings like this are a good indication that the filmmaker is at least attempting something unique onscreen, the viewer’s comfort level be damned. And where there’s aesthetic experimentation, narrative experimentation is sure to follow. The fuck if I know whether or not Field is a good, great, or terrible movie. All I know is that for what I was looking to it, A Field in England delivered. It’s a drug movie, an intimate epic, a thoughtful work of avant-garde theater, a historical bromance, and yet another showcase for Wheatley’s staggering talent and ambition.
Field follows four disparate army deserters fleeing one of the many bloody battlefields of the 17th-century English Civil War. Each equally dirty and dirt-smeared, the players are: obsequious coward Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), simpleminded farmer Friend (Richard Glover), duplicitous button-maker Cutler (Ryan Pope), and salty, Han Solo-eque rouge Trower (Julian Barrett). Together, this unlikely band of misfits set off across the film’s titular mushroom field, eventually running afoul of villainous Irish spiritualist O’Neill (the always-welcome Michael Smiley). O’Neill quickly imposes his will on the group and enslaves the others to help search for a treasure he’s sure is buried somewhere in the field.
Complicating matters is the consumption of massive amounts of psychedelic mushrooms, which fractures reality and culminates in a lengthy, abrasively-edited third act freakout best described as an epileptic Luis Buñuel crawling through a trepanation hole into Kenneth Anger’s syphilis-ravaged skull and watching every episode of Tim And Eric Awesome Show while jacking off and crying. What I’m trying to say is: it’s weird. It’s a sequence quite possibly designed to literally kill people—and I have no doubt it will succeed in its lethal mission.
Shot in just twelve days from a script by Amy Jump (Wheatley’s wife), Field has the shaggy, tossed-off quality of such low-fi Soderberghian “one-for-me” laboratory concoctions as Schizopolis and Full Frontal, crossed with a healthy dose of the somnambulant fever dream of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. Sure, it maybe feels more like a crazy detour in Wheatley’s fast-rising career than a major outing—like something he and the Mrs. cooked up just to amuse themselves—but Field is far from self-indulgent. From its sparse cast to its stark black-and-white cinematography, the film is a cohesive minimalist satire of Britain’s unique tradition of performative courtliness—a darkly-comic juxtaposition of English-Lit verbosity with a grim vision of Old World savagery and supernaturalism.
A Field in England may not be for everyone—and may not even be for fans of Wheatley other films. But if you’re interested in spending time in the foggiest corners of this quirky Brit’s dark imagination, then by all means: down some Dramamine and head out to where the mushrooms grow. Floppy hats welcome.