Dir. Ben Wheatley
Viewed: From the Couch
What a film to launch us back into some RFC activity. I must admit that I was hoping you’d start this one off as I’ve been struggling to come to terms with this oddity. Not only is it a strange film in its own right, it’s also a bit of an anomaly in the impressive one-film-a-year catalog Ben Wheatley has been putting together since 2009’s Down Terrace (still my favorite of his, by the way). That’s not to say there aren’t many things that impressed me about A Field In England, it may be more of a case of the burden of expectations as to why I had trouble fully connecting with it.
Immediately it struck me as perhaps the funniest of Wheatley’s films. At the start we’re introduced to a small group of deserters circa the 17th Century English Civil War. Much time is spent simply following them as they walk away from the battlefield, with the promise of reaching a pub, and as such the dialog doesn’t let us down. It’s funny stuff and establishes the characters nicely. At the center of the group is Whitehead, an alchemist of sorts - certainly not a soldier, enlisted to help find a colleague of his who has also defected from battle. He’s what you’d consider a proper Englishman and there’s a lot of fun watching him try to communicate with his fellow deserters Jacob and Friend who more resemble your Laurel and Hardy variety of soldier.
Leading them down this path is the more mysterious Cutler. It doesn’t take long before the other three realize that they are not headed to a pub but rather a rope. Yes, a long, heavy rope tied to a carved post in the ground. After some forced-at-gunpoint labor it is revealed that on the other end of the rope is O’Neil, the man Whitehead was charged with finding. Did they pull him out of the ground? It would seem so. As Friend (who has most of the best lines in the film) puts it, “It does not surprise me that the devil is an Irishman, though I thought perhaps a little taller.” And things just get more bizarre from here as O’Neil forces the group to help him find some sort of treasure that is buried in this field they’ve been wandering about in. But seeing as most of these guys can’t help but consume the psilocybin mushrooms that seem to be growing everywhere in this field, what’s really going on is hard to say.
There’s a definite circular logic to this film. Wheatley, working with his ongoing (since Kill List) screenwriting collaborator Amy Jump, was inspired to make the film after shooting a short documentary on a reenactment group. As A Field in England is shot in digital black and white, there’s an odd feeling of seeing something modern trying to look less so - much like a reenactment itself. And when we discover what the “treasure” is, and what happens when you shoot it, it - along with the last scene of the film - reinforces the idea that we’re watching men of war caught in some sort of a loop. They were here in this field and they will always be here. Perhaps they can never die as history doesn’t really allow them to.
Is that a fair assessment, Paddy? There’s a fair amount I didn’t touch on and I suppose we should just tack on a spoiler warning here as this is a difficult one to talk about without getting into the ending. What were your impressions?
It’s perhaps good that you didn’t “connect’ with this film, because I’m not sure I would want to meet the person who immediately responded to this film with: “oh yeah, that story’s pretty much a metaphor for my understanding of the human condition.” This film is indeed very funny, but most of that humor comes from a place of absolute despair and horror. On humor, I was going to mention the “Irish devil” line too, but other classics include “I think I’ve worked out what God is punishing us for: everything,” Friend’s dying words to his wife, or the litany of venereal diseases that Whitehead diagnoses while examining Cutler. Amy Jump’s writing in general is just extraordinarily funny, and I could have followed these characters to the actual pub, heard them discuss their lives, tell a few jokes, and enjoyed a fine film. I have no idea how she was able to create these five distinct voices and characters, all generally speaking (I assume) 17th century dialects and accents, but I think it is the most impressive part of a very impressive (in the true sense of the word - this films leaves marks) film. The writing and character’s voices are so strong that I had assumed (wrongly) that the material began as a novel. It’s just that good.
But of course, the trope of a newly-formed band of friends, setting out on an adventure, telling jokes, is the set up to what can only be described as a stirring, disturbing, and flat-out mesmerizing series of scenes in the film’s final 45 minutes or so. Once O’Neil shows up, shit gets crazy, and Wheatley lets out such an insane series of art-school (I mean this in a good way) visual and audio tricks that I felt I could be watching the film in a gallery or installation in a museum (again, a good thing in my book). What sets this change in tone is a horrifying sequence when O’Neil takes Whitehead into his tent and, over the course a few minutes where we (and the the other travellers) here only screams, screams so loud and scary that I had to close my windows and turn down the volume in fear of my neighbors calling the police, before Whitehead emerges from the tent, tied up like a dog and presumably under the complete mastery of O’Neil. The sexual dimension of the sequence is pretty obvious (the sounds from the tent sound just a little bit like what sets Bruce Willis’s eyes wide in Pulp Fiction), but O’Neil seems most interested in making Whitehead into a divining tool to find treasure. There’s quite a bit about the relative divining and astrological abilities of Whitehead and O’Neil, and it seems that each needs the other to complete their fated task.
Whatever the reason, the relationship of O’Neil and Whitehead make for some of the most remarkable scenes in the film, like the strobe-like alternation of the two men, the showdown in the tall grass, or (in what I think are the best scenes in the film) the near-still shots of the group divining their next location. There is really no overstating how good Wheatley is at both composition and sequencing his shots. The final showdown, taking place in an open field, could be a minefield of confusion, with little other than grass and trees to guide the characters’ spacial relationships to each other, but it comes off quite clearly. This kind of skill in editing and shooting action and movement is what sets him apart from someone like, say, Shane Carruth, who could fill up Soho with beautiful still images and sounds, but whose films (at least to me) seem utterly inert.
So, we have an extraordinarily original script combined with an almost limitlessly talented director, but I haven’t really answered the question about meaning. I should be able to find something in the film’s setting - the English Civil War - to support your ideas about a continual loop of suffering for the protagonists. Oliver Cromwell (the winner of the Civil War and really the first European dictator since antiquity) was as tyrannical a figure as Europe had ever seen, and it’s hard not to read the “Irish devil” as a commentary on a reckoning borne out of Cromwell’s submission of Ireland to England (with the film reversing the role of the Irish and English), the crucible out of which much Irish-English antogonism was forged. In other words, if you want to really feel like what it was like to live in Cromwell-occupied Ireland, you could do worse than watching this film. But that’s really just a guess.
Unlike Kill List, which I think did have a very clear meaning, largely about the destruction of the souls of mercenaries and the eventual reckoning one must have with acts of evil in one’s past, A Field in England does not provide much of a psychological entry-point into the minds of its characters, which makes identification difficult. We get a little on Whitehead and O’Neil’s history, but the five men are mostly expressions of ideas - of scholarly detachment, or pure ambition, or libertine sexuality, or ignorant bliss, or mercantile detachment - rather than fully fleshed out characters whom we can judge and then reflect on in our own decisions and lives. And, as mentioned, I’m quite happy for this, because if psychological identification were possible with any of the characters, their fate in the film would have me heading for either a couch or a pharmacy. There is a refrain, when O’Neil dies: “I am my own man...I am my own man!” This of course is true - the wild sways of humor and horror in A Field in England will mean very different things to different people - and I’m quite thankful that O’Neil, Whitehead, and the rest were (or are) their own men. Anything more personally relevant about such a strikingly well-written and shot film about such despair and death would be far more than any film should offer.
It’s fair to say that, especially after A Field in England, anything is possible with the future films of Ben Wheatley. But one thing that seems to be a constant is that his humor will be pitch-black. His previous film, Sightseers, a serial-killers in love comedy, and A Field in England seem to be reaching towards an apex in this regard.
Comedies rarely get pointed to when thinking of cinema that speaks to suffering, despair, death and the human condition, but they are perfectly suited for it and in fact make the subjects much more accessible and enlightening. I think it’s what makes the films of Woody Allen, Mike Leigh and the Coen Brothers so memorable and meaningful while a good majority of your deadly-serious, weepy prestige films can come across as sanctimonious, dull and forgettable. Wit goes a far way towards pathos when dealing with such things.
The last words of O’Neil, “I am my own man…!” definitely hits on the strongest theme for me while watching the film. These are men who are not in control of their destiny. They are simply acting out what has always been. When O’Neil fires the gun into the pit of skeletons and wounds himself, it seemed pretty clear to me that these men are already dead and simply performing history. They are reenactors in the most sadistic sense. The “treasure” is their predetermined destiny - what ultimately greets everyone at the end of their quest: no reward, just death.
While I enjoyed it, and agree with pretty much all of what you said, it sounds like you got more out of this film than I did. I especially can’t say I took to all of Wheatley’s editing decisions as well you did. For a 90 minute movie, it felt like there was a lot of padding and unnecessary repetition - and the over-abundance of reflective imagery was evoking Led Zeppelin-era psychedelia for me (not necessarily a good thing in my book). I understand the need for our hero to complete his journey and become a soldier but the shoot-out was the least interesting part of the film and a bit of a letdown for me. And do people in movies in this day and age, even in ones taking place in the 17th century, still have to come up with a one-liner after blowing someone’s head off? We witnessed such creativity in the film up to this point that I’m surprised we didn’t witness a more inventive way to dispatch a bad guy.
I also don’t feel too comfortable comparing Wheatley to Shane Carruth, and I probably shouldn’t even mention it but I guess I’ll explain why. This is mostly due to the meticulous 5-years-in-the-making nature in which Carruth layers sound, editing and composition to weave together multiple storylines in Upstream Color (which, yes, is a film I’m so enamored with that after numerous viewings it has made Carruth nigh untouchable) to the point where not a frame of film is wasted. Though as much as I love it I don’t want every movie to be like Upstream Color. These are filmmakers with different agendas in my eyes. A Field in England is filled with fantastic shots, sound and editing but I got a definite sense while watching that this is Wheatley being unfussy and experimental, and quickly so. This is certainly not a bad thing but I don’t feel the desire to revisit the film multiple times and figure out how those recurring shots of the mushrooms were enriching the story. If I’m going to revisit A Field in England it will definitely be for the dialog.
Speaking of editing, did you know that there’s a whole section of post-production videos online showing how A Field in England was put together? As more and more films like this are being released online either before or simultaneous to a theatrical release (not to mention the growing preference towards digital copies - putting DVDs and Blu-rays in a boutique corner) there’s a fine opportunity in this practice to make supplements available online as well. It’s definitely something that more of these on-demand movies need to take advantage of. At this point there is no excuse for old movies to leave behind a sad website with little more than a couple trailers and some publicity stills. Outside of a Criterion release, I don’t think I’ve come across as fine a set as Channel 4 has put together for this film. From development to completion there is an obscene amount of detail covered. Recommended for your standard movie nerd - but even moreso for anyone interested the specifics of digital filmmaking. I’m embedding the more standard making-of video below but for much, much more I linketh ye here: http://www.afieldinengland.com/masterclass/