Cult Culture

07.15.13

Ben Wheatley, A Field in England, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes.


CAN YOU ENGINEER A FILM to be an instant cult classic? Doesn’t a movie need to arrive at that status after first being discovered by its audience, via a steady accretion of passionate devotion and years or at least many midnights of fermentation? Look at Eraserhead’s (1977) glacial ascent to immortality—admittedly, long before video and the Internet—or Repo Man (1984), The Big Lebowski (1998) (more than a cult, now it’s a veritable philosophy), even Donnie Darko (2001). The hardiest cult movies typically present some manner of altered reality with a skewed but internally consistent worldview; a highly concentrated, stylized mix of gnomic gestures and identifiable signposts; and the frequent implication (intended or not) that their special properties can be heightened by the sympathetic ingestion of mood-enhancing or mind-altering substances.

Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a test case in a couple ways: If you build a cool, trippy, black-and-white field of nightmares, will the jaded cultists and literate stoners and cine-geeks come? This occult, absurdist journey conflates the English Civil War with seventeenth-century practitioners of Magick and their handy employment of hallucinogens—using a mushroom-fueled treasure hunt as pretext for considerable goth havoc and grungy invective packed into a tight ninety-minute workout. It was released on July 5 in Great Britain simultaneously to theaters, on DVD/Blu-Ray, and on VOD, in addition to being broadcast on TV. (There are also plans to screen it outdoors this summer: “See A Field in England, in an actual field in England.”) This represents quite a gamble: It’s not like remaking or even deconstructing, say, The Evil Dead (1981). Wheatley and his partner/writer Amy Jump have imagined from scratch a chaotic universe inside a few thousand square yards of ravaged countryside and populated it with a small band of bad, broken men. Then they’ve stirred in the devil (in the guise of a blood-dark Irish magus), those wild ’shrooms, and some gunpowder, bringing the stew to a full feverish boil and simmering till all hell breaks loose. Throughout, Laurie Rose’s alternately stately and hyperbolic widescreen cinematography lends the mud and gore of this miserable place a sheen of bleached-out gravitas, The Seventh Seal refracted through a lysergic haze.

While A Field in England has a plot of sorts, it is more a matter of being thrown willy-nilly into the midst of an impermeable supernatural conspiracy in which the characters are caught like so many flies in God’s spiderweb. Christianity is a shell-shocked memory to these haggard souls, while ancient pagan winds whistle through the tall grass and the earth groans beneath their feet. Reese Shearsmith’s pious, fearful Whitehead is an alchemist’s apprentice searching for his ailing master’s stolen papers (and apparently suspected of stealing them himself). He is rescued from a pursuer on the battlefield by a mercenary. Together with this soldier’s soft-headed associate (who is given up for dead until arising on hearing the word “ale”) and another seeming deserter Cutler (Ryan Pope), who speaks of a nearby tavern, they form an alliance of convenience and go off in search of respite and sustenance. (The mercenary insists: “We’re not running away! We’re going for beer!”)

They walk, scrounge some food from the fields, enjoy a bit of sport as one of their number tries to take a shit in peace (scatology no less than astrology directs their bodily humors). A plain and haunting folk song is sung. Finding a rope attached to a winch in the middle of a field, they heave and pull until Michael Smiley’s diabolical O’Neil appears at the other end, trussed like a package from the bowels of oblivion. It is presently revealed that a) Cutler is his manservant, thus in cahoots they have lured the other three to this spot; and b) O’Neil is the rogue magician whom Whitehead has been seeking.

Here is the hinge point where A Field in England goes from passing strange to full-bore crazy. In no time, O’Neil has turned the tables on poor befuddled Whitehead and has yoked him up like a hideously grinning ox to serve as a human divining rod. Some mystical MacGuffin of a prize is buried in the vicinity and O’Neil means to dig it up. Gaping holes follow, in the ground and in flesh/bone. A stroboscopic hallucination flashes across the screen that is nearly as terrifying as Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” video, albeit less overtly sophomoric. As in the previous Wheatley-Jump collaborations, it works most profitably in the interstices between black comedy and psychopathology: Sightseers (2012) is their tidiest concept (an Elaine May/Christopher Guest take on mismatched serial killers), while Kill List (2011) is a disquieting left turn of a movie that pulls the rug out from under your feet with horrific panache. A Field in England is their most ambitious genre experiment yet, and all indications are that it did very well across the board on its opening weekend.

The real test will be if fans go back again and again, to suss out all that densely atmospheric detail and narrative opacity. With savory dialogue (“Whitehead, you simpering dwarf…. Your privy parts are doomed, homunculus!”) and stray images that lodge themselves in your brain (the accusatory pointing finger of a man impaled on a pike), not to mention a straight-faced urological examination worthy of Monty Python, I think its long-range prospects are very good. Remember the old Superman pitch: “You’ll believe a man can fly”? A Field in England will make you believe a man had cause to fear being turned into a frog.

Howard Hampton

A Field in England is currently available from the UK in multiple formats; it will be released theatrically and on VOD in the USA later this year.