Ben Wheatley is stepping forth himself as a potential successor to the likes of Stanley Kubrick
Ben Wheatley’s latest directorial effort, A Field in England is as puzzling and brilliant as anything he has made so far. A folky 17th century nightmare in which a priest, Whitehead, and several civil war deserters are entrapped by an alchemist, who slips some magic mushrooms into their stew and uses them to find a mysterious treasure in the eponymous field. Yet even though Wheatley’s film is his strangest outing yet (no small feat), it also establishes him as one of Britain’s most unique and socially observant filmmakers.
It’s difficult to contain Wheatley in some kind of ‘wave’ or canon of cinema. If anything, A Field in England veers Wheatley towards the same elusive category as the likes of Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch. A bold status to give the Essex-born filmmaker, but Wheatley shares with those two a desire to push his characters to their psychological and spiritual limits, exploring them through puzzle-like narratives, maddeningly long shots, and eerie soundtracks.
A Field in England in particular eschews a linear trajectory, instead relying on ominous whirring dins, long static shots, and uncanny imagery to express its protagonist’s existential journey. In one scene, Whitehead comes out of a tent after some kind of off-screen torture, tied to a rope leash with a manic smile that matches up to that of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. It’s a disturbing and drawn-out shot with a hypnotic soundtrack; a perfect expression of the nadir of Whitehead’s spiritual sparring against O’Neil.
A dark, distinctive auteur, Wheatley cattle-prods his anti-heroes until their dormant violence erupts over those unfortunate enough to cross their path. In Kill List (2011), it’s the hitman Jay. At first reluctant to return to his violent past, he’s soon carrying out hits with brute relish, ignoring the accruing signs that he’s being manipulated to carry out a cult’s bidding, with ultimately self-destructive consequences.
In Sightseers, the perpetrator is the nomadic Chris (and later, his naïve muse Tina), whose wrath is directed at the irritating archetypes in British society that we begrudgingly tolerate; litter-droppers, busybodies, shrieking hen parties, all of whom get disposed of with Wheatley’s trademark ultra-realistic brutality. As with Lynch and Kubrick, these moments of violence keep the films grounded against a pervading air of unworldliness.
Despite his transcendent style, Wheatley’s films ooze Britishness. In Down Terrace and Kill List, he approaches the British crime film from two angles that break away from the tiresome dichotomy of Mockney gangsters on the one hand, and drug-addled estates on the other. The former is an intimate family drama, the latter is, let’s just say, a hitman-horror-folky-thriller. Both films look and sound like hard-geezer dramas, but Wheatley toys with our expectations of the genre, and in both cases comes up with something completely unexpected.
Wheatley is also a sharp observer of British behaviour. In Down Terrace, soon after a spree of murders, Bill points out that he would’ve finished repainting the breakfast room by now, while A Field in England begins with a bunch of 15th century lads lured into the dreaded field by promise of a pub. The film’s ‘fool’ character, Essex-born Friend can’t help but inadvertently insult his much-mocked home county. Even though his films are often journeys into the depths of the unconscious, there’s always a dry, grounded, and ever-British humour to be found on the surface.
Wheatley is a director who enjoys being on the peripheries of commercial cinema, having previously stated in an interview with The Guardian that he’ll never “be a guy out in Hollywood with a pool”. Despite his growing popularity, A Field in England shows that he is not ready to sell out at any point soon, with the film being probably his least accessible – but most mesmerising – outing to date. The British film industry may be being commercially propped up by hit films like Skyfall and Les Misérables, but it’s down to the one-off likes of Wheatley to explore the British psyche with a brutal, rarely-seen precision. And that makes him extremely valuable to British cinema.
‘A Field in England’ is out in cinemas now, and is also available to buy on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VoDTagged in: A Field in England, Ben Wheatley
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