Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Field of (Broken) Dreams

I don't know what to make of director Ben Wheatley. He obviously knows how to make a good film. Whatever my complaints with Kill List or Sightseers, they're testament to a major genre talent, but one who makes inconsistent, frustrating films. A Field in England (2013) doesn't change my mind on him. If anything, it's his most impenetrable film; a bad head trip.

The story here follows a group of stragglers around a battle during the English Civil War. One of them, Whitehead, is a scholar whose master has charged him with a mission. Whitehead is a coward, a man out of his depth. He's fallen in with a group of soldiers after the death of his employer. He keeps on with the mission with which he has been charged. His mission is to find O'Neill, an alchemist who suborns those around him into doing his bidding. What O'Neill is after is the treasure allegedly buried in the field where Whitehead and his companions find him. Whitehead's companions are eager to comply, but Whitehead--a puritan--has his doubts about O'Neill. The search becomes a contest of wills between the two men, with the soldiers as the pawns between them.

This sounds straightforward enough in synopsis, but it's not. Part of the weirdness of this movie is how it seems to take place in some kind of separate plane from its ostensible setting. The titular field acts as a microcosm, as if its reality has hived off from the reality of war. It's some kind of existential otherwhere rather than any place real. The war itself is an abstraction: distant noises of guns and clash of arms, though the film imports war as an allegory into the frenzy of violence at the end of the film. These characters aren't part of that, even though they act as avatars of the conflict. This otherness is underlined by the stark black and white photography that suggests a European art film from, say, 1962. Further complicating things is the fact that a third the movie finds the men under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which turns the film into a psychedelic freak-out.

How are we to interpret the conflict between Whitehead and O'Neill? Faith and reason? Christian faith versus Paganism? Divine right versus the will of human beings? The film can be interpreted in any of these ways. I like to think Whitehead represents reason, though he's an odd vessel for it, given that he's a Puritan and a self-professed coward. And what to make of the semi-ritualistic way he organizes the film's signfifying objects--papers, a broken disk, the guns of the men--at the end of the film? Christianity versus Paganism seems a likelier interpretation, given the weird ending of Kill List, which casts that film in exactly those terms. In this regard, this film is a descendant of Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man.

Wheatley is obviously some kind of auteur, though he's one with a style that varies greatly. He's a precocious filmmaker. His thematic concerns are independent of the means by which he expresses them. Visually this is a very different film than Kill List or Sightseers. It's austere, concerned with composing the frame, classically edited. These are traits that remain even when the film is in full-on freak-out mode. It's a pleasure to look at how Wheatley arranges his meager resources and makes the film into a credible world. It elides so much that it feels more expansive than its narrow focus would ordinarily allow. But if the surface of this film is burnished to a gleam, the contents of the film frame itself are confrontational, grimy, scatological. This is a film that views the past like Monty Python viewed it, decorated with mud, blood, and shit. The faces in this film are manifestly un-pretty. Prettiness would sabotage the careful shot compositions.

My main complaints with Wheatley's other work resurface here. His films tend to charge off into ambiguity, leaving the audience to puzzle out just what it is they've just watched. His films can be confoundedly obscure, which is not necessarily a virtue. He sometimes hides his meanings all too well.

Well, the Challenge is done. I squeaked by with 32 movies, of which 18 were new to me. I'll be writing about my October movies for a while, I think, but other kinds of cinema will shortly make a return to the blog.

Total Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 32

First Time Viewings: 18

Around the Web:

Anna at Bemused and Nonplussed sums up their week four of the challenge with some high points and some lows.

Eric at Expelled Grey Matter closed out the Challenge with Orca and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll.

Scott at Blasphemous Tomes also posts a post mortem of his challenge.

Dr. AC raised over $800 for charity with his challenge. He also provides a final reckoning.

Bob at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind has another dispatch from Toronto, this time looking at the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

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1 comment:

Tylerandjack said...

Oh dagnamnit, you've hit the nail on the head with both Wheatley AND this film IMO. I was able to see A Field In England at the cinema and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, as a cinematic experience. I bought the movie to support such interesting work, but I've not yet brung myself to rewatch it, or indeed review it.