The one thing that can definitively be said about A Field In England, the fourth feature directed by British cult figure Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers), is that its action is entirely confined to a field in England. Beyond that, things get murky, even though very little actually happens. The English Civil War is raging, so it’s sometime in the middle of the 17th century. Apart from sounds of musket fire at the beginning and end, however, the battle proper remains offscreen. Instead, the movie follows the odd exploits of several deserters seeking treasure that one of them believes is buried somewhere near the scene of the fighting. This narrative is of little consequence though, and the five men are nearly interchangeable ciphers, at best emerging with a single, superficial defining trait (the sadistic one, the cowardly one, etc.). It’s the period itself that’s front and center here—not in the usual sense of historical accuracy, but as a sort of theater of the bizarre that allows Wheatley and his wife, screenwriter Amy Jump, to indulge in dementia.
To the extent that the film has a protagonist, a fellow named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) fits the bill. First seen running wildly through thick foliage and fervently praying for his life to be spared, he’s apparently a servant or assistant of some kind, though it’s unclear to whom or for what purpose. He was meant to apprehend an Irishman named O’Neil (Michael Smiley), but instead O’Neil more or less apprehends him, along with a couple of deserters (Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover) and a man named Cutler (Ryan Pope) who seems to be sick and tired of the skirmish happening over yonder. Most of the subsequent action sees this motley group trudging across the field, before digging an enormous hole in a spot where a cache of gold allegedly resides. There are also some hallucinogenic mushrooms in this field, however, which get chomped down at the point where one’s attention truly starts to flag.
Wheatley made his reputation through a series of films, beginning with Down Terrace, that self-consciously juxtapose extreme violence with the sort of garrulous working-class British characters one associates with Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. A Field In England is his first period piece, and a decided departure, but he still seems primarily interested in goosing the audience for the sheer fun of it. Shot in black and white, the film is no more than the sum of its empty gestures, as Wheatley tosses in whatever arresting idea occurs to him: sudden tableaux vivants (with the actors visibly twitching as they pretend to be in a still photo), an extended sequence of stroboscopic editing (epileptics get a warning at the outset), and a recurring vision that recalls the Soundgarden hit “Black Hole Sun.” The film’s signature scene finds three of the men listening as Whitehead screams in agony for a solid minute from within a tent, for reasons never specified, then emerges with a sickly smile on his face and runs in super slow motion for a while. It’s inexplicable enough to be riveting, but in the end, that’s all it is—just a means of creating an effect. Nothing here lingers.