A Field in England (2013)

Directed by Ben Wheatley

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A Field in England would make a great music video.  Ben Wheatley does a great job with the juxtaposition of sound and image, particularly in his fast edits.  The technical components of this film outweigh the narrative, though I may only think that because the story was a little hard to follow and purposefully so.

At its best, A Field in England’s visual complexity forces you to stop thinking and just experience what you’re seeing.  At its worst… well I don’t know if it has a worst.  The more surreal, abstract moments in the film are much more exciting than the buildup to those moments.  The quick cuts, hallucination sequences work not because of what came before but rather on their own merits.  I was in awe as I watched these sequences which felt like video art installations in a modern art gallery.  It didn’t matter to me who these characters were or what had happened to them before.  Ideally these moments would be dependent on the buildup, thus establishing a more satisfying resolution, but as it is, the first half of the film felt like it was a DMV waiting line compared to the Autobahn which is the third act.

That isn’t to say the rest of the film isn’t good.  I liked the characters and their strange interactions, but not much seemed to happen.  The film is brief by today’s standards (90 minutes), and a lot of that time is spent with slow motion (beautiful) shots of not much happening, plot-wise.

This film is best enjoyed as an experience.  Don’t think too much about the story because it’s not really all that complex or unique, but it doesn’t need to be.  The visual aesthetic and lightning-fast edits might make you think the story is bigger than it is, but again, it’s not.

This is a simple story told through creative, innovative means.  The cinematography, editing and rhythm aren’t gimmicky, and they aren’t wholly necessary, but they’re beautiful in such a way so as not to minimize what came before it.

In other words, this could easily feel like two films: the first half (aka the quieter talk-heavy exposition) and the second half (the abstract, experimental montages), but Wheatley does a good job balancing the two parts.  In the end, the story felt a little underwhelming and even conventional for a low budget horror film like this one, but that ending, within its familiarity, even suggests a pointlessness to everything that happened, helping emphasize that it’s about the experience, not where it’s leading.

The final shot, in which three characters (presumed to be dead), stand facing the camera, isn’t meant to be a shock, because we’ve already learned that characters can come back from the dead.  Instead it’s meant to enforce the idea that the outcome doesn’t matter, only the journey even if it leads nowhere.

In this journey there are five men, two of which are alchemists and one of which is the devil, and everyone knows it.  The fact that they’re kind of okay with him being the devil is a great way of establishing the tone of the film, even if their behavior might not be in their control.

The story takes place in the fields of battle as two or three of the men desert the war and seek an alehouse.  The devil uses their enthusiasm and fear to coerce them into digging a hole for him, looking for treasure, with the promise that he will give them the ale and women they desire.  Of course he ends up lying to them, and in the course of the story, each man dies except for Whitehead, our occasional protagonist (who briefly loses his mind, twice) and even then there might be an interpretation in which Whitehead has indeed died.

The treasure turns out to be a buried body, and in one amusing scene, two friends decide that the real treasure might be their newfound friendship, right before they die.  Scenes like this undercut the gravity of the plot, even as the characters consider this a life or death mission whether or not they realize it.

The entire film, shot in moody black and white with smoke-filled battlefields and slow motion shots has a feeling of despair hanging over it, like in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.  At the same time, though, nothing in the plot lasts or is even said to be true.  The devil emerges from a spike in the field, and he tells Whitehead that he was looking for him, rather than it being the other way around, as Whitehead believed.  Then the other deserter soldiers learn that they’ve been lied to because there is no assurance that they will be taken to an alehouse.  The treasure turns out to be a dead body.  The devil’s own alchemist turns on him in the end before the devil kills him, and Whitehead kills the devil with surprising ease, considering how powerful the devil is presumed to be throughout the film.  And finally, after his crazy, mushroom-trip of a journey through the field, Whitehead emerges to find that his dead friends aren’t really dead, and none of this may have happened.

This is all meant to be confusing to the audience and to the main character.  On one hand it feels like the film has betrayed us, revealing that none of this mattered because it may not have even happened, but of course that’s the point.  It’s the point in many movies which you find out only occurred in a dream or in a character’s head.

So what does it mean here?  Well I’d reason the tone is reflective of how life felt like in this world and at this time.  This is set in England during the Civil War, in which, presumably, brother is killing brother.  Every character feels isolated in their own way, and it’s meaningful that for two characters, the completion of their story arcs is to realize that they’re friends.

In one moment, one of those characters offers that God is punishing them for “everything,” making it clear that these are god-fearing men, even though they probably wouldn’t admit it.  I would assume that god-fearing people would run from the devil, but these characters are so sure of their place in God’s eyes that they think a pact with the devil won’t make anything worse than it already is.  They have sunk so low, or they simply feel so lost, that they’re willing to make a deal with the devil just to get some beer.

These characters are certainly not honorable, and their intentions reflect the fate they think they deserve.  When one man is slowly dying, he asks for another to deliver a message to his wife.  The message is anything but romantic and it involves the man wanting to tell her how he preferred her sister and slept with her on a number of occasions.

These are characters out of tune with the religious fervor that I assume swept the nation at this time in history.  They are very clearly on the outside of society, and this couldn’t be more overtly depicted than when they abandon the war.  All we need to know is that these characters are war deserters, not on principle just on ease, and not only are they unsurprised to meet the devil, but they’re quick to form an alliance.

With all this being said, the cinematography and editing style of this film didn’t convey these ideas or this tone as much as the dialogue and interaction between the characters did.  In that way, it feels like the best parts of this film didn’t add anything to the story, but they emphasize the experience of someone losing their grip on reality and their own sanity.  What’s different between Whitehead and the other characters is that they’ve already lost everything and he is only now about to lose it.

Our perspective is mostly shown through Whitehead, but it’s not always that way.  There’s a scene in which Whitehead, in glorious slow motion, runs wildly through the camp, restrained by a roped harness of which he’s not even aware.  He seems to have been lobotomized, and yet later we will see him struggling with the knowledge of where he is, who he’s with and what he’s doing.  He loses his mind for a moment only to regain it long enough to lose it again.

When he loses it the second time is when we see the world the way he does.

A field in England doesn’t sound like a great place, but it also doesn’t sound as sinister as it’s made out to be here.  The film, then, describes something incredibly vague and common and depicts it as dark, brooding and evil.  Nothing makes sense here, at least not in this field.  Most of the characters already know this, and the one we follow is about to find out as well.

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