17th century begets horror in ‘A Field in England’

Reece Shearsmith offers a whiny prayer as Whitehead in Ben Wheatley's "A Field in England" (2014).

Reece Shearsmith offers a whiny prayer as Whitehead in Ben Wheatley’s “A Field in England” (2014).

For a 90-minute movie that spends all of its time in a field during daylight hours, you never hear any birds.

The absence of avian chirping indicates purpose behind the craftsmanship – in this case, sound design – in British filmmaker Ben Wheatley’s “A Field in England.” Yet the sound design is sloppy and inconsistent, the sort that has you constantly tapping the television’s volume knobs like arcade buttons. It’s exhausting. “A Field in England” is easier to watch as though it was an amateur or student project, which is odd since Wheatley has a long career in motion pictures and television and you wonder why he thought it was OK ignore some of these things.

But it was shot (often strikingly so in black and white) in 12 days and the movie’s confident pace and its assembly of original concepts from army deserters, buried treasure, magic mushrooms, singing, encounters with the devil, mushroom circles, alchemy, human divining rods, painting-like character poses at each chapter’s end to a bloody resolution out of “A Pardoner’s Tale” make Wheatley’s movie hard to dismiss once you start it.

It could easily transfer to a stage play the way it takes place in one setting and opens on one side of a hedge. On the other side of the hedge the English Civil War is happening. We hear sounds of gunfire, explosions and the nettlesome pitch of a screaming Whitehead, the movie’s central character who is a minister or alchemist’s assistant or something. Whitehead meets a servant named Cutler and finds two deserters, Jacob and Friend, along the hedge and from there they set out into the field in search of an alehouse. Along the way, the vulgar crew rescue O’Neill and surrender reluctant hands to his evil (because) plan to dig six feet deep for treasure.

There might not be any birds in this field, but there’s several visual asides featuring beetles and other bugs climbing out of the dirt. The players in this tale might begin as men, but they join every creeping thing that creeps on the ground, crawling through tall grass, a low-budget substitute for the swaying wheat of “Gladiator.” The movie’s a horror variant that leads to some supernatural eclipse and scary yelling.

Thanks to the colliding loudness and pitch of music and dialogue and sound effects, it was hard to capture the specifics of the characters’ conversations, which sounded mostly like an obtuse attempt at Shakespeare when it isn’t simply ho-hum exposition, though hearing the characters’ words isn’t necessary to keep up since the movie is so assured in its madcap tone and convulsive editing style.

Like “Easy Rider,” it’s a period journey movie with drugs and discursive monologues and ends with a disorienting hallucinatory sequence. There’s no final surprising bang as in the ending of “Easy Rider,” but “A Field of England” is already stuffed with surprises, none as distinct as the hurried quality of the movie’s production.

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