Bring on your bad reviews, Ben Wheatley says. Four films into what is shaping up to be one of the most potent and polarizing movie-making careers of the 21st century, the 43-year old Englishman has accepted that his raw, radical output isn’t for everybody, and he’s turned reading critical pans into an act of catharsis.
“What I tend to do now is look for bad reviews,” Wheatley explained in an interview at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s the lowest of all rushes to read bad reviews. You read good ones and it doesn’t matter, and so you search for bad ones.”
There will surely be bad reviews for Wheatley’s new feature, A Field in England, but you can safely ignore them, even if the director can’t. An English Civil War tale that slowly mutates into a midnight-movie freak-out the likes of which you may not have seen since the acid-spiked ’70s, A Field in England is more formally radical than any of Wheatley’s other remarkable genre movies to date, yet entirely of a piece with them. “We actually kind of see it as the prequel to all the other films,” Wheatley said. “They all fit in the same world. The field in A Field in England has all the straw that ends up in the masks in Kill List. Kill List is the endgame of A Field in England.”
For a lot of viewers, Kill List (Wheatley’s second film after the Brighton-set gangster saga Down Terrace) felt like an endgame, period – the last word in nerve-shredding horror cinema. Critically acclaimed and widely reviled, it marked the arrival of a major talent. Three years later, A Field in England finds him stretching out like he owns the place. It takes a lot of confidence to follow up hits such as Kill List and the slasher rom-com Sightseers with a borderline-avant garde, black-and-white gab-fest, but Wheatley isn’t the sort of artist to repeat himself. “I don’t know if it’s easy to do the same thing again and again,” he said. “It’s easier not to.”
A Field in England is not an easy movie. Its rural, 17th-century setting is drab and disorienting, and its characters – alchemists and army deserters in search of some mysterious buried treasure – are filthy and bizarre. At first, with its long, stylized conversations between waylaid, existentially addled men (the script is by the director’s wife and co-editor, Amy Jump), it seems reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. But the shift into a supernatural mode is swift and startling. Alternately verbose and visceral, it’s an amazingly agile movie, and Wheatley attributed this dexterity to the lack of a heavy-bottomed budget.
“We had some money in the bank,” he said when asked about the project’s origins. “We were wondering if we could make something for 40 or 50 grand. And once we had started down the road, [digital TV channel] Film 4 got involved [with financing] and it expanded a little bit. But it still stayed small. If we’d have gone too big, there would have been commercial pressures that would have kept us from being as radical as we wanted. We had a conversation with Film 4 after the first cut. They had a lot of notes; we said no to all of them.”
Wheatley said he was interested in making a movie about a period when Britain was in “free fall and chaos,” and that sense of rupture is integral to his work. “It was a moment when anything could happen,” he said. “You have Western civilization about to be born, the beginning of democracy, of the money markets, of organized labour. There are these guys who want to kill the King, and since the King is supposed to be the voice of God on Earth, that’s a pretty bold move. And magic and science are hand in hand, about to become separated. Superstition is going to pulled apart from alchemy and chemistry.”
It’s likely that some viewers will curse the spell that Whealey spins in A Field in England, but all the same, there’s no denying his wizardry.