The Underground is our recurring feature, resurrected from an all-time great CHUD column, the aim of which is to get the word out on projects outside the Hollywood studio system. Studio films have big promotion engines behind them. The Underground caters to everything else: from indie films, to cult films in the making, pet projects, guerrilla films, internet shorts, etc.
The Underground’s usual purpose is to educate and inform about films that are out of the mainstream. Most of the time that means films that are going to be a bit difficult to see, with limited release or needing help just to even get the word out about them. But in the case of A Field in England, by British director Ben Wheatley, it’s more outside the mainstream of describability. It’s a psychedelic, shroom-fueled trek into Wheatley’s whacked take on a British period piece set during the English Civil War in 1648 involving five men in an English field struggling amongst themselves and sanity. It’s an art piece to be sure, difficult at times to get through or even follow. At times it’s Jacob’s Ladder in an English field. Other times it’s a vulgar, visceral skirmish between four Englishmen and a mad Irishman, filled with humiliation, bullying, death and a few surprises.
The basic premise is that four men gather outside the realm of a battle during the English Civil War: Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a prissy alchemist’s assistant, Cutler (Ryan Pope) , a seeming vagabond with a penchant for robbing the dead, and two deserters, Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover). Not especially interested in rejoining the war, they resolve to seek out any alehouse that might be nearby and set out into the countryside. Before long they happen upon an Irishman named O’Neil (Michael Smiley). As it would so happen, Whitehead had been dispatched by his master to apprehend O’Neil an retrieve some papers that he had stolen.
But O’Neil has zero intention of returning to face Whitehead’s master. The tough-minded Irishman quickly asserts his dominance over the group, with the aid of Cutler, and informs them that there is a treasure somewhere in the field in which they stand. He means to have Whitehead divine its location, a talent he’s picked up from the studies of his master’s books. O’Neil also means to have Jacob and Friend dig it up, and he himself will claim it. At first Whitehead refuses, but O’Neil insists (by “insists”, think Zed and Marcellus). Then he rigs him up like his own personal donkey and set’s him loose to goo fetch the treasure’s location. O’Neil’s single-minded determination to have the treasure outweighs everything else, especially the dignity and even the lives of his unwilling conspirators. Jacob and Friend do start digging a deep hole, but eventually the situation deteriorates and they all start turning on each other. As they start dying, reality breaks down thanks to some mushrooms ingested beforehand, particularly by Whitehead.
Admittedly, I found A Field in England hard to absorb. It’s stylish as hell and well-made, but not an easy watch to be sure. At times it was like catching Timothy Leary’s The Three Musketeers. Other times it’s very Tarantino-esque, by way of arthouse. The old English dialogue didn’t always quite register in my American brain’s translation centers. But AFIE is a gritty, profane, full frontal (literally, there are dicks afoot here) assault on the senses. Ben Wheatley is finding more and more acclaim in his work, and there was plenty about AFIE to be recognized as being highly distinctive film-making. I guarantee you’re not going to find another movie like it anytime soon.
A Field in England is from Drafthouse films and premieres in select theatres and on VOD on February 7.
If you’ve got a film or project somewhere in the fringes that belongs in The Underground and needs some attention, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org