Acclaimed British director Ben Wheatley follows last year’s dark comedy Sightseers with his most experimental film to date, an atmospheric, art-house take on the English Civil War.

Watching A Field in England feels a little like being plunged into a nightmare: an unpredictable, dream-like experience, brimming with brilliantly disturbing sequences and disorienting surrealism.  Audiences craving easy exposition and logical plot development may well find the film frustrating, but fans of Wheatley’s Kill List, particularly its haunting last act, will be in their element here.

Reece Shearsmith plays Whitehead, an educated manservant who flees the smoke-filled battlefields of the Civil War and joins up with two other deserters (Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover). A fourth man (Ryan Pope) leads the group to an empty field, enclosed within a fairy-ring of mushrooms. Events take an increasingly unsettling, hallucinogenic turn after mysterious Irish alchemist O’Neil (Michael Smiley) is literally “roped in” to the action. O’Neil forces Whitehead to help him locate a treasure, buried beneath the field. The men eventually begin to dig, unaware of why they must do so, or what the elusive treasure might be.

Genre-wise, the film is difficult to classify, veering between black comedy, historical drama and folk-inspired horror.  1970’s classic The Wicker Man appears to have been a key influence, whilst certain scenes evoke Vincent Price galloping across the countryside in Witchfinder General. However, Whitehead’s visions of an ominous, pulsing black planet also strongly recall the images of a burning Southern sun in an entirely different 70’s horror film: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Plot-wise, of course, the two films couldn’t be more different, but both share the same sense of astrological foreboding and impending, apocalyptic doom.

All five cast members are strong, but Shearsmith’s performance as Whitehead is especially powerful. Educated, unaccustomed to violence, and staunchly religious, Whitehead gradually crumbles under O’ Neil’s psychological torture. In one particularly haunting sequence, we hear his off-screen screams, after he disappears inside O’Neil’s tent. When he emerges, tethered to a rope, his expression of maniacal terror is unforgettable.  The soundtrack’s creepy, speeded-up version of “Ring a Ring of Roses” adds to the uncomfortable nature of this scene.

Visually, Wheatley’s fourth feature is incredibly striking, more so than any of his previous films. The decision to film entirely in black and white was apparently a last minute one, but its effect is to give the lush Surrey meadow where the film was shot a somber, eerily timeless feel. A number of close ups - from a caterpillar on a twig to a man’s infected penis – create a sense of raw, uncomfortable intimacy. At the same time, wider shots of rustling grasses and clouded skies evoke an older, more rural England: a place of witchcraft and superstition, where the devil was a tangible presence rather than a myth.

It’s probably fair to say that A Field in England won’t appeal to everyone. The aspects of the film that make it so unique, such as its surrealism and idiosyncratic subject matter, may also leave some viewers cold. There are no neat answers, and the film’s mystical events are largely left unexplained. However, audiences who do immerse themselves in Wheatley’s latest feature may find that, like the worst nightmares, the film lingers in their minds long after they see it.

Film Score: 4/5