Midnight Screenings: The Films of Ben Wheatley

This post being slightly in honor of Wheatley’s directing of the first episode of Doctor Who Season 8, and mostly in honor of him just being a highly talented new filmmaker I happened to have a few mini-reviews written on. Seriously, do check this guy out. 

A Field in England

A Field in England opens with a warning about the film’s psychotic, psychedelic imagery, but it serves, and was likely intended, as much as a badge of honor– the film’s visuals are gloriously perturbed, and the trickery on display is the film’s biggest selling point. This is all the truer when one considers the film’s enigmatic narrative and its clear subversions, even from its opening moments. If the film opens with the aforementioned warning about its visual nature, it immediately cuts to a black screen with only chaotic sound for thirty or so seconds, pointedly delaying what it’s just promised us. Then, of course, there’s the film’s black-and-white monotony when we now automatically associate visual splendor with cheerful color, and the fact that the film opens with a battle scene captured purely in close-ups and shots of single, atomized people, as well as quavering images of bushes. It doesn’t play like a battle in reality, but as the arch impression of a battle, the sense of chaos and loneliness ever-present but indescribable when on the edge of life and death – it’s an almost abstract collage of imagery divorced from context to convey the holistic difficulty of understanding war representationally or experientially. A Field in England is a pure, distilled cinematic hell.

At one point during the opening battle, we see someone get stabbed from behind, but we never see the assailer – in fact, we never see a clash of swords or any sense of density at all. Its only grandfather is the famous battle in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (possibly the greatest battle ever filmed). It plays more like an absurd pantomime, people running around in emptiness or shouting at nothing, with scenes that do not logically follow from one another and an atmosphere that approximates a careless void. The “fighting” isn’t relevant, nor is the non-existent enemy –  in this amalgam of “in the moment” rage and openly clinical confusion. It’s as if the character was stabbed by the world itself, or by a theater prop having taken on a life itself. And the rest of the film follows suit with a sort of intentional clinicism and staginess to convey the lost, ambiguous nature of history – we can never truly get “in the moment” for these characters because their moment is long gone, and all we can do is box them off in a frame and observe from above. And that’s what Wheatley does, having the rest of the film explore their aimless after-battle wandering around an area as intentionally vague as “a field (somewhere) in England”. The narrative is nothing more than “us” watching “them”.

To this extent, the film is reckless and pointedly amateurish – very much an obvious “film” that calls attention to itself as such. Even as it adopts a documentary-like, verite structure, we get all manner of distinctly overt cinematic manipulation –  booming noise when little is happening on a hollow screen, and silence when we are presented with “event”, as well as stagey moments of characters quite literally pausing and standing in place as if “posed”, all subversively challenging the idea that we can ever truly understand people through “documentary” like reality.

The film also explores the historical period piece genre and has a flair for “real location” filming, two things we often proudly champion for their realism. While we’re busy championing, Wheatley gloriously intersperses ample evidence of how unhistorical, and unreal, the whole thing is. It’s a singular mess of a film, a psychedelic head-trip masquerading as history, populated with aquarium characters left at a distance from us. It’s far too enigmatically messy and contorted, and it is far more interesting than great. But when Wheatley simply goes for it with a freak-out rave to best them all, it’s easy enough to forgive his meandering eccentricities (for those who want something a little more visceral and direct, the violence means business and there’s an extraordinarily tense climactic shootout).

Lurking within Wheatley’s film, however, is not difficulty for difficulty’s sake. Instead, this is difficulty with purpose. In its messy nonsense, the film gives us a sense that all we can ever do with history is look on from above and try to understand it. We can never know it fully, or truly be involved in a cohesive narrative related to history, for it will always be messed up by our lies and the lie of time, the lie of fiction. The director posits that all historical storytelling is an attempt to paint a lie of cohesion over something that is at its core messy and distinctly non-cohesive. All of history is a theater play, in other words. Knowing Wheatley, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Score: 8.5/10 (edited after reviewing –  I was a bit too eager about the film’s aesthetic sloppiness the first time around)

Kill List

Kill List is an exercise in obtuse misdirection. A subversive attack on films which attempt to tie together a puzzle-piece of narrative with a neat bow, it’s a film that makes you think, but above all it makes you think about how little we can truly “think”. If many films try to challenge us with enigmatic characters and narrative complexity, Kill List reads those films past their phony attempts at difficulty and raises them its own clinical puzzles. It is intentionally distant and obtuse – it does not seem like we are meant to understand anything that happens. Director Ben Wheatley is more interested in tiring us out and making us realize the fallibility of even attempting to reflect on films which are openly obtuse. It’s a somewhat damning indictment – if we ought not bother with obtuse films, why bother with Kill List, an obtuse film that is very much about its obtuse nature?

Because of its raw, disparate feeling. For all Kill List’s anti-narrative perversions and the way it somewhat nihilistically shoots itself in the foot by attacking what it is, the film’s somewhat conflicted and problematic framework is undeniably effective for all the visual and aural ornaments around it: expert use of color and desaturation, aural decay, piercing noises, all manner of non-diegetic music, and camerawork that varies between archly detached and “in the moment” chaos. This is horror-by-way-of-art-filmmaking, certainly not for everybody, but for those who get it, or at least want to get it, it’s a singularly affecting effort. I haven’t really “figured it out”, but I’m also comfortable with my inability to do so. The unrivaled disconcerting power of the film begs us to work at it even when we are made aware it’s all futile. It’s the journey that matters with this film, not the destination. You may put hours in and reach no conclusion, but what you’ll get out is more worthwhile: the sheer madness of the film’s characters, trying to no avail to understand – Wheatley puts you in their minds by distancing you from his film, by keeping you at odd angles to it, as much as (in)humanly possible.

That, of course, was right before he placed those characters, and you, in a modern-day Wicker Man scenario, with the perpetual dead of night lit by maddening flames and tribal sounds mixing with eerie vocals to create a maddening effect. If this plays a bit too much on old stereotypes about pagans, it’s all the scarier that we’re as affected by the climax as we are. Kill List is a horror film, but it’s horrors are all the more deadening for being indescribable. We can never understand them, but they chill to the bone.

Score: 8/10

Sightseers
Sightseers manages a false dichotomy of the utmost dangerous-ness. This is very much Ben Wheatley implacably clenching us into his fists, squeezing us dry, and refusing to let us go, but it is also, curiously, the sight of him undoing his collar and unwinding a little after work. From the very beginning, the film melds the mundane and the grotesque: shots of vacationers plotting out their trip on a pin-board with a sort of grueling warble of a moan that could come from anywhere except humanity. Wheatley then spends the rest of the film making damn sure we realize how achingly human that noise is. The narrative, about a couple, Chris and Tina, who is best able to enjoy their vacation as a result of accidentally killing a person and comes to solve even minor problems through similar means, is about as dour as they come. It allows them to unwind, and to find a little passion in the asocial. Beneath, of course, there’s a serious commentary about unlived lives and the limits of society, but Wheatley is far more interested in having a little fun with it all – he never gets wound up in the clinical intellectualism so important to his other films.

Instead, we get all manner of humor as gallows as it comes – when Chris (Steve Oram) decides to …have a little fun with … a local yuppie he meets (who hilariously speaks of writing his third book on “walking”, called “Walks Along the Ley Lines of Britain”), it’s intercut with Tina (Alice Lowe) doing such a grandstanding activity as waking up. A personal favorite is when Chris discusses their trip as an “erotic odyssey” while Tina sloshes around some amorphous Italian dish and all we hear is the rather grotesque squish of pasta. Wheatley’s other films have explored the intersection of the mundane and the horrific, but here he almost makes fun of his own aesthetic, with other examples of montage that seem less purposeful than arbitrary, and all manner of droll, unfitting music.

At the same time, the film is a rather unpleasant experience, very much a boxed-off reflection of messing with the audience almost for the sake of it. It subjects its audience to something far more untamed than even Wheatley’s other films, and it more openly indicts its audience’s desire for breaking away from the mold of society and making the mundane perversely exciting – for this reason, it works better in small doses than over the long haul. The film’s best moments are undoubtedly its earliest, before things become a bit old-hat and the film fails to engage with new tricks. As an exercise in intentionally beating the audience with a suburban dead-horse, its strength is also something of a weakness.

So we have black as coal comedy at odds (often fascinatingly) with the film chastising those who find it funny – few films have the courage to bleed black comedy into horror like this one. This is a fine framework, but soon enough it all becomes rather episodic, slight, and unfocused. And each episode is less compelling than the previous. Befitting its subject matter, this is very much a vacation film, it’s director less interested in formal innovation or pure affect than in having a bit of a time with himself. The primary issue, however, is that Wheatley’s tireless formal innovation is the primary means by which his films avoided getting bogged down in their own distance. With little going on here that is distinctly visual, we’re left with an intentionally distant tone as difficult as it is giddy. It’s nice to see Wheatley having fun and not thinking so much, but there’s a sense he’s enjoying it a little more than us, especially because his greatest skill as a filmmaker is constructing intellectual monstrosities very much about “thinking”. Wheatley is a major new director, but this is his slightest and least substantive film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this film is less worthwhile than the two Wheatley films which bookend it. It’s a mark of his skill as a director, then, that this statement can be made despite the fact that this film is still pretty snarky and memorable in its own right.

Score: 7/10

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