In the 2010s, one of the most interesting new directorial voices anywhere in the English-speaking world has been that of Great Britain’s Ben Wheatley. Without having produced any clear-cut unambiguous masterpieces in in the handful of features, and short contribution to the horror anthology The ABCs of Death (one of the lonely few segments of that film that’s worth any damn at all - it is, in fact, my favorite), that make up his career since 2009, Wheatley has eked out a position as an extremely satisfying manipulator of genres and tones, finding pawky humor in the grotesque and maddeningly tense horror in the mundane and suburban. It’s a little premature to claim that I’d be willing to follow him anywhere, but I haven’t been let down yet.

So with all that in mind, it’s a little bit disappointing that the first of Wheatley’s films to put in an appearance on this blog, A Field in England, finds the director producing his first movie that I haven’t loved on the spot. Not because he seems to relaxed whatever internal pressure led to the creation of his first three, enormously idiosyncratic movies - the film, his fourth feature,his fourth, is arguably his most ambitious yet, artistically and narratively. If nothing else, the attempt to mount a period movie set during the Civil War (the 17th Century one in England, not the 19th Century one in America) with only six actors and costumes that look like the most talented mom in middle school put them together for the spring play - and to succeed so fully in that attempt that after the opening scene finishes instructing us how to watch the movie, there’s never another moment when it feels inauthentic or fake - would earn so many moxie points that it would be hard to entirely dislike the film.

The simple beginning to an obtuse, psychologically-driven narrative finds bullying military man Commander Trower (Julian Barratt) relying on an apprentice alchemist and diviner named Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) to find a missing outlaw. During battle, which he watches from the fringes (and if it feels like this is an excuse for us to hear the fighting without seeing it, sure, but it works at establishing the film’s off-kilter tone right at the start), Whitehead is able to escape, meeting up with a pair of deserters, Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover), and a freeman, Cutler (Ryan Pope), all leaving the field of battle; their attempt to find an ale house a little way back into the country leads them quickly astray, and right into the path of O’Neil (Michael Smiley), an Irish thief, and the exact same outlaw Whitehead had been assigned to hunt down. O’Neil has a much more intriguing possibility than ale and whores; he claims to know of a treasure hidden in a nearby field, and he’s not going to give up the chance to have a trained diviner help him find it.

It would be simple and clean to suggest that the film takes its turn when the group eats a stew made of wild mushrooms that prove to be hallucinogenic, and it’s certainly at this point that the film most fully reveals itself as a psychological drama with overtones of cosmic, religious terror. But that would be selling the opening act short. At all points, A Field in England delights in presenting the viewer with a world sufficiently disorienting, between the weird emptiness of its setting, the stylised mix of modernism and olde-tymey dialogue in Amy Jump’s script (Wheatley’s regular writer and thus the co-author of his distinctive, odd tones), and the metallic cinematography by Laurie Rose, in a full range of soft greys that never quite commit to full white and only rarely to black. The film looks and sounds like a dream in a rather more direct sense than most “this is a dream” films usually do: the images stubbornly refuse to link up properly even though there’s no obvious discontinuity in the cutting, and objects and concepts suddenly appear in the story as though they were already there and we were supposed to have noticed them before. It looks, and sounds, deeply uncanny, long before the magic mushrooms enter the picture.

The film's general direction, with its generally increasing pileup of suggestions that the field is a version of Hell or at least Purgatory, and the equivalence of O'Neil with the actual devil (first as a joke, increasingly not), rather neatly marries two kinds of content: that is, having unexpectedly chosen to dive into the 1640s, Wheatley and Jump proceed to tell a story with moral concerns that feel period-appropriate, and even with a certain period-correct lack of polish and convincing illusion. If 17th Century Englishmen had access to digital cameras, but nothing else of contemporary technology, A Field in England has the distinct feel of something they might have made, and that's exceptionally cool. Also, this is what helps the film to hang together as much as it does, for as long as it does. For in honesty, while all of the individual parts work terrifically, from the nervous, rough performances to the cinematography to everything, the unified whole feels vaguely aimless and less than totally satisfying. The impression one gets - I got, at least - is that Wheatley and dompany didn't really have a feature's worth of different ideas, and so A Field in England ends up being a somewhat drawn-out affair that is punctuated, whenever it starts to flag really badly, with one of its more aggressively outré gestures.

I won't quite go so far as to say it's boring or pointless, though those words do rear their heads. What A Field in England does offer, by the bucketload, is a pervasive sense of unease, an almost physical sense of things being entirely and perversely not right with the film, as you're watching it. The combination of costume drama, religious allegory, and psychological horror that largely go to making up the movie matches with that unease beautifully, and the increasing fragmentation of the narrative into events that barely make sense on their own and don't seem to flow naturally from what went before proves to be a well-motivated and totally effective choice, and not just aimless messiness. It works as an experience, whatever else it does. But it's the first Wheatley film which I left feeling no clear sense of why - of what that experience was meant to do besides unsettle me mightily. It succeeded, and that's no little thing, but compared to the suggestive themes and social insight of the director and writer's previous work, I'm a little bit annoyed that it's the only thing.