Ben Wheatley returns to A Field In England (2013) territory with a horror tale that takes place in the British woods. The story is propelled by dark, preternatural forces, with a hallucinogenic air. It could almost be called A Woods In England, though its story takes place in the modern world.
By “modern world” I mean right now in the present, in the middle of a fictional pandemic that appears to be a slightly dramatically exaggerated version of the real one from what we hear of it, though they don’t call it by name. People wear masks, quarantine, and practice social distancing. When they refer to the city, it is with a quiet sense of dread and unexplained grief.
As current as the setting is, it feels like the main characters have dropped out of the modern world, or ran away from the plague besetting it, and fallen into a timeless zone, nature's dominion, over which ancient and possibly supernatural laws have the firm upper hand.
The difference of several centuries between A Field In England and this doesn't amount to much in terms of the feel of it. Zach, the husband of a scientist who lives wild in the woodland, performing Pagan rituals, making use of herbs for medicines and remedies, and hunting with bow and arrow, might as well be living half a millennia earlier. He has little real use for technology — though he owns a camera and takes photographs, he considers it a kind of dark magic (literally).
Local folk tales tell of an imposing spirit in the woods, whose presence has been known to locals for untold generations. It is depicted ominously in an old illustration that now hangs on the wall of base camp as a curious decoration.
Taken together, it often feels like we are in nondescript British wilderness at some point during the middle ages. With tents, speakers, and cameras. The speakers are also used as a kind of dark magic.
The general scenario of being lost and/or alone in an uninhabited rural landscape, just outside the protection of civilisation and the modern world, and mysterious and not-quite-natural forces coming into play, runs through multiple Ben Wheatley films. It is a good signature premise that can be spun in many directions, and works well for horror.
The presence of nature takes a powerful, almost artificially-amped-up form in this story. Nature becomes, essentially, an invisible, omnipresent, fiendishly inventive monster whose logic is difficult to decipher, with ingenious methods of asserting itself on unwelcome guests. It is mysterious and threatening, with a dark, extraterrestrial allure.
The story is a kind of horror meditation inspired by the pandemic. It takes aim at fears of being at the mercy of unknown but grand natural forces that are able to effortlessly sidestep humanity, its scientific understanding, and its technologies. A deep well to draw from, and the film captures certain moods very well.
It was written and directed quickly, and it feels like it — though not exactly in a bad way. It has a rough-and-ready energy and is quite a pure storytelling exercise in that sense. It tells the tale in an efficient and competent way. The production isn’t a problem. The acting is good, and the characters well-formed.
As for the quality of the tale? It falls short of A Field In England. A lot of the mystery the viewer invests in emotionally never delivers a return. It feel like there is a missing payload with some of the supernatural stuff.
You could call it a budget problem or a script problem. For me this movie feels proudly independent and low budget, and the script should have been altered to work better within those constraints. The film is cut from the same cloth as Under The Skin (2013) and Saint Maud (2020), both of which deal with the problem of the script and budget being in sync with one another much better.
There is also a lack of substance, narratively. The plot explores many interesting things it never goes deep with or takes anywhere. A kind of lack of focus, which could be expected from a script that was written quickly. Interesting parts put together but not massaged into a truly coherent whole.
Despite shortcomings, there is enough interest and entertainment value here to make it worth seeing — at least for fans of Ben Wheatley's style. While unlikely to be looked back on in years to come as a horror cult classic, it could be seen as an interesting time capsule, capturing societal fears and feelings of dread as experienced in the middle of a pandemic.