At about ten past six, late and out of breath New Street Station Sprint, we enter just as Ben Wheatley finishes his introduction to the first of two films being screened that evening. As the opening titles begin for his 2011 film Kill List, he takes his seat at the back of the room. We […]
At about ten past six, late and out of breath New Street Station Sprint, we enter just as Ben Wheatley finishes his introduction to the first of two films being screened that evening. As the opening titles begin for his 2011 film Kill List, he takes his seat at the back of the room. We sheepishly fumble for seats in the darkness, hoping he hasn’t seen us, undoubtedly irritating surrounding punters and cinephiles. As anyone familiar with Kill List will testify, our clumsy entrance is probably not the best preparation for such a twisted and disorientating film. But now on our third (Tom) and fourth (Dan) viewing, you think we’d know what to expect by now.
For the uninitiated, Kill List follows the story of Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two mid-career hit men who are given a kill list: The Librarian, The Priest and The Politician. Alongside this, we see Jay failing to provide for his wife (MyAnna Buring) and son Sam (Harry Simpson). Scenes are spliced together in a way that manages to be both fluid and yet oddly jarring, creating an unsettling atmosphere that rivals The Shining in its immediate intrigue and sense of foreboding.
Indeed, Wheatley mentions viewing The Shining again recently in the first Q&A break, “I remember thinking as I was watching it, ‘Oh, The Shining is a big build up to him (Jack Nicholson) going mad.’ But in fact, he’s mad from the first second…I quite like that watching this. It’s all so inevitable. There’s no moment when he goes over…He sprints towards it.”
He also bemoans too much “tedious explanation” that he says he tries to avoid in his films, “I find it really tedious when stuff gets explained, and I think that there’s enough information there to put it together. Of course, it’s from their point of view…not from the point of view of the people pulling the strings. It’s about these two guys, so you wouldn’t know.” This certainly applies to Kill List. Although there are scenes of gut-wrenching hyper-violence, which will put even the most seasoned gore-hound through their paces, certain important aspects of the story go unexplained. In particular, references to a previously botched job in Kiev are never really elaborated on in any significant way, but linger in the background uncomfortably, creating a hard-to-place tension between the two antiheroes.
After being asked what he made of the film, having not seen it since Fright Fest, Wheatley jovially remarks, “It’s a curious thing to be asked that in front of a load of people, isn’t it? ‘Did I enjoy my own film?’ I did.”
The second film of the night and Wheatley’s latest effort, A Field in England (2013), is a psychedelic trip into the English civil war from the perspective of four men who shirk battle. Charming, beautifully-shot and it forms a great companion piece to Kill List; just as odd and just as discordant. Wheatley deserves credit for managing such an intense and mesmerisingly cinematic experience without the same hyper-violence that Kill List exhibited, demonstrating his undoubted skill as a filmmaker.
He explains how the film’s cinematography, notably shooting in black and white, is important to the psychedelic elements in the film, “For me, it’s all about texture. That’s why we ended up shooting in black and white, because colour is distracting.” However, as a result of this, the film doesn’t always hit the right notes. Budgetary constraints do occasionally become noticeable, especially in the trip scene with Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) which, although illuminating, is created using fairly simplistic effects. It would be wrong if it were a more traditional hazy psychedelic and, as his Q&A response, is not what Wheatley was aiming for.
He also explains how it’s his view that civil war was the start of democratisation and parliament in England, “It was the last time we were all totally radicalised. The whole country was turning everything upside down…it also mirrors what’s going on now. Idiot leaders and terrible wars.” Through this prism it is easy to see the film as a metaphor for the struggle of men to be free in a modern world where base greed replaces aristocratic values as the tool of oppression. Of course Wheatley himself would eschew such a grand statement, and he’s partly right, there’s too much nuance and flair on page and screen to justify such a crude explanation. He then went on to discuss the deliberate omission of any battle scenes from the script, written by Amy Jump, Wheatley’s wife and writing collaborator, “What Amy was interested in…was a history that was never reported. She thought it would be nice to see what happened to people on the edge of it all.”
The fields, as the title might suggest, transcend their role as setting and become part of the fabric of the film. This is in no small part down to the cinematography, switching focus from the insects to the landscape in a majestic and strangely profound manner. Almost every set-piece is executed in Wheatley’s typically off-kilter style. One shot in particular, a close-up of Whitehead, perfectly captures the insanity and the smallness of this one man’s revelation in the midst of national upheaval.
Verdict: Nine out of Ten
As it stands, fans of home-grown British cinema, as well as the wider viewing public, are incredibly fortunate to be in the presence of such a rare talent; a filmmaker who has proven himself to be extremely versatile. Wheatley crafts outstanding films, which grab us by the throat and refuse to let go until the credits role. He expertly weaves together sickening horror with belly-laugh humour, all the while forcing us to consider much larger themes contained in brilliantly written and masterfully shot pieces of art.
Tom Lofkin & Dan Moroney