Ben Wheatley – Horrific Humour on the Margins

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David Prendeville takes a look into the viciously funny world of Ben Wheatley.

Ben Wheatley falls into the tradition of great eccentric British directors.  His work resembles not the tasteful prestige cinema of Lean or Minghella, but the strange off-centre work of visionaries such as Michael Powell, Nicolas Roeg or Ken Russell. His films Down Terrace (2009), Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012) and now A Field in England (2013) show a director who is clearly interested not just in confounding expectations (Kill List is a  domestic drama with shades of Mike Leigh, then a gritty crime thriller, then an out and out horror film; Sightseers starts of as an odd comedy before taking in brutal murders etc.) but also a filmmaker who is clearly interested in and has a distinct philosophy relating to the film form itself. Like filmmakers such as Powell and Roeg, Wheatley utilises all the tools of his medium to make uniquely cinematic experiences. Wheatley is the type of filmmaker that completely undermines Francois Truffaut’s famous line about the terms British and Cinema being incompatible.

Stylistically Wheatley’s films exhibit a string of diverse influences while maintaining individuality. While many people lazily compared Kill List to The Wicker Man or The Witchfinder General, what made the film so interesting was the fact that it merged these influences with that of filmmakers such as David Lynch with its brooding sound design, Gus van Sant’s Elephant in the manner in which the camera frequently follows its characters from behind in a near video-game style, and Michael Haneke with its depiction of violence, particularly the detached brutal take in which Jay smashes the Librarian’s head in with a hammer. This called to mind Majid’s suicide in Cache, with its long-shot and its realistic shock factor. The cult members at the end of the film are also reminiscent of the pagans in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. While A Field in England utilises avant-garde editing in the psychedelic sequences reminiscent of underground cinema and also punctuates its scenes with its cast in tableau reminiscent somewhat of some of Peter Greenaway’s work.

Wheatley has an extraordinary knack for leaving scenes and images imprinted on the viewer’s mind. The aforementioned scene involving Jay and the Librarian in Kill List is an example of this as well as the extraordinary scene in the porn dungeon in which Jay encounters something deeply disturbing on a computer screen, something which is not revealed to the audience but instead conveyed through the deeply disturbing screams emitting from the computer screen, along with a close-up of Jay’s distraught face as he watches on. Another example is the extraordinary scene in A Field in England, in which after minutes of screaming from inside a tent, Whitehead emerges in truly hypnotic slow motion.

Thematically, Wheatley is interested in the merging of the humorous and the horrific. Down Terrace and Sightseers are more blatantly humorous than Kill List and A Field in England, but there exists a similar strange, British sitcom-esque humour running throughout all of the films. One need only take a look at the fact A Field in England‘s cast is made up of television comedy actors such as Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barret to see the importance Wheatley places on having a sense of wit in his work.  This sense of humour is usually distinctly British but it is surreal enough to draw comparisons with Luis Bunuel. Not least in Down Terrace, in which Wheatley expertly avoids falling into Shameless syndrome of indulging in grime and attempting to force humour on it, instead the film works as a bizarre observation piece that manages to be both utterly believable and outlandishly unusual.

A sense of unresolved mystery looms large in his work. Just as we never see what is on the computer screen that disturbs Jay so much, Wheatley’s narratives are open-ended. In keeping with the formal experimentation of his work, Wheatley is more interested in asking questions than resolving them. We are never sure who Jay and Gal are working for in Kill List and how it all links in with the suicide cult at the end of the film. The film is littered with bizarre ambiguities and exchanges. What significance do the offerings Jay believes he receives from his cat have? What exactly happened in Kiev? Why, when Jay pays a visit to the doctor about his infected hand, is he greeted with philosophising on the past and the future? In Sightseers we are greeted with strange dream sequences and a suggestion of witchcraft being at play. This is reinforced in the final scene when Tina lets go of Chris’ hand. Was she a witch as he jokingly suggested? Was the death of her mother’s dog poppy really the result of a bizarre accident involving knitting needles? The open-ended nature of Wheatley’s work is taken even further in A Field in England in which the framework of the British Civil War and a search for treasure is superseded by an emphasis on hallucinatory imagery and strange occurrence. What power does O’ Neill possess? Is the planet that Whitehead sees as a result of hallucinogens or is it real? To look for answers to these questions be to would miss the point. Wheatley eschews meaning in a traditional sense and instead is focused on creating atmosphere in his work.  He utilises mystery, humour, and film-literacy and frames these within a formal approach that emphasises the experiential and visceral potentials of cinema as a medium.

Wheatley stands not only as one of the most promising British filmmakers currently working, but also as one of the most promising and unique filmmakers working in the world today.  While his films have received excellent reviews it is disheartening to note that instead of nominating either Wheatley’s Sightseers or Peter Strickland’s excellent Berberian Sound Studio for Best British Film at the BAFTAs last year, they instead opted for such underwhelming work as Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. Like Roeg or Russell before him perhaps Wheatley will have to continue working on the margins pleasing the cineaste and being ignored by the more ‘tasteful’ corners. Whatever the case may be, this writer eagerly awaits seeing what lies in store next for this most distinctive of directors working in the cinema today.

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