Monty Python meets Alejandro Jodorowsky? Whatever the hell this film is, it’s practically tailor-made for the Dreamland Cafe. A lot of people say the film has no plot, but I think it’s more accurate to say that the plot is disconnected from the context that would help us fully understand it. The lack of context gives it an uncanny feel. Well, that and the giant black hole sun in the sky, but I digress.
Here’s the plot summary on IMDb: “Amid the Civil War in 17th-Century England, a group of deserters flee from battle through an overgrown field. Captured by an alchemist, the men are forced to help him search to find a hidden treasure that he believes is buried in the field.” This gets the gist of it. The only thing I’d add is that one of the deserters (although he’s not a soldier, so I’m not sure he can be described as a deserter) is a man named Whitehead who is employed by an alchemist and has been sent to recover some stolen alchemical documents from an apprentice of the alchemist named O’Neil. O’Neil and his second, Cutler, capture Whitehead and two other men fleeing an unseen battle (luring them into the trap with promises of an ale house across the field), and O’Neil forces Whitehead to use magical means to search for the buried treasure and the other two men to dig it up.
So I think the plot is fairly clear in its immediate details, and it develops over the course of the 90-minute running time of the film. It’s true that there are a lot of humorous and strange digressions from the storyline, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. It’s also true that this is a mishmash of genres that’s constantly shifting tones and moods, which makes it hard to pin down what it’s about. One second a naked, wobbly wanger (or “yard,” in the lingo of the day) will be pissing on a couple of squabbling idiots, and the next somebody will be dying of a gunshot wound. Magic mushrooms are ingested, making it unclear whether the alchemical magic being practiced is actually a hallucination. Dead people return to life only to die again, with no explanation for the recycling.
Okay, I confess that I have no idea what the mysterious final shot is telling us. Maybe that it was all a dream? There’s a dreamlike quality to the whole thing, and sometimes it’s nightmarish. The shifts in characters’ fortune are absurd, leading to a feeling of artifice. The black and white photography is beautiful, and there are some rhapsodic nature shots thrown into the mix, albeit rhapsodic nature shots featuring scrabbling insects. Costumes and props are very well done, and the language of the dialogue (co-written by Wheatley and Amy Jump) is topnotch, keeping an archaic feel while not being too obscure — although I say that as someone with probably more exposure to the English language of the 17th Century than the average bear, so your mileage may vary. The major mushroom trip scene is a brilliant piece of editing (again by Wheatley and Jump — makes me wonder why Jump doesn’t get a directing credit too). Some of the handheld camerawork was a little tiresome, but that’s really my only complaint. Other than that it seemed the work of mad, febrile, fertile geniuses reinventing the world.
Wheatley and Jump are currently working on an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, with Tom Hiddleston in the cast. It immediately becomes one of the most hotly anticipated films of the coming year for me.