3. Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)
The family get-together from hell and definitely Wheatley’s most down-to-earth, humanist film.
The black sheep of the family (Neil Maskell’s Colin) hires a lavish country hotel for a new year’s celebration, but before he knows it bad blood and ancient arguments resurface. So far, so Festen but believe it or not unlike most of Wheatley’s work this one does have a sort-of happy ending.
The Burstead clan make the family from Down Terrace look stable and well-adjusted in comparison, but this dysfunctional bloodline let it out not with lethal violence but with good old-fashioned passive-aggression. This is Wheatley’s take on Dogme-95 or other stripped-back indie film movements, but it’s funny and full of heart as well as being deeply uncomfortable and ringing completely true.
The whole ensemble bring their A-game, with Maskell’s usual flawed masculinity giving way to sympathetic vulnerability to such an extent that you want to give Colin a big comforting hug, and Charles Dance is another highlight with his dignified and dialled-back performance as Uncle Bertie.
2. Kill List (2011)
Atmospheric, disturbing and eerie, and delivering images that will be difficult to shake off, there’s a reason Wheatley’s second film made him a critical darling.
Kill List tells the story of two hitmen (Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) who have settled into life in the suburbs until they accept a contract to kill three people, no questions asked.
The recognisable domestic mundanity that gives way without warning to cold-blooded bloodshed before getting overwhelmed by sinister, strongly-implied to be occult forces is a cocktail that leaves you sick to your stomach, but thrilled by the experience nonetheless. The film features one of the most uncomfortable dinner table arguments ever put on camera, depictions of violence that are extreme and disturbingly realistic but still don’t feel sensationalist, and a final stretch that turns the film into a full-blown horror.
Kill List is a film ripe for re-watch as you’ll notice new small details in the background, throwaway lines and looks between characters add to the experience and chart the story’s course long before we hear of “the hunchback”.
1. A Field in England (2013)
Not as beloved as Kill List, but just as, if not more challenging, and easily his most beautiful and artful film to date, A Field in England is Ben Wheatley’s Magnum Opus.
English Civil War deserters band together in a nondescript field and begin a journey to who knows where. Along the way they unearth (literally) the beguiling O’Neill (Michael Smiley) who has a history with the meek apothecary Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), before the group ingests some suspicious mushrooms and completely lose their grip on reality.
Shearsmith’s increasingly deranged turn, and Smiley as the terrifying and enigmatic man he is, are the definite highlights, but the supporting players bring the rowdy humour in old-timey language and the whole psychedelic affair will subdue all but those with the strongest of wills with sheer sonic exoticism and visual invention throughout.
It may be a story about five men tripping in a field, but it’s an experience and one that demands repeating and debating endlessly. You won’t forget the nightmare-fuel expression on Shearsmith’s face as he emerges from a tent after O’Neill does something non-specifically horrible to him, and the striking optical effects and clever sound and image editing tricks applied to this gorgeous monochrome footage makes the case for the film to be shown in galleries as well as on screens small and large.
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Whatever Ben Wheatley ends up turning his hand to next (The Meg 2, apparently) you suspect that he will remain one of the hardest working men in the British film industry and will continue to experiment, to dazzle and to delight his fans with a mixture of devilish humour, irony and ultraviolence.
Are you a Ben Wheatley super-fan or is he yet to convert you? How would you rank Ben Wheatley’s filmography? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and follow The Film Magazine on Facebook and Twitter for more insightful articles, essays and lists.
List updated to include In the Earth (2021) on 15th January 2022. Originally published 24th May 2021.