It might seem a strange task to write a book about a director who’s only 44-years-old and has made six features in his career, but Adam Nayman puts forward a compelling argument for the worth of Wheatley’s nascent career in “Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage.” If we’re to accept memoirs from 28-year-old movie stars and dissections of the lives of famous soccer players before they are barely old enough to drink, surely we can accept an intelligent and entertaining examination of a prolific director from a writer who knows what he’s talking about.
Adam Nayman’s “Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage” from the Critical Press, digs into one of Britain’s most interesting new directors by offering a comprehensive reading of his work. Although Wheatley has only been working in the professional world of cinema for eight years, he’s already amassed a compelling filmography (Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, High-Rise, and Free Fire)—one that has tantalized critics and garnered cult status among cinephiles.
The book’s argument progresses naturally. The introduction to “Confusion and Carnage” sets up Nayman’s thesis for why Wheatley is worth taking seriously. The first chapter contains an interview with Wheatley and then subsequent chapters each focus on his individual works, with the first of these devoted to his short films and television work. The introduction is where you’ll find any approximation of a unifying statement about Ben Wheatley as a filmmaker. But as Nayman wisely repeats throughout, it’s too early to form a grand theory on Wheatley’s work.
Instead of offering a definitive summary (which would be a foolish task for a director who’s in the first act of his career), “Confusion and Carnage“ aims to legitimize Wheatley within the critical community and draw parallel lines between the director and titans of the past. In essence, it seems that Adam Nayman’s aim is to get more people interested in Wheatley’s work and to prove that he’s no mere genre provocateur but a budding auteur working within a rich tradition.
Of course, Nayman also writes the book because he’s an unabashed fan of Wheatley’s work. Anyone who follows Nayman on Twitter is aware of his affinity for Wheatley’s films—and knows that he’s gently mocked by Film Twitter friends for his unwavering devotion to the director. It’s not that the critical community doesn’t respect Wheatley’s films, as many of them have proven great hits with critics, especially Sightseers and A Field in England. But Wheatley also divides critics—the critical reception to High-Rise gives the best snapshot of diverse reactions to the director. Essentially, one half think it’s an incoherent mess that loses the clinical wit of J.G. Ballard’s novel, while the other half think it’s a future cult classic.
“If Nayman’s goal is to increase the reader’s interest in Wheatley’s films, he succeeds with flying colours.”
Thus, “Confusion and Carnage” is also Nayman’s evangelism for Wheatley, his apologia of the director’s most confounding impulses and obsessions. It might not be attempting a form of critical rehabilitation in the vein of Nayman’s own “Showgirls: It Doesn’t Suck” for ECW Press’s Pop Classics series, but it shares some of the same defensive spirit.
Luckily, it also shares that book’s wit and broad discussion of film history. Unlike so many critics that dominate the online film conversation, Nayman is actually educated. He shares more with the classical mode of university-educated critics and theorists than the fan bloggers who so often overwhelm the modern discussion of film. It’s actually one of the book’s strengths that it points out how Wheatley appeals to both of these groups. His provocative nature attracts the genre enthusiasts and midnight madness crowd who grew up on Quentin Tarantino films and love expressive pictures like High-Rise even if they lack any desire to unpack its Thatcherian satire.
However, these sorts of Wheatley fans would be unlikely to note Wheatley’s connections to British cinema of the 1970s, as Nayman does persuasively throughout “Confusion and Carnage.” Specifically, Nayman argues that Wheatley belongs as much (if not more) in the tradition of classic British filmmakers like Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) than genre stylists like Tarantino. Much of this discussion of Wheatley’s place in British film history focuses on Kill List, Wheatley’s celebrated second feature that intertwines crime and the occult with British domesticity in similar ways to the combination of horror and familial grieving in Don’t Look Now.
Of course, discussion of Kill List also leads to a discussion of 1970s British cinema’s overarching obsession with the occult, best embodied in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Even if Nayman is leery of overt connections between Wheatley and Hardy, he addresses the common connection even as he bypasses the conventional thinking about Wheatley’s place in film history.
Adam Nayman doesn’t limit his examination of Wheatley’s work to a historical reading. He devotes most of the book to examining the ways that Wheatley confounds genre and on-screen space in order to reveal the baser impulses of his characters and British society as a whole.
If you’re looking for an easy summation of the book’s exegesis, the title, “Confusion and Carnage,” boils down Nayman’s investigation into Wheatley’s methods of subversion. “Confusion” speaks to his means of blending genre and avoiding convention. For instance, Nayman lays out how Kill List shifts from a domestic drama to a crime film and finally to an occult film, confounding any generic conventions. However, beyond merely confounding the viewer’s expectations, Wheatley’s film also uses the shifting storyscape to connect the threads together, epitomizing the main character’s own selfish impulses within his family through the horror of the occult ending. Another example is High-Rise, which forgoes any conventional second act, instead opting for montage and repetition to demonstrate how the inhabitants of a high-rise building descend into animalistic chaos and class warfare.
“Instead of offering a definitive summary, “Confusion and Carnage“ aims to legitimize Wheatley within the critical community and draw parallel lines between the director and titans of the past.”
“Carnage” is a little easier to identify in Wheatley’s films. Each film features ghastly violence that often arrives unheralded and startles the viewer with its perversity. However, Nayman doesn’t suffice to simply point out Wheatley’s use of violence on screen. He highlights the intertextual echoes of the violence, connecting the brutal hammer scene in Kill List, for instance, with the scene where a man flings himself to death off the titular building in High-Rise. He also shows how the violence on screen often demonstrates a particularly male weakness inherent in all of the characters, something that is a likely insight offered by screenwriter Amy Jump (Wheatley’s wife.)
Perhaps most to Nayman’s credit, he refuses to overlook Jump’s contributions to Wheatley’s work. Although Jump is notoriously reclusive—she doesn’t appear at film festivals and refuses any interviews, even for this book—Nayman attempts to underline her artistic contributions to every film and the ways she subverts the male-oriented narratives she writes. Nayman might be reaching when he describes the uniquely-female attributes of A Field in England, a film without any female characters, but his focus on Jump celebrates the act of screenwriting and argues for its authorship in a medium where writers are usually ignored in favour of the director. Adam Nayman compellingly demonstrates that these six films are as much the authorial work of Jump as Wheatley, and that a perhaps more fitting title for this book would be “Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump: Confusion and Carnage.”
The book as a whole is quick reading and leaves few aspects of Wheatley’s films undiscussed, even if it’s very much a survey of his work instead of an exhaustive dissection. If Nayman’s goal is to increase the reader’s interest in Wheatley’s films, he succeeds with flying colours. Even as someone familiar with all of Wheatley’s films and more reserved in my responses to them, Nayman’s book has convinced me that these six films are worth revisiting and exploring. As a work of criticism, “Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage” is compelling and authoritative, demonstrating that Wheatley’s films cannot be easily dismissed. And a work of advocacy for a director the writer has obvious affection for, it’s beyond reproach.
Nayman’s book, “Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage” is available at at many retailers, including Amazon.