Written and Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, and Hayley Squires
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Nature is a force of evil.
If the past year has revealed anything, it’s that Mother Nature is absolutely undefeated. No matter what technological advances mankind may achieve to tame the Earth, nothing can prevent a randoam cocktail of microbes from mingling and spreading an infectious disease across the globe. It’s arguably the most elemental of all horror scenarios: that which inexplicably appears via the whims of a chaotic universe. And yet, we still can’t help but try to explain it and quantify it: here we are a year later, and scientists are still researching the origins of the pandemic, ostensibly to help prevent the next one, but also, I think, to find some measure of comfort by accounting for it. Human nature demands such accountability—deep down, we can’t accept the unexplained. Ben Wheatley confronts this phenomenon with In the Earth but does so in his signature, laconic style, scattering a fractured, jagged puzzle as he explores the role that science and folklore can play when reckoning with the inexplicable. These twin pillars of the human experience—knowledge and storytelling—have provided so much solace yet prove to be futile in the shadow of faceless, elemental forces.
Set in the specter of a worldwide pandemic, In the Earth finds a scientist, Martin (Joel Fry), and forest ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) heading into the woods to find the former’s missing colleague, Olivia (Hayley Squires). As they descend deeper into the woods, a guttural sense of menace begins to swell in the discovery of an abandoned camp. Something feels off before an unseen assailant attacks them in the night, leaving them forced to trek through the woods without shoes and other supplies. When they happen upon eccentric hermit Zach (Reece Shearsmith), they’re desperate to consider his makeshift refuge salvation. His charisma deceptively conceals his madness: convinced he’s in communion with the mystical forces, he hopes to open Martin and Alma’s consciousness to the possibilities that lurk beyond science.
Or something like that. In the Earth is quite lucid right up until Zach reveals his madness, which is driven by his deranged obsession with whatever haunts the woods. And whatever that is might also hold the key to finding Olivia, who has been researching a plant-based neural network that might allow mankind to speak with nature. Establishing contact with nature becomes the central concern of In the Earth, a film that ultimately blurs the lines between modern, tech-based advances and more ancient, mystical methods. Before Martin and Alma embark on their mission he’s introduced to the lore of Parnag Fegg, a pagan spirit of the woods that once guided the locals. If Zach’s ravings are any indication, maybe it still is. Maybe science is just ascribing a new name to an old force.
“Maybe” is the specter that ultimately lingers over In the Earth, a film that sews doubt, discord, and paranoia as its characters tread into the sodden woods, each step bringing them further away from certainty. The only thing the characters and the audience can be sure of is that something awful awaits. Wheatley soaks the film in absolute dread, his handheld camerawork capturing a hushed eeriness even before Martin leaves the outpost on his mission. The characters speak in solemn tones, all of them linked by the shared trauma of living through something horrific. In the Earth becomes something of a twisted grail quest, where characters are desperately searching for something, whether it be a connection to nature or simply to each other. It’s implied that Martin has more than a professional relationship with Olivia, and other secrets lurk. Some are revealed, while others remain obtuse during an increasingly elliptical ordeal, where the visceral horrors yield to existential ones. In the Earth plays out like a shaggy, lo-fi riff on Annihilation, where the slick sheen has been replaced with a rugged, grungy aesthetic and laconic montages act as a narrative patchwork. It dances on the fringes of folk horror without doing the full invocation that would conjure complete coherence, leaving you to wonder what the true source of the horror is.
Wheatley tethers to harrowing journey to some lucid, visceral shocks when Zach takes up an axe and begins stalking the duo through the woods, which certainly makes the most marketable visual the film has to offer. And while it makes for evocative poster imagery, In the Earth isn’t just routine slasher-in-the-woods stuff, even if it does mangle some body parts along the way. Rather, it’s more of a mood piece that insists a more ethereal menace is guiding the action by drawing these characters together for some mysterious purpose. Maybe it’s a nefarious one; maybe it’s not. It’s one of those movies where the characters talk around a subject without ever quite hitting on it exactly. In the Earth is full of exposition, ominous folklore, witchcraft books, whirring electrical equipment, strobe lights, and spooky feedback reverberating through the trees, all of it creating the impression of some ethereal presence that would unlock every secret if Wheatley were interested in making such a movie.
But Wheatley being Wheatley, he’s not about to do that, so In the Earth is mesmerizing and puzzling, captivating and frustrating all at once. In short, it’s very much a Ben Wheatley Experience. Longtime readers might remember that I run hot and cold on his work, and I generally appreciate his work more than I “enjoy” it, though I think that might especially be the point of something like Kill List or A Field in England. Wheatley has become a master at crafting cinematic alienation, of stranding viewers in cold, unfeeling scenarios without offering a way out. In the Earth is no different, and it’s a similarly maddening experience: long stretches of it feel tedious and aimless, while the inspired bursts—where Clint Mansell’s dreamy score resounds against disorienting, vivid imagery—are unforgettable. In the Earth is both mundane and transcendent, perhaps in an apt reflection of its content, which attempts to reduce sacred lore to the stuff of profane science. What it all means remains up for question, but this is one of those movies that evokes more of a visceral reaction despite all of the jargon and nonsense dialogue that threatens to bog the whole thing down.
The film was shot in only 15 days and sometimes feels as such, particularly in the way it never comes into focus. By the time it ends, In the Earth feels like a rough sketch that’s not supposed to have another pass. There’s an urgency to it, almost as if Wheatley was desperate to distill our universal COVID anxieties into an intimate portrait that grapples with the questions this pandemic has posed. That it yields few answers and ends on an ambiguous note makes it a movie of the moment, when we’re all still a little uneasy about what we’ve endured. But the way Wheatley probes those pillars of science and religion and ultimately decides neither offers much comfort taps into a more elemental wellspring of horror as an abyss that simply spits our anxieties back out at us. His characters crunch numbers and fiddle with buttons and knobs, only to discover it might not matter; likewise, they try to appease the old gods in the old ways, also seemingly to no avail. Maybe In the Earth is just 107 minutes of Wheatley insisting that we’re fucked. Or maybe not. Maybe we’re never meant to know nature’s arcane design.
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