In the Earth, 2021.
Written and Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Monero, and John Hollingworth.
As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run.
While it features a pandemic similar in reaction to the current global health crisis, the virus in writer/director Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (taking a break from his recent bigger budget affairs to return to his roots, no pun intended, shooting this during the summer of lockdown in the UK last year) is fictional. However, upon noticing characters happy to see new faces, wearing masks, some slight social distancing, and even health examinations, one can’t help but feel In the Earth should have also come out last year rather than release at a time where the vaccination process is underway and people are mildly being encouraged to attempt returning to a normal life. If anything, some will come away afraid of nature, which is exactly the point, although fear of the outdoors and a call to stay the hell inside would have resonated more having seen the film last year. Simultaneously, it’s understandable why the filmmakers held off until this past Sundance to show In the Earth off for the first time; it’s damn terrifying, trippy, thoughtfully imaginative in sound design and visual tricks to convey communicating with nature, and packs a savage kick of relatively insane individuals and body horror.
Joel Fry is scientist Martin Lowery, taking up a mission to venture into the Arboreal Forest and reach a testing site headed up by fellow scientist and former flame Olivia (Hayley Squires, who greatly impressed a few years ago in another fantastic British production, I, Daniel Blake). She has also gone missing and dropped all contact, leaving up some mystery in the air with viewers only really knowing that she was experimenting with understanding nature on a sentient level with hopes to create a cure for whatever this virus is. It’s also made clear that a so-called spirit of the woods dubbed Parmag Fegg is within the area and could be the key to this.
Nevertheless, Martin is on his way only accompanied by park tour guide Alma (Ellora Torchia), warned that others have either gone missing or went mad. The two find abandoned camps and other oddities, only to get mugged during their sleep and have their footwear stolen. They also meet a bearded man named Zach (Reece Shearsmith, both comforting and crazy here) claiming to have had the same thing happened to him, going on to offer food and replacement shoes. It may also be too late considering there’s a potentially nasty infection festering on Martin’s toes. Eventually, Olivia is located although she seems to be committed to making a breakthrough on communicating with nature regardless of the surrounding dangers, which include but are not limited to a hallucinatory fog, a rampaging killer offering up sacrifices to the supposed spirit and the perils of the forest itself.
With all of this in mind, In the Earth often slickly alters between straight-up survival horror (there’s a tense sequence where the two are hunted by a man with a bow and arrow, set to no music and all disquieting ambiance) and something more brainy and psychedelic. Inevitably, all of those elements converge in what feels like a confounding but natural conclusion to a film that appears to be criticizing both scientific and religious fervor in terms of taming nature. And if the characters start off reasonably intriguing before surrendering to a double down on plot weirdness, the production design involving speakers and microphones rigged up all over the forest to analyze different frequencies, the moody lighting, and the psychedelic freakouts progressively getting harder are enough to visually and sonically arrest viewers. The synthetic score from Clint Mansell does more than enough to elevate that suspense, knowing just the right moments to kick the intensity up a notch with aggressively sinister overtones.
Ben Wheatley doesn’t seem to be saying anything profound with In the Earth, but it’s got enough style to burn the whole forest down. Even during the climactic burst of insanity where it’s not entirely clear what’s going on, the presentation of it all remains captivating. There is also a demented sense of humor involving discussions of retreating to a hospital that has a delightfully twisted yet hilarious payoff. It also accomplishes its point that maybe people should stay inside or at least do real research instead of fictionally fucking around with long-dormant forest spirits in an effort to make crackpot science or zealotry the solution. It’s a subtle response to the ongoing pandemic, one that wants to acknowledge what’s going on without putting it in the foreground of the film, one that weaves reality and fiction with unnerving results. That’s the launching point for some real terror.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com