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Review: In the Earth Luridly, Creepily Evokes the Totality of Nature’s Wrath

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth feels like a palate cleanser for the English filmmaker.

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In the Earth
Photo: Neon

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth feels like a palate cleanser for the English filmmaker, a return to his gnarly, DIY roots after his unimaginative adaptation of Rebecca. Like the films on which Wheatley built his reputation, namely Kill List and Sightseers, In the Earth is a collision of genres: a darkly comic story of English manners, a cabin-in-the-woods thriller, pagan horror, and environmental parable. This film is also, like Doug Liman’s recent Locked Down, a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, though Wheatley has seized on an element of pandemic life that other filmmakers have yet to acknowledge: the escalating fetishizing of the remote country in the wake of a sickness that’s confined people indoors. Wheatley perversely, cheekily follows characters who flee into the woods implicitly on the run from a virus only to find that nature has more than one way of exacting its wrath.

The film’s early moments are its most subtly devastating, following a man walking toward a remote woodland facility, where he’s greeted by people in suits and masks who mention, in passing, a virus in the city. These moments unnervingly underscore how certain tropes of 1970s horror movies, especially of early George Romero and David Cronenberg films, have become part of our reality. Wheatley allows horror homage and modern verisimilitude to merge, giving In the Earth’s early scenes a quiet charge. We learn that the man approaching the facility is Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who is to meet a colleague in the woods in order to research the interconnection of various woodland ecosystems. Martinis accompanied by a park ranger, Alma (Ellora Torchia), who first schools him on a variety of legends surrounding the forest, such as of a local witch that may or may not be symbolic of nature itself.

Following Martin and Alma into the country, one can almost palpably feel Wheatley’s relief at being freed from the ballrooms of Rebecca and even the elaborate gun fights of Free Fire. Wheatley and D.P. Nick Gillespie’s images exude a stark malevolence, fusing the grittiness of “found footage” horror with a hallucinatory quality that becomes more pronounced as the film proceeds. The greens of the leaves feel a touch too green, almost malignantly alive, and the sounds of the forest are constantly thrumming and tangibly alien. Wheatley further disorients us by scrambling genre signifiers: At any given time, In the Earth could be either a slasher or monster movie, a Blair Witch-style immersion into feral paranoia, an abstract fantasia in the spirit of Wheatley’s insane A Field in England, or all of the above.

As clues gradually coalesce, In the Earth arises as a cautionary parable of how people of different philosophies handle a vast social trauma. Martin and the colleague he eventually locates, Olivia (Hayley Squires), are scientists who attempt to quantify nature with data, while a man living in the woods, Zach (Reece Shearsmith), pays homage to a witch-like entity with cult artifacts and rituals. This contrast suggests the widening gulf in society between science and religion, which drives people to subscribe to entirely different realities. As In the Earth grows more unhinged, Wheatley springs a wicked joke: The scientists’ experiments in speaking to the wild are revealed in their way to be as predicated on faith, on a kind of pseudo-magical dogma, as Zach’s barbaric customs. The scientists’ speakers and microphones—stuck into the earth, emanating uncanny light and sound—are as strange and foreboding as Zach’s totems.

The film’s final third, in which the characters may or may not speak to the woods at the cost of their sanity and illusion of primacy in this world, pivots on a psychedelic light show that’s impressive even by Wheatley’s tub-thumping standards. Colors grow luridly vibrant, echoing the hues we’ve seen in Zach’s makeshift tent laboratory, and images clot together to the accompaniment of Clint Mansell’s beautiful score, suggesting that fungi are growing across the screen. Compositions splinter into split screens, recalling mitosis, and characters appear to be divorced from their surroundings. However, by this point the film has stopped engaging with our shivery, primordial fear of the woods. After a while, In the Earth becomes less a fantastical eco-thriller and more of a remote, luridly bedazzling art object.

After all, Wheatley’s brand of lo-fi maximalism has its limitations. In the Earth’s mythology is at once inscrutable, over-explicit, and meaningless, while its ending is less ambiguous than murky. You may find yourself yearning for visceral catharsis in the mode of Kill List’s astonishingly nasty ending—for a shot of body horror to cut through the expository tree-hugging mumbo-jumbo, which Wheatley stubbornly denies. Of course, respective of the pandemic, we’ve yet to experience a catharsis ourselves, floundering between facts and overheated hearsay about the crisis while flailing about in our ever-narrowing personal worlds. The film’s unsatisfying ending is in a way purposefully resonant then, as Wheatley suggests that nature will ultimately grant us mercy, or not, on its own terms.

Cast: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires, Mark Monero, John Hollingworth Director: Ben Wheatley Screenwriter: Ben Wheatley Distributor: Neon Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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