In the Earth begins with a straightforward premise, cajoling us along into the woods within ten minutes of the film’s run. Martin (Joel Fry) arrives at a remote research lodge in the woods to continue his own work on crop efficiency, while the world faces a Covid-like pandemic beyond the confines of our limited view. Joined by Alma (Ellora Torchia), a park ranger, the two venture on a hike to meet up with another researcher before suffering a mysterious attack in the middle of the night. Shoeless and clueless, they’re aided by park squatter Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who might not be as peace-and-love friendly as his gangly long hair would indicate…
In the Earth
Director: Ben Wheatley
Release Date: April 16, 2021
Hardly a criticism of the film itself, much of the premise of In the Earth alludes to it being a “Covid” or “pandemic” film, which it absolutely is not. The global virus and tensions beyond our limited woodland setting hardly bears upon the film’s plot, contained in a forest-sized bottle the way many of Ben Wheatley’s previous efforts limit their scope; the way Free Fire is confined to a warehouse or High-Rise to… well, a high rise complex. Take a guess where A Field in England takes place. In this sense, In the Earth doesn’t feel like a stripped-down production any more than Wheatley’s previous work, perhaps a credit to what I see as his strong theatrical style of direction.
On the flipside of that, much of the events of Earth feel so… arbitrary, to put it bluntly. In the early minutes of the film, before departing, Alma casually rehearses a legend associated with a local folkloric element, a “spirit of the woods” personified in some striking etched art at the lodge. Pfff, those kooky locals.
But in the way Earth so randomly alludes to its otherworldly something, it plays its cards far too early, and without any real weight behind the mystique. Especially as the film progresses and descends into a nightmarish hike, with tantalizing glimpses at some substance dashed by Wheatley’s hallucinogenic inclinations.
Peaking with A Field in England, Wheatley is seemingly transfixed with hallucinogenic or sporadic visuals, in that film employing camera tricks and barraging montage to sell its 17th century mushroom mayhem. In the Earth treads similar ground, with at least three sequences I would liken to “trips,” sacrificing narrative coherence for anything-goes strobe lights and editing. It’s… maybe effective? Despite being a tremendous fan of England, I found the surrealism a bit predictable and lacking in In the Earth, relegated to flashes of a madman with an ax in the wood or kaleidoscopic perspectives after ingesting mushroom milk. The auditory barrage accompanying later “trips” are a part of a research project, deep in the woods overseen by Olivia (Hayley Squires), so the tie-in with reality makes for a nice grey zone between what’s real and merely a trick of the light.
Still, the promise of mind-rending strangeness isn’t necessarily fulfilled by Earth, whose surreal visuals aren’t anything particularly memorable. The film bears a somewhat bland, digital aesthetic, all handheld cameras and flashing lights. Whereas A Field in England featured outstanding period costumes and perhaps a steadier, more restrained composition, In the Earth can look and feel a bit like some found-footage horror, which I’d hoped Wheatley to be better than.
As a horror film, In the Earth might satisfying junkies. The gore is unflinching and spills out plainly, though again feels a bit of a step backward for Wheatley. Something I think of often was him talking about how violence seen up close in a film fools no one; the audience knows what they’re watching is make-believe. Film it from afar, obscure the impact, and maybe you’ll trigger some unease. Yet In the Earth mostly relishes in its bloodiness, leaving me more bored than squeamish.
Clearly I’m not In the Earth‘s biggest fan, though for its faults I found myself mostly compelled along the way. Fry and Torchia carry the film, neither performance necessarily given the material to be excellent, but their confusion and pain during this jaunt through the woods sells the struggle. Martin, injured particularly badly after being ambushed in the woods, limps along pitifully for much of the film, toeing the line between sympathy and annoyance at his constant agony, almost played for some pitch-black humor.
I wish I had the opportunity to see In the Earth on a big screen, where films belong, rather than at home, where the pandemic has relegated us to ingesting and digesting auditory and visual barrages like the one Wheatley and company have concocted. Would the pulsing lights and dynamic, distorting visuals have played better in an ideal moviegoing environment? Without the experience, I couldn’t say for certain. Though giving In the Earth my attention at home I found Wheatley’s latest to be a worthwhile trip overall, though a far cry from the heights he once reached with similarly abstract, haunting endeavors across other fields of strange and dubious intentions.