The Plot: A devastating virus has caused a pandemic. Scientist Martin (Joel Fry) has been living in isolation during lockdown and is now nervously emerging back into society. He is returning to nature and is going on a two-day trek deep into the forest to deliver equipment to fellow scientist Olivia (Hayley Squires). Martin is guided by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), who gets his interest levels up by telling him about the local folktale of Parnag Fegg, a spirit of the forest rumoured to be a necromancer who disappeared there a long time ago. Not long after, strange things go bump in the night and in the day…
The Verdict: If you go down to the woods today… you’ll find Ben Wheatley messing with your head once again. In a frustrating way perhaps, but also in an intriguing manner which makes his films so elemental if not quite elementary, dear Watson. After his glossy Netflix-backed take on Daphe du Maurier’s Rebecca, a ghost story without an actual ghost, he’s back to his old tricks again as he plunges audiences into his unique, director-fronted take on the world. Except this time it’s a world that’s much closer to our own. Rather than ignore the Covid-19 pandemic and tell a story of the ye olde days of mass gatherings and international travel, he’s specifically written and directed a pandemic-inspired story. In The Earth sees him return to his earthy Kill List roots in the forest, where things are not what they seem.
‘Be warned’ begins the film – a note for viewers with photosensitive epilepsy. Maybe it should be extended for anyone nervous of DIY surgery, expecting a straightforward narrative or a logical conclusion. Wheatley isn’t interested in such petty concerns as that. He’s more into steeping his audience in visual and aural atmospherics and a cinematic experience, a case of style over substance which may or may not work depending on your tolerance levels for such films. At its most basic roots, imagine if Wheatley remade The Blair Witch Project but then wandered well off the beaten path to follow the voices in his head. Possibly after camping out in the woods for several days and consuming a hearty dose of shrooms. The result is a heady experience designed to disorient the audience as much as its characters, who find themselves caught between two worlds at a critical moment in time and space.
Wheatley’s characters are reasonably fleshed-out, but only just enough to keep them at a (socially-distanced) length from the audience. There’s some interesting backstory going on here, involving the relationships between the characters and how they fit into the evolving story of the woodland spirit. One character refers to making meaning of the unknown, something which Wheatley doesn’t buy into. He shows rather than tells, which is fine for those used to his fragmented narratives but won’t exactly endear him to newcomers. There’s a lot of imagination on display though, seducing the viewer with arresting visuals and a partially plant-based score (yes, that’s a real thing according to Wheatley). The pacing occasionally lags as Wheatley digresses down different paths, one involving fog and a Hazmat suit. He does manage to get it back on track though for a Kubrick-inspired finale that may melt your brain. It doesn’t always work, but In The Earth is intriguing enough for a trippy trip into Wheatley’s woodland maze.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In The Earth
In short: Trippy trip
Directed by Ben Wheatley.
Starring Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires.