Filmmaker Ben Wheatley returns to his gritty roots with In the Earth, a thriller set during a pandemic that combines Wheatley’s occult sensibilities with Annihilation-esque head trips. Despite feeling long in the tooth, Wheatley’s latest proves himself adept at making the audience squirm with idiosyncratic characters while building an uneasy tone capped with brutal spurts of violence.
In the Earth was conceived, written, and shot in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but is not about the COVID virus itself. Inspired by the lockdown conditions triggered by the spread of the virus, Wheatley leaves the cinematic pathogen more or less a mystery that drives the actions of our protagonists.
Joel Fry stars as Martin, an agricultural researcher sent to study an area of secluded woods that seems to be prodigiously fertile. Martin is led to a research camp by park ranger, Alma (Ellora Torchia). That night, their camp is attacked and their equipment is stolen, along with their shoes. Martin severely wounds his foot on a sharp shard of rock which becomes the first of many obstacles the duo encounters as the trek quickly turns into a fight for survival.
During Martin and Alma’s first meeting, just before they set off on their journey, the two muse about an ominous and creepy painting (along with children’s drawings) of Parnag Fegg, a pagan entity rumored to dwell in the forest. The deity becomes a focal point of the final two acts as our protagonists become entangled with unpleasant shenanigans in the name of this Mother Nature tinged spirit. Admittedly the folklore and various sidebars that attempt to mythologize the spirit are clunky and ultimately about as clear as mud. However, there’s just enough information skimmed on the surface of Wheatley’s script to make the ideas come to life before they are swallowed up in the hallucinogenic acid trip imagery running amok in the final act.
In the Earth is propelled forward by an ominous and sometimes pounding electronic score. Combined with numerous strobe light effects and dizzying psychedelic sequences, the film’s final act somewhat muddles the direction of the narrative which leaves the viewer with a sense of aimlessness as the film abruptly ends. Wheatley explores ideas on how Mother Nature is attempting to communicate or punish us, but he never takes these themes to a point that is satisfying.
With the filmography Wheatley has amassed so far, it’s not surprising to see him tredge familiar territory which conjures up previous efforts such as Kill List and A Field in England. Still, even if the final product is somewhat uneven, Wheatley’s In the Earth is a return to the director’s trippy, haunting folk horror happy place that feels like a warm welcome home hug.
Screened as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.