Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 19th, 2021
In the Earth (Ben Wheatley, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
The apocalypse is nigh; do not ignore it. Some may survive, but even so, civilization will hover on the brink of collapse, madness one possible refuge for those not destroyed by the cataclysm. Perhaps we should pay heed, lest our wounded planet take matters into its own hands. Such is the premise of Ben Wheatley’s latest mannered offering, In the Earth, lurking beneath the surface of a seemingly more straightforward plot. Mixing pagan mythology with stories from numerous other films, Wheatley (Free Fire) crafts a frequently intriguing, if often derivative, meditation on the human condition in all its misery.
From its opening frames, In the Earth feels extraordinarily of our time, irrespective of source materials, for when we first meet one of our main protagonists, Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, Love Wedding Repeat), those he encounters wear masks, constantly sanitize, and take nasal swabs from him, all to make he sure he is virus-free. This is a rural woodland, but Martin is fresh out of the city, where many have perished from a modern-day plague. If this feels familiar, it is by design, for as Wheatley explains in the movie’s press notes, he only began writing the movie two weeks into the United Kingdom’s Covid-19 lockdown. From there, however, much of what follows diverges from what we have so far experienced. Who knows what the future holds …
Martin is here ostensibly for some kind of agricultural research, though what he really wants is to find and talk to his former lover, another scientist, who disappeared a few months prior in the adjacent woods. And so he sets off, with park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia, Les Cowboys) as his guide. The two strike up an easy enough rapport, though they are quite different. Martin proves to not be in such great physical shape after a long, virus-mandated quarantine at home, so Alma needs to slow her own walk down, for his sake. Wheatley builds these initial scenes carefully, without excessive score or mise-en-scène, allowing the natural environment to take on its own distinct character.
We know something will go wrong, even before it does, because the movie’s prologue, of a circle carved into a stone obelisk and an offscreen man breaking quartz with a mallet, generates unease in the way that ordinary objects and actions often do when photographed obliquely and accompanied by eerie music. While still in the ranger station, Martin comes across a book about the local legend of Parnag Fegg, an ancient tale about a sylvan deity of mysterious origin. The context is therefore laid for mystical forces to take over the realism of the location.
Which they do, bringing in two more characters along the way, played by Reece Shearsmith (High-Rise) and Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake), each of whom, in turn, further complicates the mystery of the forest and its rituals. As Martin and Alma struggle to survive, Wheatley ups the audio-visual ante with slow zooms into trees and plants, evocative editing and jarring sound. These elements, along with the performances, are all part of the movie’s strengths.
What works less well are the by-now hackneyed plot details which recall past movies such as The Wicker Man, Midsommar and any other example of folk horror, including Jaco Bouwer’s soon-to-be-released SXSW-premiered Gaia (which similarly uses a vengeful Mother Earth as a dramatic device). As always in this kind of affair, some people take the legends too seriously and, not surprisingly, bad stuff happens. As much as we may have seen this narrative play out before, at least we haven’t seen it with quite this cinematic palette. There’s charm “in the earth,” even if it’s faded.