Ben Wheatley’s return to the horror genre, after an eight-year absence, seems at first like it’s going to be a pandemic movie. Signage at the forestry office, where soil scientist Martin (Joel Fry) begins his new assignment, warns about spreading germs, and inside are routines with disinfectant, masks, blood tests, and certificates. A staffer asks Martin how things are in the local town. “It’s quietening down,” he replies. “Food’s arriving on time”, implying that whatever disease has affected the England of Wheatley’s film (conceived at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and shot in two-weeks last summer), it’s been even more disruptive than the one we’ve all experienced. “It’s odd being outside for the first time in months,” says Martin. “It’s hard to take it all in.”
Soon, however, the story appears to turn in another direction. Martin and a guide, Alma (Ellora Torchia), are going to hike for two days, deep into the trees, to visit another scientist, Dr Wendle, who hasn’t been heard from for a while. As they make preparations, Martin notices a sinister-looking picture on the office wall: it’s Parnag Fegg, the spirit of the forest. He’s told that “people get a bit funny in the woods sometimes…. nervous.”
Still, off Martin and Alma go. It’s not long before he starts getting tired. He hasn’t been exercising in isolation as he claimed, he admits, and this is an early intimation of the many wounds and ailments that will beset him. (Yet none of them is the unidentified epidemic. As a physical disease it plays no direct part in the plot, but as a force that’s shaped everyone’s behaviour it’s always there in the background, an accurate reflection of its role in most of our real lives.)
It’s also not long before they discover a deserted tent complete with a child’s storybook depicting a witch on its front cover, or before their own tent is attacked at night in a chaotic, jerky torchlit sequence heavily reminiscent of a similar scene in The Blair Witch Project (1999). You might now be excused for thinking In the Earth isn’t about a pandemic at all, but is going to be a folklorish nightmare-in-the-forest chiller along the lines of David Bruckner’s spooky The Ritual (2017), and when Martin and Alma meet Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a hermit with a camp hidden among the trees, his helpfulness is instantly suspicious.
So far, it’s all felt like a kind of Blair Witch/Midsommar (2019) mash-up with a dash of Wolf Creek (2005) thrown in. But as the pair learn more about Zach’s beliefs in the secrets of the forest, and then eventually manage to locate Dr Wendle (Hayley Squires), it becomes clear that In the Earth is a pandemic movie of sorts after all.
Zach is, as Wheatley himself has indicated in an interview, essentially a conspiracy theorist imposing complicated and far-fetched explanations on nature. Wendle seems more scientifically-minded but she too may have tipped over the edge into irrationality, trying to communicate with plants and fungi via sound and light just as François Truffaut did with aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). At her sanest, she has Truffaut’s manic enthusiasm, but at more extreme moments she verges on the ‘Mad Scientist Tampering with the Forces Of Nature’ trope.
There’s a lot that’s implausible about In the Earth and quite a lot that remains unclear to the end (notably the role of a large standing stone), and it constantly risks being ludicrous… yet isn’t. As both writer and director, Wheatley outlines the big ideas with such conviction it never seems to matter when details aren’t filled in, and they’re rich notions relevant not only to COVID-19 but our age of information-obsession in general. There are ideas about humanity’s relationship with nature (hinted at from the first shot of a sledgehammer cracking a stone), about our frequent over-confidence in our own world-views, about the narrow border between open-mindedness and gullibility, about the simple unknowability of some things (emphasised by the nervous camerawork and paucity of long shots. The entire film has a feeling of subjectivity in which the full picture is never revealed.
Much attention has been given to the two sequences of hallucinatory VFX. The second of them, at the climax, is extravagantly creative, like Terrence Malick on acid, and the first one is equally effective—with camera, lighting, and music all working together to create a dizzying, strobing disorientation. But Wheatley is a fine storyteller, too, and the film’s enormously watchable throughout, embellishing a straightforward narrative with just enough black humour and surprises to keep us guessing. It also leaves plenty of room for the actors to perform. For gore fans, meanwhile, there’s one of the most uncomfortable sharp-object-in-eye moments I’ve seen for some time!
Fry is the stand-out among the four leads, with his extreme diffidence belying a compelling screen presence. Shearsmith (who played a key role in Wheatley’s A Field in England) has a more scenery-chewing role here, but he handles it with a casual matter-of-factness that offsets any risk of his character becoming OTT. In complete contrast, Toria gives Alma a levelheadedness that makes it all the more powerful when her rationality is challenged beyond endurance. “There was everything”, she cries, after what may or may not have been a glimpse of an utterly alien world perceived by plants.
In the Earth is ultimately inconclusive and will disappoint some, especially if they’re expecting the supernatural, or a movie overtly about a pandemic. But much of its success lies in its open-ended nature. Any attempt at tidily explaining the phenomena Martin and Alma encounter in the woods would only have diminished things. After all, both Zach and Dr Wendle are—in their different ways—misguided in believing they’ve attained privileged access to a deeper truth, and it does them no good. Martin and Alma, by contrast, represent a more realistic view of humanity’s position vis-a-vis nature, whether it’s a mycorrhizal network or a pandemic. They don’t rush to imbue it with meaning it may not have, and accept their limitations, but they’re not helpless either, and are both capable of surviving.
UK | 2021 | 107 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Ben Wheatley.
starring: Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires & Ellora Torchia.