In the Earth (2021) IMDB description: “As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run”.
Why I took it off the list: I’d been meaning to watch the latest film from British director Ben Wheatley for a while, as I’ve enjoyed most of his work.
I wasn’t that impressed with the opulence and all-out excess of his frustrating JG Ballard adaptation High Rise (2015). But I’m much more of a fan of his low-key efforts such as his unsettling Kill List (2011), hilarious dark comedy Sightseers (2012), and his trippy period horror A Field in England (2013).
In the Earth seemed to be a return to his roots of sorts, and I was keen to check it off my list. So let’s dig in!
Review of In the Earth (2021)
Wheatley seems to be back to what he does best with In the Earth, which utilizes a similar contained setting, minimal cast of characters, and psychedelic visuals to A Field in England, to great effect. It also benefits from a robust and disciplined screenplay, surprising because the film was quickly put together as a pandemic-era exercise during the early days of the COVID outbreak.
In the Earth starts similarly to Letters from the Big Man (2011), as a scientist (Joel Fry) ventures into a natural park to conduct research, accompanied by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia). Martin’s purported aim is to find and assist the mysterious Dr. Wendle, his former colleague and ex-lover who is seemingly studying ways to grow crops more efficiently – which immediately sets off alarm bells as she’s ensconced deep in the woods.
As Martin and Alma try to locate Wendle, the woods start to seem like a much more dangerous place. This is amplified by the fact that an unspecified pandemic (with clear COVID parallels) is devastating the outside world, and some unhinged people desperate to escape it have taken up residence in the forest. Martin also discovers that the trees are apparently haunted by a mythical child-gobbling spirit called the Parnag Fegg, veering the film into folk horror territory.
To say more about the plot progression would give away the many surprising developments in the film. So I’ll just say that the paranoia and tension begin the minute they enter the woods and don’t let up until the closing credits.
Beautiful Visuals and Soundscape
Just to put it upfront, In the Earth features quite a few sequences of gross and convincing gore, as Martin and Alma find themselves in increasingly perilous situations. But it never feels excessive and is always in service of advancing the unsettling story. Also, Wheatley is much more interested in creating a sense of unease through the visuals and sounds of the increasingly hostile environment, which he does to fantastic effect.
The sound design is vivid and transporting, helped along by an atmospheric, synth-tinged score by Clint Mansell. The whole film is beautifully shot, particularly in the creatively lit nighttime sequences, and Wheatley employs some seriously psychedelic imagery reminiscent of the similarly-themed Annilihation (2018). While some may find the trippy visuals near the end too confounding, I thought they led to a pretty satisfying conclusion that still leaves plenty open to interpretation.
The small group of actors Wheatley employs here also really help to sell the experience. Fry and Torchia make for likable leads who are very easy to root for, especially given how much torment their characters go through. Wheatley regular Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen) turns in a creepy, unnerving performance as an unhinged survivalist. Hayley Squires also showcases a chilling, measured intensity as Dr. Wendle that’s a million miles away from her turn as a spiky chatterbox in In Fabric (2018).
Final score: 8/10
In the Earth (2021): Worth Watching?
Yes, Ben Wheatley’s latest is a unique, atmospheric, tense, and trippy experience. If you’re a fan of the folk horror genre and films like Midsommar (2019), then In the Earth should be right up your tree.
In the Earth (2021)
Written and directed by Ben Wheatley
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