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NOTE: IN THE EARTH was previously reviewed at Sundance 2021.
PLOT: In the middle of a pandemic, a scientist (Joel Fry) and a park scout (Ellora Torchia) venture deep into the forest to make contact with a lost doctor.
REVIEW: One of the most pleasing aspects of this year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival was that, despite everything, it was relatively short on movies about the pandemic. I could have easily seen them doing a sidebar to lockdown-shot films, but Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is the only major film I saw that acknowledges the pandemic in any way, although it’s left vague over where the virus described here is supposed to be the same one we’re dealing with right now.
At any rate, In the Earth isn’t actually about the pandemic. The film was shot by Ben Wheatley during the lockdown, but it’s all just background here, with the movie instead focusing on an ancient evil deep in the English woods that owes more to Celtic mythology than anything else. Already, it’s proving to be divisive, with many reviews coming out of Sundance all-out pans, although some think it’s brilliant.
Wheatley’s had an intriguing career. His early work was highly idiosyncratic, with Down Terrace, Kill List, and Sightseers all utterly unique genre entries that mixed Ken Loach-style working-class realism with heavy doses of ultra-violence. Since then, he’s dipped his toe into slicker fare, such as Free Fire, High Rise, and the recent Rebecca (while also signing on to direct The Meg 2), while occasionally making lower-budgeted, personal films like A Field in England and Happy Birthday Colin Burstead. In the Earth is more in line with his more personal fare, playing out a bit like a mix of Kill List and A Field in England.
What probably rubs some the wrong way is that after an early conventional start, where our leads, Joel Fry’s squirrely scientist and Ellora Torchia’s earth guide try to navigate the elements, the film takes a wildly surreal turn. The two are violently attacked and meet a survivalist, played by Reece Shearsmith, who initially seems like their savior but soon drugs them up. It’s here the film takes a very cerebral turn, digging into the mythology of the woods, with some freaky lighting tricks that will no doubt make this a rough film to watch for those with epilepsy. It becomes a head-trip film with heavy doses of gore as Fry’s Martin loses a couple of toes and gets marked up by the crazed Zach.
Even once the film calms down slightly as the two encounter Hayley Squires’s Olivia, the scientist they’ve been looking for since the start, the movie maintains its heightened, hallucinogenic vibe. Neon picked this one up and would be wise to position it as a midnight movie, which I assume is the experimental vibe Wheatley was going for. Again, some will despise this film and Neon probably shouldn’t try to sell it as a conventional horror movie. I’m not even sure I’d call it horror. However, if you’re in the mood for something risky and experimental, give it a try. It’s well-crafted, with some impressive visuals despite the low-budget and a terrific score by Wheatley regular Clint Mansel. The cast, which is really just a quartet, are all excellent, and the film itself, while it doesn’t always work, is nonetheless consistently interesting.