'In the Earth': Film Review | Sundance 2021

In the Earth
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Reece Shearsmith in 'In the Earth'

Dead and buried.

Ben Wheatley nurtures his genre roots with this viral isolation thriller that draws a menacing blurred line between man and nature in an alienating world gripped by a pandemic.

An ominous score by Clint Mansell mixing electronic dread with insidious melody toils in search of a more coherent horror scenario in Ben Wheatley's disorienting slog, In the Earth. Whether it's a palate cleanser after the constricting labor of Netflix's Rebecca remake or simply a work of creative restlessness cooked up by a resourceful director who honed his skills making more with less, this hallucinogenic fairy tale set during the third wave of a global pandemic and shot under COVID-19 guidelines becomes progressively less interesting after its intriguing start. The cluttered plot keeps surging forward while providing too few illuminating insights, instead loading up on mystical mumbo jumbo and flashes of gore.

Boutique label Neon has acquired a reputation for boldly unconventional horror with films like She Dies Tomorrow, Possessor and Neon Demon, but this low-budget entry from prolific British writer-director Wheatley is opaque to a fault. While there's certainly a relatable point of view in its depiction of pandemic anxiety taken to extremes in which social isolation breeds distrust in science and an embrace of occult superstitions, the story has too little consistent logic and the characters too little depth to provide a hook. Instead, it becomes a numbing bore, teasing the viewer by withholding details as to whether the menace is supernatural or human in the form of off-the-grid nutjobs, to the point where you no longer care.

Filmed in eerily beautiful beech woods an hour outside of London, In the Earth opens with a shot of a large standing stone in the middle of a forest with a circular hole through its center. An unseen figure is seen smashing up rock and planting sharp stone fragments in the ground, carefully covering them with grass, setting a trap that makes sense midway through, even if little else does.

In deserted parkland that normally would be teeming with vacationers, agricultural researcher Martin (Joel Fry) arrives at a lodge where he is quarantined while undergoing tests for the unnamed virus that has ravaged the population. Before heading into the woods with ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) to join a scientific camp studying the area's unusually fertile soil for crop benefits, he learns of a rescue party sent out to find a lost group a few months earlier. He's also alerted, via a creepy poster on the wall, to the local pagan folklore of an ancient spirit that supposedly dwells in the forest.

Despite a recent case of ringworm that has left a circular welt on his arm, Martin is in reasonably good health, but he struggles to keep up with Alma as they move through the dense growth accompanied by the loud sounds of bird life unique to the area. DP Nick Gillespie's camera switches to jittery handheld mode as the setting becomes more unnerving.

Martin is not a natural when it comes to camping, but Alma is a seasoned hand, which turns out to be useful later on when her quick-thinking allows her to weaponize a tent peg in a hairy situation. Martin is cagey about his connection to the scientist heading the research project, but he responds to Alma's questioning by explaining that he's simply unused to communicating, being outside for the first time in months. His recent history of family loss emerges later through diary entries. In the film's most direct reference to pandemic reality, Alma maintains that everyone will forget about the current unease once the virus is under control, whereas Martin believes things will never again be the same.

On day two, Martin and Alma come upon an abandoned camp site that appears to have been set up by a family. That night they are attacked by an unseen assailant, who destroys their radio transmitter and steals their shoes and supplies. As they trudge on, Martin's foot is gashed open, requiring him to use a makeshift crutch to keep going. Observing that a sudden abnormal silence has descended, Alma senses that they are being watched. But Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a man living illegally in the woods who presents himself in their path, appears to be friendly as he offers them shoes, sustenance and medical attention at his camp.

Neither Zach nor Olivia (Hayley Squires), the science project supervisor whom they encounter subsequently, are what they seem. But as Wheatley's script loads up on half-cooked elements about ritualistic worship, necromancy, 17th century folklore and the lure of nature in a diseased world, any meaning gives way to weirdness for the sake of weirdness.

Like a pandemic Hansel and Gretel, Martin and Alma keep attempting to leave the forest but are held back by forces both physical and intangible. The actors are capable enough, but the frustrating script gives little sense of the characters ever reaching much understanding of their situation, let alone tackling it in any especially enterprising way. The action is too exclusively reactive.

The malignant forces imprisoning the protagonists remain enveloped in obscurity made more tedious by the frequent experimental bursts of woozy kaleidoscopic imagery that blends nature with computer graphics that might be some kind of genome sequencing, coupled with a hammering audio barrage. Hats off to Wheatley for pulling together and delivering a narrative feature under difficult circumstances, but In the Earth is a bad trip.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production company: Rook Films
Distribution: Neon
Cast: Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires, Ellora Torchia, John Hollingsworth, Mark Monero
Director-screenwriter: Ben Wheatley
Producer: Andy Starke
Executive producers: Jeff Deutchman, Tom Quinn, Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Director of photography: Nick Gillespie
Production designer: Felicity Hickson
Costume designer: Emma Fryer
Music: Clint Mansell
Editor: Ben Wheatley
Casting: Shaheen Baig
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
107 minutes