Sundance Film Festival Review: In the Earth is Ben Wheatley back on maverick, transgressive, genre-shifting form

Set in a tumultuous time in the world that is overtaken by a virus, Joel Fry stars as Martin Lowery, a doctor who is tasked on a mission to venture to reach test site ATU327A, a research area that is deep in the Arboreal forest; led by Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires). Lowery is guided by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) to get to the test site in what is supposed to be a routine run. But the journey is made incredibly treacherous when they are ambushed in a night-time strike; leaving the two beaten and without any shoes.

They soon meet a helpful stranger Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who is living off the grid and the two are welcomed with his generosity. But his presence hides something within and it signals the beginning of the descent that Lowery and Alma face; a descent that may transcend beyond science and onto something mythological.

Writer/director Ben Wheatley returns to genre fare after the dark comedy Happy New Year, Colin Burstead and the remake Rebecca with the sci-fi horror flick In the Earth, a surreal, immersive, darkly funny and striking effort that recalls Wheatley’s best transgressive work. What makes the film remarkable is the fact that this was filmed during lockdown. With meagre resources, committed performances, an imaginative mind and some can-do spirit, a talented filmmaker can do anything; and that is where In the Earth comes in.

Wheatley blends two different horror subgenres that revolved around the scientific and the mythological and blends them in a way that is entertaining and unafraid to be idiosyncratic. But he never does it for the sake of achieving cult status. Like the majority of his films, Wheatley makes his work politically charged.

In the case of In the Earth, the theme could be humanity’s exploitation of nature and how we are living in the ramifications of it. Or it could be humanity struggling with the finality of science and wanting to believe there is something more. Or it could be about humanity’s survival and how we will do anything to maintain it. Or it could be an allegory on humanity’s reaction to the current pandemic.

All of these themes are told implicitly and they make their mark in interesting ways. Whether it would be the contrasting ideologies between Dr. Wendle and Zach or the defence mechanism of the forest in opposition to outside forces or how humanity acts towards the forest and its origins, Wheatley manages to get those themes across in a vividly compelling way. Through substantial focus on character, pensive pacing (editing is credited to Wheatley himself), a wonderfully propulsive score (credited to Clint Mansell) and kaleidoscopic visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Nick Gillespie) that elicit senses of wonder, danger and of course, soothing delirium.

But that is not to say that the film is a depressive slog in any way. Wheatley’s affinity for dark comedy is still intact here; particularly in terms of aloof line delivery in regards to the situations at play as well as the graphic nature of injury detail. The reactions of the characters amusingly call to mind the comedy from Sightseers and it provides the perfect counterpoint with all the dark overtones and the frankly ridiculous plot developments that occur later in the film.

Speaking of ridiculous, when the character of Dr. Wendle enters the picture, the film basically turns into a slop of heavy exposition. With ludicrous details like the nullification of fate and coincidence, how characters were drawn into the plot in the first place and how Squires is playing what is essentially a forest DJ (utilizing sounds and speakers and strobe lights to communicate with the forest as if she is starting a rave in a nightclub), it can be quite laughable for some.

But it is thanks to the cast that the film manages to come across as scary, disturbing and blackly funny as it is. Thanks to Wheatley’s clever toying of character types, the actors have more to play with and meet up to those subverted expectations. Fry does a great job being what is essentially a scream queen role; always getting into increasingly grisly predicaments and persevering with a balance of being both downtrodden and numb.

Torchia is stellar as Alma as she believably conveys such a sense of control and inner strength that she essentially becomes the hero of the piece. Squires is compelling as Dr. Wendle as she nails the balance between conviction and obsession over her job; especially when the balance becomes quite murky in the third act. Shearsmith is a lot of fun as the eerily accommodating Zach as he provides much of the thrills and humour of the film with sincere aplomb.

Overall, In the Earth is a lockdown-filmed, unsettling and gruelling experience that gradually uneases the viewer with its pensive pacing until it assaults with its powerful synth score, garish visuals and backwoods/ecological horror. Recommended.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

In the Earth has screened as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which was presented virtually between January 28th and February 3rd, 2021.  For more information head to the official Sundance page.

Tags: , , ,