Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker who’s been all over the map, never really making the same movie twice. His filmography is wildly divergent: From a psychological war-horror film (A Field in England), to a mass-ensemble one-location crime film (Free Fire), to a large period piece adapted from a big-name novel (Rebecca). And while a journeyman filmmaker can be enticing, Wheatley’s work ranges in quality quite heavily, from solidly refined works to borderline unwatchable. His latest, In the Earth, finds itself a bit in the middle, being more of negatively-leaning mixed-bag.
A variation on the “don’t go in the woods” movie template, In the Earth is another movie that was written, shot, and completed last year, in the middle of the pandemic. In fact, the film itself is set in a pandemic. We open with Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arriving at a lodge in a park that is currently shut down due to “the crisis.” He’s quickly greeted by men in masks, as the lodge is keeping itself financially afloat via funds from researchers like him. Lowery’s field of study is very crop-based, centering on their efficiency, and the surrounding forest, with its rich soil, is just the place to study.
The thing is, the particular research hub he’s looking for is a deep two-day walk, one that a fellow scientist and friend named Olivia assumingly took yet hasn’t been heard from in months. So he’s paired with park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) for the voyage. And what follows them, at first, is some rather textbook bits of foreshadowing; Alma speaking about how the forest is a “hostile environment” and how “people get a bit funny in the woods sometimes.” And with Martin having been in quarantine for months prior, he might already be a little off. Early in their journey, they stumble upon a mysteriously abandoned tent and then later that night, they’re awakened, violently beaten, and ransacked. When they awake, after being knocked unconscious, their equipment is destroyed and their shoes are gone. And after Martin quickly, viciously cuts his barefoot on something in the ground, the two are stuck in a bad place. That is until Zac (Reece Shearsmith), a man living off the grid in the woods, turns up and offers help. They happily, and a little too eagerly, accept.
These early scenes begin as eerily solidifying, building upon uncertainty of the time, with muted and stripped-down aesthetics that will progress into unwieldy handheld camerawork. Yet, as things continue, it can get a little tiresome with the slow build having such obvious and knowable elements, even when Zac comes into the picture he can’t dig these characters out from being ciphers of tedium. Once some viscera and torture comes into play, though, some feeling of a wild pulse is certainly felt. It’s a little later that Martin and Alma run into Olivia (Haley Squires), but her character’s enigmaticness doesn’t exactly pull you in. Especially when there’s a third act pivot away from survival horror and more toward out-right psychedelia, which takes a bit away from the film’s momentum; the medieval lore and interpersonal dynamics that were actually (somewhat) building. There are flourishes that shine, though, like a sequence when Wheatley pulverizes the most basic elements of light and sound into something viscerally simple and suggestive. Yet there are other times when Wheatley seems unskilled at retaining control of his narrative through the chaos; a problem he’s shown in the past in films like Free Fire and High Rise.
To call In the Earth a complete dud would be a mistake; there are some moments of bleak humor that shine, some striking imagery, some gross-out shivers, and a maniacal synth score from Clint Mansell. Yet it’s the films inability to really dig deep enough and root itself into your mind that holds it back, staying a little too on the surface rather than combust the pandemic mindset. As commendably visceral as In the Earth can occasionally get, it more often falls into being a tad lethargic; reducing its narrative into, sadly, being more cluttered and straightforward.
In the Earth premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Neon will release it later this year.