It’s truly a marvel that any film productions took place in 2020, let alone anything good. A testament indeed to the resilience of filmmakers and crews for adhering to heightened COVID-19 guideless and still managed great things. In the Earth feels like an extra triumph, not even a glimmer in writer-director Ben Wheatley’s mind until the early days of lockdown. After writing the script, his was one of the first UK productions to go in the summer when regulations relaxed. And, true to form, it’s also a hallucinogenic mélange of some of his favorite themes: psychotronic drugs, folk legends, and people losing their minds.
Though the film was very much borne out of quarantine fears, and reflects some of that in its never-specific, near-future setting, it delves so much more into the real fear at the heart of most humans: what does the Earth itself have to say to us? And is it something we want to hear?
Sometime in the near future, an unspecified pandemic rages across the civilized world. It seems something akin to zombies or the rage virus from 28 Days Later ; the upshot is it makes people violent and dangerous. That aspect truly doesn’t matter too much, because we begin with Joel Fry as a scientist who has ventured to a woodland research facility as a waypoint before heading to a deeper part of the forest. He checks out, virus-wise, and soon he and a field guide (Ellora Torchia) head out to make their way to the camp of another scientist, doing research into a cure.
But on one of the nights of their on-foot journey, someone attacks them and steals their shoes and breaks their GPS. The next day, they find the remnants of other camps, but no people. Fry’s character cuts his foot badly and it seems like they might be doomed. However, they cross paths with Zach (Reese Shearsmith), a man living in the woods. Zach offers to give them some spare shoes and make them a meal, but as you might expect, he’s not a trustworthy man.
And this is when the movie goes from good to great. Zach is a madman, yes, but he’s doing things for a reason. He’s experienced something in the woods, something from in the earth itself. There is an entity, he believes, in the forest, and he needs to commune with it, give it offerings (in the form of staged religious photographs with our two drugged heroes). The local legend about these woods speaks of a antler-headed witch king. But as our characters go further into the depths of the woods, closer to their destination, they learn it might be the literal Earth trying to communicate.
To explain further is to give away much of In the Earth‘s power, but suffice to say Wheatley is firing on all cylinders with his stripped-down approach to massive topics. Not cosmic horror, but deeply terrestrial. This feels like a return to form for him in a number of ways. It feels like a spiritual successor to both his 2011 breakthrough Kill List and, more so, his 2013 psychedelic nightmare, A Field in England. But even beyond that, Wheatley is delving into themes found in Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. With each new wrinkle, we find more questions than answers, and we simultaneously fear for our heroes and want to know what they’ll experience next.
All four of the main performances were excellent, but it was Shearsmith who really stands out. His calm and polite demeanor giving way to his dangerous fanaticism is absolutely terrifying. He was one of the highlights in A Field in England, and here he gets to show what a wonderfully menacing villain he can be. At the same time, he finds the humor in the absurdity of the situation whenever is feasible. When he’s not in the scene, we’re in constant fear he could show up again, somewhere in the woods. Secretly hoping he comes back sooner rather than later.
In the Earth really knocked me out, and represents what I love the most about Ben Wheatley as a filmmaker. Though he’s delved into bigger and more straightforward films in recent years, it’s his ability to make small movies feel enormous that has always stood out to me. It’s just people out in the woods, but it becomes an assault on the senses that’s bigger than any blockbuster. Wheatley has several franchise sequels on his docket, but I hope he never strays too far from this kind of indie-spirited mind-fuck.
4.5 out of 5
Check out more of our coverage of the virtual Sundance Film Festival 2021.