“People get a bit funny in the woods,” a character says early on in Ben Wheatley‘s In the Earth, and that line could double as the movie’s mantra. Like the filmmaker’s A Field in England, it follows characters lost in nature, slowly going out of their minds as they talk about alchemy and magic and other things you don’t quite understand. And like that previous film, In the Earth seems to target the viewer and bombard them with a sensory overload – the climax here is akin to a laser light show, with strobing images blasting our retinas and daring us to keep watching until the credits roll. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time at the movies, it might be about time to abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
As In the Earth begins, the world is in the grip of a deadly virus. Is it the coronavirus? We’re never told for certain, but Wheatley says he wrote the script during the first two weeks of the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown, and that he wanted to make a movie “contextualized in the moment.” Late in In the Earth, there’s a surreal and darkly humorous scene where a character, fleeing danger, is forced to undergo a nasal swab test similar to the one for COVID-19. There’s lots of talk about quarantine, and distancing, and disinfection. “STOP THE SPREAD OF GERMS” proclaims a sign posted to a gate. It lends the entire movie an air of immediacy – but In the Earth has more on its mind than a pandemic.
Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) is on a mission to trek deep into the Arboreal Forest to locate colleague, and former romantic partner, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). The pair were exchanging letters for a while, but communication with Dr. Wendle has ceased, and Martin has spent the last four months in quarantine. Now, he’s headed into the forest with Alma (Ellora Torchia), a park ranger, as his guide. It’s a two-day walk on foot, and Martin is not what you’d call “outdoorsy,” so the journey doesn’t exactly go smoothly.
But things go from uncomfortable to downright scary when Martin and Alma are attacked late one night. The next day, injured and missing their shoes – the attacker stole them, and nothing else, for some reason – the pair come across Zac (Reece Shearsmith), a man living off the grid deep in the forest. He seems helpful at first, but like the forest itself, looks can be deceiving, and Martin and Alma quickly find themselves in serious danger.
Up until this point, In the Earth is fairly straightforward. Wheatley builds a thick atmosphere complete with the ever-present sound of wind rustling through tall grass and trees creaking like ancient bones. But once Martin and Alma fall into Zac’s clutches, Wheatley cranks up the weirdness, with the film descending into an almost impenetrable madness. There’s a lot of talk about communicating with nature – but not in an abstract sense. More that there’s some sort of presence, or force, or even god, lurking among the woods. A spirit known as Parneg Fegg is mentioned – but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what’s going on here. So what is going on here? Don’t expect any concrete answers. As Dr. Wendle says when she arrives later in the film, “I wouldn’t try to make any logical sense of it.”
All of this is building towards a climax that feels tailor-made to crack your brain open. Dr. Wendel has her own camp deep in the forest, and she’s outfitted the area with lights and speakers as she tries to communicate with something out there. It results in a kind of EDM show from hell, with the speakers blasting ear-splitting sounds as the lights flash. Do foreboding, scary things appear among those strobing lights? You better believe they do.
Wheatley has a knack for conveying a kind of divine lunacy with his work; he tells stories about zealots who are reaching out for things beyond human comprehension, and such reaches often result in horrific violence. There’s a wealth of close-ups here of ruined, bleeding, open flesh; of skin stitched up with foreign objects inserted beneath the surface. It’s all so gross and weird and kind of wonderful.
But the obscurity of it all takes a toll. The final 20 or so minutes of In the Earth are downright impenetrable, and while that’s no doubt the point, it doesn’t make the experience any less frustrating. In a sense, Wheatley has successfully recreated the experience of stumbling around, lost in the woods, unable to see the forest for the trees. In the Earth will overwhelm you with its overload of light and sound, but to quote Dr. Wendle again, I wouldn’t try to make any logical sense of it.
/Film rating: 7 out of 10
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