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When it comes to writer/director Ben Wheatley all bets are really well and truly off. Over the course of his career, he has released a divisive, incredible and disturbing collection of pictures upon us, some better than others but every film his name is on is immediately one that you must see to make up your own mind on. It is quite the trick to be a director whose work, no matter what form it takes, demands your undivided attention and Wheatley’s latest, in folkish horror In The Earth, may be his most psychedelic film yet.
The film is set in the late stages of a pandemic ravaged world (familiar?), as people are looking for some semblance of normality again, learning to live in spite of the virus, and seeking the right cure. Martin Lowery (rising star Joel Fry) is a scientist sent to a government-controlled outpost in the forestlands of Bristol, where he is led by park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia) to the site of his former colleague (and ex-lover) Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has been deep in the forest at work on a pioneering way to increase crop efficiency. However, en route, Martin and Alma face a hellish journey into the unpredictable outside world and the sinister forces at work within it.
From an early moment when woodland spirit Parnag Fegg is named, you are expecting In The Earth to turn into some kind of British answer to Ari Aster’s Midsommar, when in actual fact this is a different beast altogether. In The Earth is a hallucinogenic British chiller experience that takes the primordial feeling of folklore horror and applies it to an anxiety riddled, very real, virus-devastated world, all through a dizzyingly kaleidoscopic lens. The Kill List remains Wheatley’s chef-d’œuvre but this was a darn fine effort and a most compelling reflection on our relationship with the earth, the ancient natural forces that can cast a spell over us and the pandemic-induced paranoias that currently afflict us and add further cracks to the already fragile make-up of the human condition.
Hand on heart I don’t think I can say I fully “got it” and it certainly eats too many of its magic mushrooms come the final stretch, as Wheatley lets some of his stylistic tendencies run a bit too amok for the film’s own good. In fact, his direction here does have its detours into the baffling, and some violently warped tone-fluctuating territories but he still crafts a film that many will be deciphering in unique ways for some time, and which has much to say about our disregarding of nature’s complexity and sophistication, and the maddening, obsessive, power of human isolation. You are just compelled to watch what unfurls, as Nick Gillespie’s wild cinematography draws you in, and Clint Mansell’s sometimes unnerving score adds further atmosphere.
Great performances from a superb cast especially keep you transfixed on a film that is divisive, uncomfortable and rather grisly. No matter what route you are taken down, from god worship to deranged art, what grounds this work is Fry’s lead performance. He is a man who is immediately out of his comfort zone in so many ways but continually tries to adjust and see the horizon that lies beyond the hallucinogenic hellscape he is in the midst of. Torch’s Alma is less open-minded and more resilient, trying to keep everyone alive and trying to escape the deranged battle of survival she is currently engaged in, instead of sinking into the situation, and who can blame her?! Meanwhile Reece Shearsmith perhaps steals the show with an utterly unsettling performance that lingers with you in its madness and brutality. Whereas Squires has a more level-headed and somewhat blunt performance, as a woman dedicated to her work, maybe even obsessed by it, someone whose whole world has changed through her research and who cannot turn away from that which has absorbed her in this period of isolation.
Needless to say In The Earth is not for everyone and can lose you in its shifting, screeching, mystic landscape but we have a story here perfect for the disjointed and manic world we all currently reside in and a reminder of human nature’s fragility in the face of change and nature’s raw and complex prowess.
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