Name another director with an as eclectic and interesting filmography and career as Ben Wheatley. Bet you can’t. The director has dabbled in horror, melodrama and satire in his long career, but his new feature film, In The Earth, feels like a return to basics in many ways.
Following scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) as they venture into the deep, dark forest in search of Martin’s colleague Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires). Alma also introduces Joel to the legend of Parnag Fegg, a spirit that is said to inhabit the woods. After the pair get attacked at night, leaving them vulnerable and shoeless, they encounter Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a recluse living in the woods who might be more dangerous than he first appears.
As a whole, In The Earth examines and explores a lot of themes, but ultimately doesn’t say much about them. The film boils down to the relationship we have formed with both nature and religion, but Wheatley’s film refuses to form an opinion of either. The world of the film is equally pandemic-ridden, but fear not, no one mentions Covid-19. Much like the film Songbird which tackled the pandemic head on, In The Earth is interested in examining the world we are currently living in and how we understand it, but unlike the Michael Bay -produced thriller, In The Earth uses it only as a backdrop rather than an active situation in terms of plot.
As expected from Wheatley, In The Earth has plenty of visual flair. It’s a movie that deserves the big screen experience. Wheatley and DP Nick Gillespie craft a fluent visual language in the way they film the forest around Martin and Alma. It often feels like In The Earth is meant to be experienced more than understood and digested. It’s a story that consumes you more than you consume it, failing or rather, refusing to conform to a single genre or a traditional narrative.
In The Earth is at times a challenging watch as well as being frustratingly inaccessible. While Wheatley’s strong style makes In The Earth immersive, it also makes it difficult to get into. In The Earth has plenty of violence on screen, but the inherently violent storytelling and craft behind it make it a difficult nut to crack. It’s visceral and impressive, but there’s never any deeper emotional connection to the story or the characters, which ultimately hurt the film.
Wheatley’s cast is top-notch. Joel Fry is convincing as the nerdy, cowardly scientist and Ellora Torchia brings a much needed warmth to the film as Alma, but it’s Reece Shearsmith who steals the show as Zach. His take on a rather unsurprising villain is deliciously unhinged and weird. It’s a shame as a whole that the film doesn’t come together well enough to leave a lasting impression.
Clint Mansell’s score is appropriately hypnotic and trippy, and while Wheatley certainly delivers on the visuals (In The Earth is surprisingly gory), its lack of a coherent message, a worldview or even just an opinion on any of the themes it raises renders it a little bland. It feels like a return to form for Wheatley after the disappointing Rebecca last year and promises that the director still has it, feeling much closer to his early work in both scale and style, but it’s not enough to make In The Earth a new cult classic.
In The Earth is in UK cinemas June 18.