Film Review: In the Earth
In the Earth is the new film by British writer-director Ben Wheatley. It tells the story of two scientists who venture into a forest to test equipment which measures the local flora and fauna. Meanwhile, there’s a deadly virus which means people have to separate themselves from one another raging on, meaning they forest is completely devoid of people (“this is usually a tourist hotspot,” one of the side characters says).
At the beginning of the film, a local children’s story explains a local legend, about a strange forest being who haunts the area, so we immediately know what territory we’re in: In the Earth is a folk horror film, but it does go places which, although they mean be familiar to fans of Ben Wheatley’s previous work, are not things which would traditionally be associated with the horror genre.
For Wheatley, In the Earth goes somewhat back to his roots; although there are echoes of the Tarkovsky film Stalker present in this film – there is a sense, like in that film, that the characters are discovering the area at the same time as the audience, and it does a good job of drawing you in. However, In the Earth is less overtly philosophical than Stalker; instead of ruminating on huge ideas, the two main characters, played by Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia, make small-talk.
From there, In the Earth shifts from a psychological film to a slasher, but to explain how this transpires would ruin the film’s narrative, to the extent that it has one. Ben Wheatley makes two kinds of films – mainstream-friendly action movies like Free Fire and the upcoming sequel to The Meg, and more left-field surreal films like Kill List and A Field in England. As In the Earth progress, it becomes increasingly like the latter, and this experimental offering will never garner the same mainstream success as those films.
But for those who prefer Wheatley’s more experimental offerings, In the Earth will be a fresh air. It may be difficult to parse exactly what the film is about from the first viewing after a certain point, but there is enough ingenuity on display here to merit multiple viewings. The best of Wheatley’s work has always plunged the viewer headfirst into its world, and that’s exactly what happens here: more than anything else, Wheatley’s intention is to allow the audience to inhabit the characters and view the strange and unpredictable landscapes he creates through their eyes.
The best of Wheatley’s work has always plunged the viewer headfirst into its world, and that’s exactly what happens here
At its core, In the Earth is a film about environmental nihilism: people have a tendency to believe that they can control nature and manipulate it for their own benefit, but in the universe of this film, the countryside is ruled by something far more abstract and ancient than human beings, and no amount of scientific ingenuity can supercede those forces. Wheatley has always been interested in films about people losing psychological control – this is evident from Kill List and A Field in England – but his latest is the apex of that atmosphere.
In the Earth is a very intense and demanding viewing experience, and although it’s a definite return to form for Wheatley, I can’t help but wonder where Wheatley will go from here. If this film is anything to go by, he will only get bolder, more adventurous, and continue periodically making films which appeal to film fans looking for something a little more left-field.
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