Joshua Reviews Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth [Sundance 2021]

Welcome back, Ben Wheatley.

After 2020’s impossibly insufferable Rebecca, the beloved cult filmmaker returns to his roots for the “not about COVID but not not about COVID” science-fiction/horror mash-up In The Earth, and it sure is a return.

Like some strange bastard child of The Happening and Wheatley’s masterpiece Kill List, In The Earth tells the story of Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) who, as a virus wreaks havoc across the globe, attempt to reach a test site deep in the Arboreal Forest. However, almost from the very outset of their journey things seem a bit off, with mentions of pagan demons running amuck in the woods and a missing group roaming somewhere out there as well.

But, at least for the very start of their excursion, things go more or less according to plan. Alma takes the reins as the more seasoned camper of the group, and the two begin to unravel one another’s backstory. Things turn south on their second night in the forest, as the pair are assaulted in the middle of the night leaving them without a radio, supplies or even shoes. Everything has seemingly changed, with the previously vibrant woods going eerily silent, that is at least until the duo encounter Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a seemingly mild-mannered survivalist living out his life among the trees. The film suddenly shifts upon this encounter, going from a seemingly naturalistic eco-horror tale into something far more sinister, far more phantasmagoric.

Wheatley’s direction as the film progresses gets increasingly muscular, using tricks like quick, almost strobe-like editing with literally strobe effects, creating a film that feels less like a tale of backwoods horror than it does a far more evil descent into some strange realm of hell. The glances towards pagan rituals, necromancy and forest demons seem a bit cursory, at least until the utterly assaultive final act, with the director using simple tricks like blood-red lighting to give a surrealist energy to an otherwise small scale horror film.

Conceived of right near the start of lock-down and shot in summer 2020, the film briefly touches on life in a pandemic, particularly as the lead duo ponder what life may be like if or when normalcy can be returned to. However, Wheatley’s claim that the film isn’t so much about COVID-19 than it just doesn’t avoid the politics of the moment it’s made is fair. This is a film far more interested in experimenting in form and atmosphere, with incredible visual effects and gore helping to increase the tension of the project. The rare pandemic film that views the subject with actual subtlety, In The Earth an engaging bit of science-fiction from a director who seems recharged after returning to some semblance of normalcy himself.

However, the real star of the film is Clint Mansell’s score. One of the best scores of recent memory and Mansell’s best work in a decade, his synth-heavy compositions are the perfect pairing for Wheatley’s Carpenter-esque sci-fi nightmare. Brooding and propulsive, the score has a menace to it, as if it were echoing from somewhere right around the seventh circle of hell. The performances are also quite good here, with both Fry and Torchia seeming to understand each tonal shift Wheatley’s screenplay so deftly handles. It’s a startlingly funny film, albeit pitch black, and the performances are perfectly modulated to play both the sly humor and the utter terror that’s asked of them. It’s simply a complete knockout of a film.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.