Undoubtedly inspired by the ongoing pandemic, as well as some of his earlier films, Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is a rather intriguing return to form for the U.K. filmmaker behind one of my very favorite dark comedies of the last ten years, Sightseers. Wheatley’s latest is something of a different beast than Sightseers, though, where here he mixes together elements of a pagan-esque forest horror story with a hallucinogenic descent into madness as well as some gnarly body horror moments for good measure to create In the Earth. A wholly unsettling and slightly off-putting experience (which I mean as a compliment), In the Earth certainly won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but it most definitely was mine, making Wheatley’s newest project one of my favorite films that I saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Written last March and shot during the summer months in the U.K., In the Earth introduces us to a world that has been left devastated in the wake of a deadly virus, and a determined doctor (Joel Fry) heads into the proverbial unknown when he treks off into the deep woods with the help of a forest ranger (Ellora Torchia) in search of a colleague (Hayley Squires) who may have the answers he needs to help battle this horrible disease. Along the way, the travelers cross paths with a forest dweller named Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who offers them shelter and safety. As it turns out, Zach has his own agenda and from there, In the Earth takes a decidedly left turn and everything goes sideways for everyone in this story.
If I had to try and “sum up” In the Earth (which is near impossible, thanks to Wheatley’s penchant for not making movies that fit neatly into boxes), the best way I could put it is that this feels a bit like if Kill List and A Field in England got together and partied it up with Annihilation and Event Horizon. There are aspects of In the Earth that feel exactly like what you’d expect from Ben Wheatley, and then other elements that feel nothing like him at all, and achieving that kind of a dichotomy within a single piece of your work isn’t always an easy feat, but Wheatley does it effortlessly here.
In the Earth works as well as it does due to a quartet of fearless performances from its ensemble, particularly Shearsmith, whose activities in the film really got under my skin at times, and elevated the undercurrent of tension and paranoia felt throughout the story to new heights. Fry, who becomes the emotional anchor for In the Earth as his own dogged convictions continue to propel him further down the rabbit hole, fully embodies the paranoia and fear that we’d all be feeling if we were in the same situation as his character in the film, and there’s a cringeworthy sequence involving an ax and some extremities where Fry’s sensible doctor just loses his shit, and it was in those moments where In the Earth really comes into its own as a truly disconcerting experience that I knew was going to stick with me for a long time.
The story does take a bit of time to ramp up, but once it gets there, that’s when everything just clicks and Wheatley does his damnedest to leave no nerve unshredded by the time the credits roll. Even more impressive is how In the Earth manages to find a way to hold a mirror up to where our collective societies are at right now, 11 months into a pandemic. Are we going to make it? Are we going to be consumed by madness? It’s hard to tell. But if there’s one thing we can all be sure of, it’s that none of us will ever be the same again after it’s over. And the same could definitely be said for me after taking in the psychedelic madness of In the Earth.
Movie Score: 4/5
Visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Sundance interviews and reviews!
[Photo Credits: Above photo courtesy of Neon and the Sundance Institute.]