Would you like to have a terrifying, disturbingly close-to-home psychedelic experience? Well, I’ve got something for you.
In the Earth is the latest film from director Ben Wheatley, a man I’m always rooting for and one that’s had as many winners as he had bungles. That doesn’t always bode well for a creative talent, the public seeing them as inconsistent and someone to hold back and wait to hear about. The kicker? Ben Wheatley paints an incredibly gorgeous picture and works with some of the most talented individuals out there today. His appeal lies in the incredible sincerity and forwardness of each narrative theme, whether it’s a discussion of how we need to eat the rich or British politics, he lends his angle to everything. This time around? He’s tackled the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend I’m all but certain we’ll see much of in the coming years.
As a pandemic rages outside our windows, so it does in the film as well. Scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) is headed into the woods to meet up at a research site that has, supposedly, made some headway. Led by a guide known simply as Alma (Ellora Torchia), the two are robbed of their shoes in the night. When Martin is injured, they limp their way into the camp of a man named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) that seems to want to aid them. As their paths cross with the sensations in the grounds, the pair are trapped in an increasingly unhinged reality that will rend skin from bone and knowledge from mental trip.
This is a film that starts on the ground and ends in a realm that is beyond full contemplation. Wheatley has captured the mundanity of the pandemic, with Joel Fry’s character speaking casually of his parents being sick back home and the forest being a place away from everything. Zach is living off the grid, searching for something indescribable and radiating a babbling, manic energy. Every individual feels like someone we’ve known through this entire ordeal, whether it’s the deniers or those studying the research or even the conspiracy theorists that have no hold on reality. Everything in Wheatley’s film is a frustrating parallel to things we’ve seen over the last fifteen months, all rendered in frustratingly accurate performances.
But that grounding is what will make the last twenty minutes a difficult thing to grasp for most audiences. Wheatley takes everything out of the realm of anything you can tangibly latch onto and into something closer to a beautiful, horrifying experience on some really strong psilocybin. The mist takes hold, visibility at a minimum, and you’re left with blood and viscera that wouldn’t feel out of place in an H.P. Lovecraft tale of the unknowable. The grass will grow through your hands, your purpose for being will be difficult to latch onto, and you will be left stumbling through Wheatley’s woods in the face of absolute terror. While most will fall into either the camps of gross discomfort or rolled eyes. I fell in the middle, recognizing the pretention of the exercise will falling prey to the trap the director set.
One of the real kickers is that Wheatley shot all of this in fifteen days. Most shoots for a film of this length involve a hard, boots-to-the-ground process that takes at least eight weeks. With something this brief I expected the cracks to show. They do, but the film is stronger for the discomfort and realistic behaviors of the people involved. It doesn’t feel theatrical or entertaining, but starkly frank and common. Rehearsals and preparation can usually take a lot of time, but it seems like Wheatley packed up his performers and crew and just…waltzed into the woods.
Anyone who knows me could guess as to the real reason I was hyped up for this. Clint Mansell wrote the score for Wheatley’s anemic adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (deigning to fill the shoes of Alfred Hitchcock), a more operatic and grand idea. This time, however, both have stripped down to give us something leaner and meaner in a way that, at least for the composer, comes as a true surprise. Mansell has always been able to embrace minimalism in his orchestrations, but this time he’s stepped into true darkness and created something that feels like it’s gnawing at your ear and pushing bamboo under your fingernails. I’ve been a fan of Clint Mansell since 2006 when I first laid eyes on Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, and while I’ve always loved his work there’s nothing like this to compare it to. It’s been my go-to listen for a week now, a true bit of haunting audio that I absolutely adore.
Is Wheatley’s new film for you? Well, that depends. We’re living through a trying time, one that sees people squabbling over fact versus opinion and at each other’s throats for it. Most had to find a way to deal with the pandemic, unique to themselves and allowing for a way through the fog. Wheatley chose to wallow in it, process his reality by bringing it to everyone. It’s tight, mean, trippy, and the first true masterwork of 2021. I’ve had my ups and downs with the director, but In the Earth is the hook that brought me back into the fold wholly for the first time in years.
In the Earth is currently in theatres, and if you can see it safely I urge you to do so.