Unearth (2020)

Unearth had its World Première at Fantasia

“If you make a tree good, its fruit will be good. You make a tree bad, its fruit’s gonna be bad.”

These words, with their simple paratactic structure, and their use of a homespun figure taken from nature, sound like a moral from a parable – and while their speaker, the cantankerous, utterly redoubtable matriarch Kathryn Dolan (Adrienne Barbeau, The Fog, Escape From New York, Creepshow), is certainly referring to growth and yields, her words remain a metaphor (with the ‘tree’ merely the figurative vehicle for her broader agricultural and ecological concerns).  And in Unearth, directed (and edited) by husband-and-wife team John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, Kathryn’s farming parable also serves as a more general warning about the state of the nation. For this tale of two neighbouring families in rural Pennsylvania also allegorises a divided America having collectively to reap what only part of it sows.

Although Unearth is an ensemble film whose screenplay (by Kelsey Goldberg and Lyons) pays due attention to all its characters, the protagonist with whom it opens and closes is Christina Dolan (Allison McAtee). Christina has always said that she will leave the family farm to pursue a city career in photography once her grandfather Joe, the Dolan patriarch, passes away – but now that Joe has actually died, his widow Kathryn shrewdly points out that Christina’s eye for a good shot is rooted directly in the love of the land which was instilled in her at home. The Dolan farm has been declining of late. It is not just the death of the patriarch, and his replacement with his decent but far-from-adequate son Tom (P.J. Marshall), but also the recent sale – opposed by Kathryn – of the milking herd, the building of a busy highway on the property’s boundary, and the general impact of recession. The ageing Kathryn, however, has plans to expand the family business once again and to leave a fertile legacy by leasing the fallow fields of their neighbours the Lomacks, and by convincing Christina to stay on and bring life to the enterprise where her stepfather Tom has been failing.

George Lomack (Marc Blucas, who played Riley Finn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), however,  has other ideas for his land. Abandoned by his wife, he has given up farming for auto repair work, but is haemorrhaging customers to the big chain stores, while struggling to pay the college fees for his eldest daughter Heather (Rachel McKeon) and the hospital bills for teenaged daughter – and single mother – Kim (Brooke Sorenson). At this point a representative (Chad Conley) from the company ‘Patriot Exploration’ comes knocking with an offer that George cannot refuse: big dollars to use his fields for shale oil extraction. George signs the contract – without reading the small print – and thoroughly poisons the well between himself and his neighbours. Yet even if Kathryn forbids her family from having any contact with the Lomacks, Christina continues her secret affair with George, while Heather harbours an unspoken desire for Christina – and however polarised these two families might have become, their fates remain intertwined, with what happens to one of them still intimately affecting the other.

Unearth will eventually turn into eco-horror, as the fracking operation on the Lomacks’ land yields some very bad fruit of a kind falling somewhere between M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015), Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All The Gifts (2016) and Richard Stanley’s Color Out Of Space (2019). Yet what makes this film stand out is the way in which it takes its sweet time in showing us these two families’ dramas, so that what follows is allowed to grow out of them organically as a monstrous efflorescence of seeds already carefully laid. The Dolans and the Lomacks feel like real people with real lives, and the delicate ecosystem that they inhabit together is a microcosm of America, where the little man or woman is constantly being stomped by big corporate interests (in the name of patriotism), where financial greed compromises the very food that people eat and water that they drink, where the fecund natural environment is under threat from industrialisation and mining, and where the profits of the few leave lasting consequences for the many. Something here has to give – and in Lyons and Swies’ film, the raped earth takes its revenge, leading to some grotesque body horror as nature takes root in its human cohabitants. 

Jane Saunders’ score brings an ominous rumbling to even the most innocuous-seeming scenes, as though to suggest something sinister just lying in wait to surface, while the wide shots and aerials in Eun-ah Lee’s cinematography set these characters’ trials within a much bigger picture. For, planted in all this domestic tragedy, there is indeed a cautionary parable, as the American dream – of plentiful pastures and corn-fed folk – is shown being polluted by the follies of endless capitalist ‘progress’. The result is one of the very finest nature’s revenge films in many years.

Strap: John C. Lyons & Dorota Swies’ tragic eco-horror is a farmyard fable of fracking and faction in a polarised, polluted America

© Anton Bitel