In The Earth

In The Earth (2021)

In The Earth first published by

In The Earth begins with an image of the object at its centre: a menhir with a circular opening in its middle through which the arboreal foliage beyond is framed. It is like the monolith from the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – a mysterious, numinous boundary stone which takes the measure of humanity by marking a natural border – and Ben Wheatley‘s film, like Kubrick’s, will also end in a dizzyingly psychedelic freakout. Yet like that enigmatic orthostat at the core of its narrative, In The Earth comes with a big hole in it: a void of meaning that various characters try to fill with stories and mythologies, all in a quixotic attempt to be at one with the inscrutable, slow-evolving nature all around.

In The Earth was conceived and filmed under Covid lockdown conditions, and is also set during a deadly (near-future) pandemic, when humanity has slipped out of balance with nature and is struggling to survive. Still grieving the death of his parents, urban, unassertive Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) is heading into a remote and “unusually fertile” forest to rejoin his former colleague – and ex-lover – Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) for field research into the ‘mycorrhizal mat‘ which has turned the trees into a collective consciousness. Before Martin heads off into the deep forest, head of security Frank (Mark Monero) warns him that it is “a hostile environment” in which “people get funny” – and park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), who is to be Martin’s guide on the two-day hike to Olivia’s research station, tells him of ‘spirit of the woodland’ Parnag Fegg, a figure of local folktale used, after a series of child disappearances in the Seventies, to deter younger visitors from venturing too far into the treeline.  

Once in the woods, Martin’s helplessness outdoors becomes apparent, even as Alma proves effortlessly capable, resilient and respectful of her environment. Attacked and robbed while sleeping, they are left without their gear or even shoes in rough terrain, and it is not long before Martin’s bare foot is cut on a sharp stone. In fact the prologue had shown a shadowy figure hewing the stone and planting it in the earth, and so there is now the sense that a carefully set trap has been sprung. Alma and the injured Martin have little choice but to accept help and hospitality from a passing stranger, the friendly squatter Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who has every intention of incorporating them in an improvised, unhinged pagan ritual, whether they like it or not. Soon they will find themselves caught between the fanatical Zach, and the equally (if differently) loopy Olivia, who has long since abandoned the rigours of scientific method and now literally talks to the trees – and meanwhile, there really is something odd and impenetrable going on in the surrounding flora. 

Driven by a pulsating electronic score from Clint Mansell (derived partly from tree sounds), In The Earth makes comic body horror of the escalating damage to Martin’s foot, while it also repeatedly wrong-foots the viewer with a series of unpredictable narrative turns. With its botanical hallucinogens, its mystic menhir, its magical rituals, its witchy tome and its intangible genius loci, the film feels steeped in the tropes of folk horror, even if its tales of Parnag Fegg, of necromancers and alchemists, may be more tall than true. After the big, starry productions of High-Rise (2015), Free Fire (2019), Rebecca (2020), and the Lara Croft sequel that Wheatley would have been helming had the Coronavirus not intervened, In The Earth feels like a return (along with 2018’s Happy New Year, Colin Burstead) to the filmmaker’s low-budget roots, where his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities can more freely bloom. The eerie confrontation which the film stages between its human characters and powerful, inscrutable nature occupies similar terrains to Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974), M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), Sasha Louis Vukovic’s Flora (2017), Philip Gelatt’s They Remain (2018), Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018), Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019, also starring Torchia) and Wheatley’s own A Field of England (2013). Mostly, though, this is its own thing, disorienting, funny, creepy and weird.

In The Earth presents the viewer with a sylvan happening that makes little sense, and then with characters trying to explain or exploit it through clashing (and sometimes merging) interpretative matrices, now religious, now scientific. The instruments that Zach and Olivia use in their attempts to get closer to the heart of the forest – a camera, (involuntary) actors, costumes, lighting, digital soundscapes – are also, of course, the tools of filmmaking. For Wheatley is showing a reflexive awareness that his own attempts to turn these esoteric events into a comprehensible, satisfying narrative will be no less doomed to fail than theirs. “Zach is trying to make meaning where there isn’t any,” says Olivia, in a moment of insight that she seems unable to extend to herself and her own activities, “It’s a psychological problem with humans: they want to make stories out of everything.” Wheatley too wants to make a story of the ineffable, but unlike Olivia he is aware of the inadequacies of his human medium to encompass the shimmering otherness of nature, and so contents himself with deploying science, technology, the occult and magic (Zach expressly likens photography to magic) to conjure rather than contain the forest’s arcane presence. Like the standing stone seen at its beginning, In The Earth merely frames its wild ecological mysteries without ever trying to tame them. These are woods in which it is all too easy to get lost, although if you listen closely, there is a measured voice here to guide us on Wheatley’s heady psychot(r)opical trip.

Strap: Ben Wheatley’s unnerving, apocalyptic psychot(r)opical woodland freakout sees human characters undone by their desire to explain, exploit and unveil nature’s mysteries.

My interview with Ben Wheatley on In The Earth can be found here.

Anton Bitel