Director Ben Wheatley returns to his abstract horror roots after the ill-fated remake of Rebecca. I loved Kill List and am happy that Wheatley has returned to something more in his wheelhouse.
In the Earth is a sparse and strange film. We follow Martin (Joel Fry) who is looking for an old research assistant in the remote wilderness. He is led by Alma (Allora Torchia), a park ranger who knows the woods much better than he. They are searching for Olivia (Hayley Squires), who has not corresponded with the research team in some time.
The film also takes place during a strange pandemic (and was filmed during one, obviously). We have social distanced characters and even some who wear masks. What the pandemic is or how deadly it is remain elusive. We have a mention of a third wave, indicating that this has been going on for some time.
Olivia is researching a special ecosystem in the forest where everything seems connected. She believes that she can communicate with nature and this soil may yield strong results for crop growth. We are also given a brief introduction to an ancient forest spirit—or at least the rumor of one.
Shortly after departing, Martin and Alma are attacked by an unseen intruder who steals their shoes. After, they meet a drifter named Zach who seems to want to help them. However, twist, he actually kidnaps them and poses them in strange portraits to give as tribute to the forest God. Now, Alma and Martin must escape, find Olivia, and get out alive.
We have a captivity narrative, survival horror, and ecological horror wrapped in a hallucinogenic covering. Answers don’t come easily, and the latter half of the film is presented in a fragmented, choppy, and obtrusive way. The images blink across the screen with flashing lights, loud sounds, and it is difficult to determine what is happening.
What is interesting about this film is that it seems to be reflecting the madness of those searching for the forest spirit onto the audience. The bizarre and cyclical imagery of the hallucinations may not have any meaning—that is, until we choose to ascribe meaning to them.
The symbiotic relationship between natural organisms seems to be a major theme here. Do we scientifically conquer nature or worship it? Is nature conscious? If so, is it benevolent towards us or does it want us to die? I think you could make an argument for either stance, and this is where I enjoyed the film the most.
The characters are unhinged and pushed to their breaking point. Alma seems to be the one with the most level head, but she is drugged and captive for most of the running time. Who we should trust (and who Alma should trust) is not always entirely clear. We know that Zach is violent and dangerous, but it is also clear that Martin is hiding something. Zach is unhinged and Olivia is either crazy or just run-of-the-mill tenure track crazy.
I enjoyed the experience of watching this film. It refuses to hold your hand through the major themes that it presents and asks you to come to your own conclusions. Obviously, this has resulted in less than positive audience reviews. I don’t think most people want a film that pushes back against the audience as much as this one does, which is unfortunate. This is one of the more unique films of the year.
Worth watching if you’re a fan of arthouse or independent horror that plays with form and narrative.