In the Earth
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Credit: NEON

Ben Wheatley's 'In the Earth' is a brilliant film about the horror of searching for meaning in a fallen world

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Apr 15, 2021, 3:59 PM EDT (Updated)

Perhaps I'll change my mind someday, when all of this feels far in the rearview, but apart from a few outliers like the terrifying and brilliant Host and David Tennant and Michael Sheen's delightful buddy comedy Staged, I'm really not that interested in entertainment about the pandemic at the moment. I understand the impulse, of course, because we're primed as humans to glean meaning from the current moment, whether through fictional metaphor or more direct narrative confrontation. It's just not for me right now, and with that feeling comes an inherent skepticism of any piece of entertainment that professes to be inspired by or driven by the madness of the past year in any way.

Which brings me to In the Earth, the new horror film from writer/director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England) that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and hits theaters this week. Wheatley wrote the script in the early weeks of lockdown as he, like everyone else, was climbing the walls at home and looking for something to occupy his mind. He shot the film just a short while later, over a period of a couple of weeks in the summer of 2020, using the isolation of the pandemic and even a few public health announcement signs in the U.K. as a backdrop for his narrative. In less than a year, the film was complete, and it will be released at a time when many of us are just beginning to contemplate returning to actual movie theaters again amid a hopeful vaccine rollout.

All of that, and the subject matter of the film itself, ties In the Earth to the pandemic in ways that I was frankly uncomfortable with when I sat down for my virtual Sundance screening earlier this year. I wasn't ready to enjoy something that was so willing to use this period of our lives as a backdrop, even if it was something coming from one of our most inventive genre filmmakers. I was sure this film's wielding of the times we live in would leave me feeling cynical and hollow.

Instead, what I found was a dazzling, ambitious, and ultimately terrifying horror film that managed to be about the world of the pandemic without actually being about the pandemic itself, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

In the Earth follows four souls in a forest landscape, each of them contending with the elements around them in different ways. It begins as a researcher and a forest ranger (Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia, respectively) venture out into the woods to do some fieldwork and, perhaps, to locate another scientist (Hayley Squires) who went out into the trees sometime earlier. Along the way, they encounter a strange survivalist (Reece Shearsmith in top form) who begins to shift their perception of the forest and what it holds.

The less said about what's actually going on in those trees before you see the film, the better, but fans of Wheatley films such as A Field in England will be pleased to know that he's up to some of his old hallucinogenic, mind-melting tricks yet again. In some ways, I'd argue this film represents a culmination of sorts for Wheatley, compiling everything he was interested in exploring with Kill List and A Field in England into something grander, more ambitious, and packed with every filmmaking trick he's picked up along the way. In the Earth is a powerful exercise in low-budget horror craft, whether we're talking about the scenic forest itself or the way in which Wheatley turns the woods into a labyrinthine nest of secrets that keeps revealing new things to its characters and its viewers with each passing minute.

It's in that element — the sense of constant searching and discovery the film creates through nerve-shredding pacing, unexpected humor, and precise, vulnerable performances — that In the Earth truly finds its footing as a great piece of pandemic-era art. Outside of its thematic pressure points, the film works extremely well as a merging of eco-horror and folk horror, and it's no surprise that Wheatley's experience in the genre is still paying off in new ways. However, by setting his film in a vast and ancient forest and framing each of his characters as searchers of one kind or another, Wheatley has built an isolated stage on which his major players can explore the true unspeakable horror of living in this time: The constant and often desperate reach for meaning, even when it appears the world has none left to offer.

Credit: NEON

We've all spent much of the past year in search of such meaning, ascribing symbolism to random and often absurd things out of a sheer need to make sense of all the madness. Whether we're talking about a fly on a candidate's head during a vice presidential debate, a cargo ship stuck in a canal, or the simple joy of learning that Dolly Parton helped fund crucial vaccine research, we want all of it to be part of some vast cosmic tapestry — even if we can't see the whole thing.

It all needs to mean something, because if it doesn't, then what are we all doing here, shut up in our homes for months on end, waiting for the wider world to be at our feet again?

The characters of In the Earth are also probing that vast cosmic tapestry. Some search through science, others through ancient magic, others through a strange merging of the two, and they all do it because, as one character says, humans have a need to "make stories out of everything." They do it in a hostile landscape that at various points seems to be either an ally and a monstrous enemy. They do it amid millennia-old forest folklore and modern technology, makeshift camps and state-of-the-art research sites, quarantine conditions, and wilderness isolation. They search because there has to be something left to find even as the world seems to be coming apart at the seams.

It's that search and the constant sense that, no matter how deep they dig, they might find nothing that makes In the Earth one of the best films of 2021 so far, and a truly brilliant encapsulation of the horrors and hopes of the present moment.

In the Earth hits theaters on April 16.