Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker who feels too of his own mind to fit into the studio system, so it makes sense why his attempts in recent years to go a little more mainstream haven’t been well received. After his 2020 Netflix feature Rebecca met with the worst reception of his career, the English filmmaker returned to his roots for his next project. Written and directed over the course of just 15 days in August of 2020, during the middle of the COVID pandemic, In the Earth would fit right alongside Wheatley’s earlier projects, like Kill List and Sightseers, and it’s refreshing to see the filmmaker make a return to form after a few years lost trying to make a shift that he never seemed suited for.
In the Earth never directly states the word “coronavirus”, but it’s definitely on the audience’s mind as the film opens up in a world where a virus is having a severe impact on the world. We’re introduced to Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) as he’s entering a quarantine zone, surrounded by people wearing masks and asking him how long he’s been in isolation. Martin is a researcher embarking on a journey deep into an eerily quiet forest in order to locate a hub where his colleague Olivia Wendle has potentially gone missing. Martin is joined by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), and they set off into the unknown.
What they find is, well, about what you might expect from a Ben Wheatley movie about two well-meaning people heading into an ominous forest. This is a Wheatley horror movie through and through, which means that we’ve got some major shifts in plot and tone that you don’t see coming, yet it all wraps up in a way that makes total sense. It’s refreshing to see the filmmaker playing in his old sandbox again, finding his groove after some years lost in the system.
It’s tough to talk about the developing plot details of In the Earth, as Wheatley shifts so drastically that the film is most effective if you can go in knowing as little as possible. Without spoilers, let’s just say that what Martin and Alma come to find in that forest isn’t what they’re hoping for, and might be more dangerous than the virus plaguing the world beyond their little bubble. As the title suggests, something else is out there that has different plans for the duo, with threats of both human and inhuman variety awaiting them on their path.
The further along we get into this journey, the more that Wheatley plays with sensory techniques to unsettle the audience’s comfort and put them into the mindset of the characters. The Sundance screening of the film opens with a warning for strobing light effects, a warning that should certainly be heeded by anyone sensitive to such a thing. In the Earth is essentially split into three distinct sections, with the third being the ultimate descent into chaos that feels organically set up, even if the film is at times a bit messy.
Some of those shifts in plot and tone can leave the audience unbalanced in ways that feel unintentional, pulling you out of the experience at times, but it all wraps around to a final stretch that sees Wheatley at the top of his game. Using those strobing lights, eerie mist, kaleidoscopic editing techniques, and a perfectly calibrated synth score from Clint Mansell (his best work in years), Wheatley puts the audience to the test with an experience that shakes you in a way that hasn’t been felt from his work since the final stretch of Kill List ten years ago. In the Earth isn’t perfect, but it’s a reminder of what the filmmaker is capable of when he’s working on his own wavelength, and not having his vision stifled by trying to fit it to someone else’s.
In the Earth premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is awaiting release.