*NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.*
I know there will be people who absolutely love Ben Wheatley’s hallucinogenic, pandemic horror In the Earth. It’s a return to his genre roots after his luxurious Rebecca remake, and blockbuster flirtation with a Tomb Raider sequel. But this messy, woodland thriller set after multiple waves of a viral outbreak can’t sustain itself beyond the opening moments, becoming a jumbled mass of random images by its thankful conclusion.
Yesterday breakout Joel Fry plays Martin, an agricultural researcher who arrives at a national park that would normally be a vacation hot spot. But due to a continued pandemic, the place is in a state of quarantine and the personnel desperately want to reopen. After going through a fairly rigorous testing process, Joel is teamed up with park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) to investigate the local habitat. Of concern are two missing teams that left previously, and local folklore about a dangerous spirit that has a home out in the forests. Surely nothing like that will be a factor, right?
The trek is surprisingly arduous, at least for Martin who is unable to keep up with Alma. His inexperience is a mystery, although he has a well-practiced excuse about not being an outdoors kind of guy, as if he’s an indoor cat or something. Haunting cinematography and an ominous Clint Mansell score build suspense, and the longer Wheatley keeps the story lean it’s quite compelling. Deadly mishaps snowball one-after-another. A seemingly random attack, a foot injury, and then an encounter with the helpful Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a survivalist living out in the woods all by himself. Nope, nothing to be concerned about.
Of course, Zach isn’t nearly as friendly as he appears. Quite the opposite. The guy looks like Wolverine if he were a lost woodsman, and has a creepy workshop that he really doesn’t want you to think about too much. Martin and Alma become intimately familiar with it, and Wheatley, a pro at stoking the fires of imagination, shows just enough to make the skin crawl without giving too much away.
Unfortunately, Wheatley gets away from this three-hander dynamic too soon, adding a mysterious scientist (Hayley Squires) into the mix, and coming up with all sorts of weird red herrings and psychedelic mumbo jumbo that takes away from the survival horror aspect. As the film descends into visual chaos, any sense of what is truly at stake is lost, and the characters are too thinly-drawn to provide much of a lifeline. The actors are good, however, with Torchia standing out amongst them in balancing Alma’s professional instinct to protect nature, and her gut which is telling her shit is really fucked up. Also, as a lone female out in the woods with one crazy loon and another guy who is hiding something, Alma’s perspective should’ve been given more focus.
Shot during quarantine over the course of two weeks, In the Earth looks great, with Wheatley doing what he does best by doing a lot with limited resources. In the haste to get the movie done, creativity seems to have been lost in the woods, and fans of Wheatley will have to wait longer to see him truly return to form.
In the Earth opens in theaters tomorrow April 16th.