Ben Wheatley’s pandemic-themed psychedelic fever dream is the love child of Kill List and A Field in England.
An odd bird, Ben Wheatley. Since his debut feature Down Terrace in 2009, he’s cemented his reputation as one of the best British filmmakers of the 21st century. Yet his last film – a glossy adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, made for Netflix with an all-star cast – felt devoid of any identifying features; a Wheatley movie in name but not spirit. Even his previous big-name movies (High-Rise and Free Fire) felt a little watered down, lacking the glib eccentricity of his earlier work.
It’s something of a relief, then, that his latest thriller – shot on location under Covid restrictions with a small cast and crew – feels like a return to the days of Kill List and A Field in England. Although the prospect of being inundated with ‘pandemic cinema’ over the next few years is enough to set a critic’s teeth on edge, In the Earth feels like the best version of a film that speaks to our current moment. Yes, it’s about a world ravaged by a mysterious illness, but doesn’t replicate the circumstances we’ve all lived under for the past year. Instead, it’s an ecological nightmare, drawing on Wheatley’s interest in cults, “Britishness” as a phenomenon, and… psychedelic mushrooms.
Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) ventures to an isolated research facility located deep in the Arboreal Forest, assisted by park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia). After being attacked and robbed by unknown assailants, Martin and Alma are approached by a hermit named Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who offers them assistance, which naturally comes with a steep price. What follows is a psychedelic fever dream fuelled by scenes of stomach-churning body horror and disorientating sound design.
The film feels like the love child of Kill List and A Field in England, but cleaves closer to straight horror, with a creeping sense of dread established from the opening scene. As poor Martin bears the brunt of the violence, it’s a wonder Fry hasn’t been cast in more leading roles up to now. He endures everything with a comical sense of resignation, while Alma assumes the more heroic role. It’s a fun inversion of gender stereotypes, and Fry and Torchia make for a winning duo. Shearsmith, meanwhile, has a ball as the unhinged (yet oddly polite) drifter out for blood, while Hayley Squires keeps us constantly guessing as an obsessive scientist.
In the Earth is a welcome dose of mind-bending weirdness from Wheatley, particularly in light of the disappointing Rebecca, and suggests that he works best when directing from his own material and working with a British cast. It’s not that Wheatley should only make horror films (Happy New Year, Colin Burstead was new territory for him, and equally delightful) but something is lost when the budgets and star wattage increases. Still, with Wheatley next scheduled to direct a sequel to the Jason Statham B-movie The Meg, he remains a true cinematic enigma.
Published 31 Jan 2021
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