It can’t be a coincidence that In the Earth has been released in the same week as In the Heights. Even beyond the title Ben Wheatley’s film is the absolute antithesis of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical. Where that is sunny, this is damp and dark, there that has a huge ensemble cast this has a tiny one, where that was all about human connection and urban community this is about isolation and nature, where that was mainstream and accessible this is alternative and surreal and where that is all singing and dancing this is all stumbling and screaming. Also where In the Heights was light and undemanding, this movie is challenging and thought provoking. I think it is the better movie but that may not be the consensus.
Set amidst COVID, or some virus very much like it (the disease is not named but Wheatley started writing this weeks into the first lockdown), the story sees Martin and Alma trekking deep deep into the woods to engage in some scientific work to do with crop development. After a day walking away from civilisation, and any accessible help, they meet Reece Shearsmith’s Zach who has been living in the trees by himself for quite some time and does not have scientific work on his mind, quite the opposite.
The pandemic setting seems a little irrelevant at first but it is all part of the nature versus humanity theme as whatever power it is that resides in the forest apparently takes over people’s minds. The film works on a surface level as a creepy horror but also demands interpretation and is fascinating in both respects.
Shearsmith is the picture of the convivial psychotic, making Hannibal Lector look like The Joker, and is all the scarier for it. His politeness is different to that of Patrick Bateman or Hans Landa, being more matter of fact, and he is an intriguing villain. It’s as though he saw Midsommar and viewed it as an example of how to win friends and influence people. Digging in to his fanaticism though, you see critiques on religion and when you later meet another character who interprets the voices she hears among the branches in a slightly different way these two approaches become Catholicism and Protestantism, or any other opposing belief systems, convinced they are working for a larger good irrelevant of the harm they do. Alternatively the conflict could be science and religion more broadly or between humanity and nature, modernism verses paganism, or even evil verses apathy. You can read it how you like. By the end things have got properly trippy like a rural version of 2001 where the journey isn’t past Jupiter but more an amble through the Forest of Dean
Following on from his version of Rebecca this is Ben Wheatley moving back towards the likes of Kill List and A Field in England but he has grown as a director and for all of its deliberate ambiguity this feels more coherent certainly than the latter of these two films. This is once again the work of one of England’s most exciting film makers and if any of these sensibilities make it into The Meg 2, which is randomly his next project, then Jason Statham better bring back some of the weirdness from that Erasure video he did in 1994.
In the Earth is in select cinemas now.