Sundance ‘In The Earth’ Review: Ben Wheatley’s Pandemic-themed Horror Movie Is An Assault On The Senses
In the Earth, written and directed by Ben Wheatley, follows Martin (Joel Fry) and Alma (Ellora Torchia) as they traverse through a dense village to get to Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires), hoping that she has some kind of a solution for the pandemic that their world is facing. But their journey is upended by Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who has some weird concepts about survival on his mind. The movie plays out like a standard slasher movie for a major chunk of its run-time. But after the second act, in classic Ben Wheatley fashion, it enters into mind-gouging, cult-horror territory filled with visuals and sounds that aren’t for the faint of heart.
I am a fan of Ben Wheatley’s work. I am going to straight-up admit it so that everyone knows that I am biased towards his vision (FYI if anyone says that they are unbiased, they are lying because nobody can be unbiased since they’re made of experiences that create said biases even if they are unaware of it). I have a soft spot for all of his movies and that is the only reason that I rushed to watch his latest work, In the Earth, which he made from scratch during the COVID-19 pandemic, while obviously adhering to lockdown norms and all that. Wheatley’s movies have a very unique flavour to them, which is hard to come by nowadays especially if you live in India, and I really love how he always subverts the narrative to do some weird shit. I think it has worked out till now. But for the first time, I’m a little conflicted.
In the Earth is written and directed by Ben Wheatley. It is produced by Andy Starke. The cinematography is Nick Gillespie, production design by Felicity Hickson, editing by Wheatley himself, costume design by Emma Fryer, score by Clint Mansell, casting by Shaheen Baig, hair and make-up by Emma Scott, sound design/sound editing/re-recording mixing by Martin Pavey, special effects by Roz Gomersall, Jess Heath, Rachael Mao, Dan Martin, and Thomas Tuohey, visual effects production by Rory Knight-Jones, and stunt coordination by Peter Pedrero. It features Joel Fry, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith, and Ellora Torchia. The plot revolves around Martin (Fry) and Alma’s (Torchia) journey into the woods in order to reach Dr. Wendel (Squires) who is probably working on a cure for the ongoing pandemic. However, their endeavour is upended by a night-time attack that robs them of their supplies and resources and eventually brings them across a mysterious character called Zach (Shearsmith).
In the Earth comments on how the inherent greed inside humans will lead to their eventual destruction.
The coldest take that you can come up with after watching In the Earth is that it’s a pro-environment movie and that it shows how incapable humans are when it comes to comprehending Mother Nature’s power. And you won’t be wrong. It clearly alludes to that theme by showing how much humans need to cope with the changes that the environment is going through and how unnecessary it is for the ecosystem to help humans survive said changes. It alludes to that notion by showing how in our pursuit to understand the complex mechanics of nature, we end up deifying it (Because humans usually fear and then deify things that they don’t understand), and then, strangely enough, turn against those who are trying to understand it, thereby creating more destruction. But I think that there’s an underlying commentary on greed that established through Alma’s journey.
Without giving away any spoilers, Martin, Zach, and Wendel say that they’re doing what they’re doing for science and survival. But by the time we get to the end of the movie, we learn that all three of them have ulterior motives. They probably do love science but dissecting and evolving the subject isn’t their primary concern. On the flip side, Alma’s motives are clear and she always stays true to her profession: guiding people through the forest. She doesn’t intend to understand nature. She doesn’t want to control nature. She doesn’t want to extract something out of Mother Nature. She just wants to help people survive it. And it is because of that absence of greed that she emerges as the most compelling character. I don’t know about you but I think that through Alma, Wheatley is telling us to take a step back and be grateful for the world we live in and not bend it to our will.
The kind of audio-visual experience Ben Wheatley has created for In the Earth is unimaginable.
Here’s to hoping that I am able to touch upon every praise-worthy aspect in the movie. Clint’s score and the overall sound design of the movie are astounding. The theme tune, if I can say so, is melancholic in nature so as to reflect the tragic journey that the characters are on. Wheatley’s is intentionally disorienting and it increases gradually as the characters go deeper and deeper into this state of paranoia and fear. It’s not very noticeable in the beginning but you’ll notice that there are some deliberate jump cuts to break the flow. He kind of subconsciously prepares you for the nightmare-inducing, hypnotic imagery that’s going to be a constant throughout the last act of the movie. And the thing about those visuals is that they’re made of pretty common things like ink in water or burnt film reels. But it’s the frenetic way it’s presented that give the film its edge.
The use of practical effects in the movie is just brilliant. Fry’s foot goes through some shit and holy hell does it look real in every frame. I hope that his actual foot is okay. The costume design and set design to establish the cult horror aspect of the movie is immaculate. There’s a scene involving an axe and one involving an arrow and Wheatley has directed it so perfectly that you’ll definitely think it’s happening for real. That said, I have some issues with the presentation as well. Now, please keep in mind that this movie was made under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The first issue is the pacing. It drags in a lot of the places. The second issue is the change in lenses. There is some low-quality footage spliced into the scenes shot on anamorphic and spherical lenses. I don’t why. It was jarring. And the third issue is the excess amount of expositional scenes.
Joel Fry, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith, and Ellora Torchia, especially Ellora, truly commit to their performances.
Despite appearing like one of the meekest characters to have appeared on-screen, Fry sells the fact that Martin is hiding something through the pauses he takes while conversing with someone, mainly Alma, and his overall body language. I am not sure if it’s necessarily weighing down on him but it is certainly holding him back from truly focusing on the mission i.e. saving humankind. And if anyone is planning to act out scenes where they’re being mutilated or their getting stitches or their wound is getting cauterised, please take all the footage of Fry doing the same and play it on repeat. Because that’s the most convincing reacting-to-wounds acting that I have ever seen in anything related to entertainment. Some people underdo it, some people overdo it. But my man, Fry, is just perfect. I don’t want to dive too deep into Shearsmith and Squires’s performances because it’s spoiler-y but trust me, they are great.
The star of the show is Ellora, in my opinion. Her character goes through nearly the same amount of shit that Fry’s character goes through. But there are minor differences to how the two react to those circumstances. Alma is world weary. She has to be aware of her surroundings to safely conduct her trips through the forest. She needs to rationalise what’s happening in order to make a calculated decision. However, all those abilities are put to the test throughout the course of the movie. And the way Ellora shows that Alma isn’t ready to deviate from her core principles is what make her performance interesting. She brings a level of honesty to the playing field that is very relatable and in a strange way, heartwarming. Going by ability to pull off acting sequences, I think she should be cast in action films with her as the protagonist. I will pay good money to watch that!
If you make a list of all the movies that have been made during the COVID-19 pandemic, In the Earth will undoubtedly be on the better half of it, especially because it is a movie made in the bloody wilderness. Do I think it could’ve been better? Yes, and I am saying that because I am a fan of Wheatley’s work. I know what he is capable of and how efficient he can be while telling stories that don’t have a lot of substance on-the-surface, and I think he was a little indulgent while making this. All that said, it is a timely movie, especially because we’re becoming a world full of human-on-human hatred and obtuse conspiracy theories. It has some great performances from Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia. And it is amind-gougingly (I think that’s a word I just made up) visceral movie that one has to watch to experience (I hope that it gets a big-screen release because oh boy is that going to be something).
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Cover image courtesy: Sundance Film Festival 2021