Ben Wheatley is a prominent and potent voice in British cinema. His sophisticated use of practical limitations such as small casts and contained environments have created strong impressions such as the constant menace and discomfort of “Kill List” and the black humor of “Sightseers.” His distinctive use of space in “High-Rise” and “Free Fire” are an inspiration to independent filmmakers, and his treatment of the British countryside in “A Field in England” demonstrates his ability to turn initially ordinary surroundings into threatening environments.
Wheatley’s latest film In the Earth offers all of these elements. Written, shot and edited during the Covid-19 pandemic, the film demonstrates how to work within limitations and create something that is a time capsule of a particular period that also expresses well-established concerns and fears with long-lasting resonance. During a global pandemic (sound familiar?), scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, “Yesterday”) arrives at a remote research station to reconnect with previous colleague Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, “In Fabric”), who has been conducting her own research deep in the forest. Martin’s arrival includes waiting, being sprayed and being tested, with masks and social distancing indicating the normality of such features that would have seemed alien back in 2019. Once Martin has passed decontamination, park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia, “Midsommar”) escorts him through the woods towards Olivia’s camp. Along the way, they encounter weird things, including Zach (Reece Shearsmith, “The League of Gentlemen” TV series), disorientating mist and the actual focus of Olivia’s research.
Wheatley’s script brilliantly blends the mundane with the bizarre, as we move from the natural interactions between Martin and Alma to eerie territory, with the hiking, camping and steady reveal of backstory echoing similar ill-fated trips to the woods in “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Ritual,” especially when our characters encounter bumps in the night and find their camp trashed and shoes stolen. Through Zach’s ramblings about a divine powerful force as well as sequences that defy explanation, the small cast are uniformly superb. Fry is quaintly diffident as Martin encounters increasingly dire straits including amputation. Torchia imbues Alma with a no-nonsense down-to-earth quality (sorry), Squires combines scientific rigor with an almost fantastical sense of wonder, while Shearsmith is unsettling from Zach’s initial appearance but becomes increasing terrifying as the hermit’s lunacy is steadily revealed. A photography sequence featuring unconscious bodies is especially chilling, as is Zach’s matter-of-fact discussion of human sacrifice while asking Martin and Alma if they are okay.
The overall aesthetic of In the Earth matches this blending of the ordinary and extraordinary, as the forest takes on an increasingly otherworldly — yet still tactile — quality. Director of photography Nick Gillespie and production designer Felicity Hickson convey the pervasive moisture of the forest and campsites through naturalistic though subdued lighting and shadow, and even the bright colors of rainproof gear seem dampened by their surroundings. Clint Mansell’s score combined with Wheatley’s sometimes jarring editing assaults the viewer with discordant sounds and images, the film recalling such works as “Annihilation” as the forest becomes something other and dangerous. The undergrowth is juxtaposed with wires and trees with speakers; tents appear out of the trees and the tents themselves have compartments within compartments. Wheatley intermingles the psychotic and folkoric with scientific analysis, as well as some truly wince-inducing violence. Feet are punctured and sown, parasitic scars linger on the body, limbs are lopped and eyes pierced, the impact of blunt and sharp objects on the human body made clear in an unvarnished way. There is also a strong thread of dark humor: After moments of gore the viewer may well laugh as much with relief as mirth.
For all the groundedness, both in terms of setting and embodiment, the overall impression of In the Earth is of something mysterious and unknowable. Different forms of investigation, some with scientific rigor and others drawn from the pages of an occult text, lead to more questions and uncertainty, ensuring that the viewer becomes as lost, confused and disorientated as the characters. The film’s final act features some hallucinogenic sequences where it is unclear whether Martin and Alma or the world itself is going crazy. Come the finale, it is likely that you will want to be led out of the woods, but you might be too scared to move.