[Sundance Review] 'In the Earth' Takes Viewers on an Introspective Journey Wrapped in Eerie Folklore
“People get a bit funny in the woods”…
…People also tend to get a bit funny in their attempt to explain the unexplainable. Like a seed, ideas plant themselves deep within our minds and begin to grow. But what happens when there are potentially other forces guiding and manipulating those beliefs? It’s the very roots of this concept which In the Earth, having just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, seeks to expose.
Written/directed by Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Kill List), In the Earth takes place during a Covid-like pandemic which has ravaged the world. Martin (Joel Fry) acquires the assistance of a park scout named Emma (Ellora Torchia) to take him to the location of scientist Dr. Wendell (Hayley Squires) deep within the woods. During their trek, they encounter hippie dippy forest-dweller Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who seems like a pretty good guy, until they learn he has some pretty wild ideas about the forest and what rests in the earth.
What follows is a trippy, mind-bending mania set to a psychedelic synth score by composer extraordinaire Clint Mansell, which blends Pagan folk horror with science for an experience that will leave your mind goopy and dripping out your ears.
In the Earth is that sort of quiet horror film that lures us deep into the heart of it before the true madness strikes. The lush, green forest and deep brown of the dirt gives the film an earthy, comforting feeling so overwhelming you can practically smell the mildew. And for quite a while it feels that way as Martin and Emma get to know each other. Martin has spent the last four months in isolation and it shows through a genuine performance from Fry, who comes off like we all probably will being back in the world again: shy and awkward. As the logical and understanding one, Torchia radiates a gentle warmth, refusing to judge Martin for his newfound social anxiety. The development of both never feels fully realized, but these are two people we want to root for.
In the Earth explores our need as human beings to feel connected to each other, as well as our want to explain everything from the rising of the sun to the whispering of the trees, attacking the dialogue from both sides of the equation; art, and science. Folklore surrounding an ancient text and a legendary being in the woods is introduced in the first few scenes, but instead of your usual battle between science and philosophy, the two are merged as one to expand on the myth. Think Annihilation meets Midsommar. One uses science to question the nature of humankind, whereas the other presents an alternative world where science offers no answers. In the Earth combines the two for a complex yet hypnotic narrative that takes viewers on an alternatively beautiful and horrific journey, asking the audience to decide all throughout, is there an ancient being out there, or is it something else?
Nature is ruthless and unforgiving, and the violence of Wheatley’s film is treated in the same way. The first attack against Martin and Emma comes suddenly, in the dark, quick cuts and sounds raging, over as quickly as it began. Wheatley never glorifies the violence the way some of our favorite gorefests might. Instead, In the Earth settles on an unflinching realism, attacking the audience without warning, with effects that are so well-crafted you’re guaranteed to squirm. The hell which one character and their foot goes through is enough to make you never walk anywhere barefoot again.
Martin and Emma have more to worry about than foot trauma though, because they find themselves battling the very idea of belief. When someone believes so deeply in violence for the good of the earth and what may or may not rest inside of it, how do you reason with that? We can deny the existence of ancient earth gods all we want, but when someone is convinced otherwise, you cannot bargain with them.
More chilling is when you begin to think they may be right, and can no longer discern reality from fiction…
In the Earth disorients with jolting cuts and hypnotic sequences of blood and shadows and blooming life. Watching it is like dropping a bunch of shrooms and then taking a stroll through a valley, with sudden peaks of excitement and long stretches of contemplative introspection on our very existence. The blend of pagan stick statues and curious science keep things interesting through the somewhat repetitive circumstances, establishing an eerie atmosphere made more discomforting by the idea that the forest itself could be alive.
Human beings always have and always will search for answers to things they cannot explain. Is that cloud of psychedelic mushroom spores simply a coincidence, or is it something deep down in the earth encircling you in a trap for a sinister purpose?
In the Earth is a fascinating discussion about the ways we connect with the world and each other, full of secrets buried deep down and wrapped in a blanket of dirt. This film will frustrate everyone wanting a straight-forward narrative, because In the Earth is more of a philosophical journey ripe with beauty and horror than a more grounded and typical tale. A few branches could be trimmed down and both the folklore and characters could be expanded upon for a richer story, but In the Earth is an intriguing film that will leave you pondering questions of our connection to everything around us long after the credits roll.
By Matt Konopka