The dense forests on the periphery of towns, and the wooded oasis’ that pepper major cities, each have provided much respite from the cabin fever of the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly the outdoors have become an essential form of therapy, all your neighbours took up running and picnics were made for meals that should never be eaten outside. The urge for the outdoors is nothing new, it is an essential part of human identity that has been heightened by our strict lack of it in recent months. Ben Wheatley’s latest environmental horror, In the Earth, burrows into these ideas and questions whether human communication can be made between ourselves and the plants around us.
As many of us have experienced a re-established connection with nature over the past year, Wheatley’s film is certainly pertinent to the sentiments of 2021, with the film itself set in the backdrop of a pandemic. “Nice to have a new face with us,” welcomes the manager of the woodland research facility, squeezing a glob of sanitiser into his hands as he introduces Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), a scientist brought to the facility for a routine equipment run. Each donned in sterile turquoise face masks, the group talk of a national lockdown and extended time away from their work, much seems to emulate reality. Joined by Alma (Ellora Torchia), a park scout, her and Martin venture into the forest, quickly finding a rogue explorer (Reece Shearsmith) and a pandora’s box of ancient folk mystery.
Navigating the labyrinth of thick wooden trunks and dry debris, the forest takes on a language of its own, cradling its newfound wanderers as they wander under its dominion. Long-time Wheatley collaborator Nick Gillespie helps to capture the forest’s cinematic enigmatic grace, whilst the ethereal electronica of Clint Mansell’s soundtrack emulates the environment’s mystery, amplifying the pair’s heightened emotions. Both audio and visual naturally entwine and suggest something more on the fringe of physical reason, despite the film’s reluctance to fully embrace these themes in the story itself.
In the Earth is grounded by this audiovisual quality from Gilespie and Mansell, though fails to elevate this material, flapping around a plot that simply isn’t filled with enough weight. Upon escaping the clutches of the maddened explorer, Zach, played by a joyously wicked Reece Shearsmith, they seek shelter with researcher Olivia (Hayley Squires) whose makeshift camp uses flashing strobes and synthesiser wails to attempt to communicate with the forest fauna. The strange, improvised technology certainly fits the aesthetic of the film and the environment, though the film seems preoccupied with the dull slow-pursuit of Zach, rather than envelop itself within the proper progression of this experimental audiovisual wonder.
It’s only until the film’s final five minutes that it embraces this wonder, treating the viewer to a catatonic hallucination sequence that reveals the environment’s unstable, ethereal beauty. Seamingly breaking the transcendental seal of nature’s reality, waking to an intense matrix of flashing colours, and crackling, unstable audio. It recalls Ben Wheatley’s work on his independent monochrome picture, A Field in England, also preoccupied with the relationship between man and nature and the madness such a connection can reveal. Though somehow the 2013 film seems to warrant its madness, feeling like just a part of an immense, insane whole.
The visual delight that bookend’s Ben Wheatley’s latest film feels inevitable, the natural conclusion to a story of hodge-podge ideals. Technically, the film well orchestrates nature’s delicate mystery, though Wheatley cannot seem to well grip his material, slipping through the fingers of one of British cinema’s most eclectic filmmakers.