|Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Ten years after making a big impact with his sophomore feature length film, Kill List (2011), Ben Wheatley has remained a distinctive voice in the British film industry throughout the decade, with a prolific career in which he has experimented with various genres from the very dark comedy of Sightseers (2012), to the mind bending A Field in England (2013), all the way to his glossy remake of Rebecca for Netflix last year.
Last we heard from him he was attached to two blockbusters, the Tomb Raider and The Meg sequels (he has subsequently dropped from the former) so it came as a surprise when it was announced that a film he had directed in secrecy last year, In The Earth, was ready and was to have its world premiere at Sundance.
As the world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic, Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) is on his way to a research site deep in a forest, guided by park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia) when a brutal night time attack leaves them shoeless and at the mercy of the elements and nature, not to mention of an unseen presence seemingly stalking them.
In The Earth has two very different acts. The first half is oppressive and serious in tone, with a sense of pervading threat and Ben Wheatley makes the most of its very photogenic and atmospheric location where our protagonists seem to be constantly watched, with the suspense meticulously cultivated and the unease growing. The arrival of a well-meaning oddball who comes to their rescue only adds to the tension with his benevolent yet peculiar demeanour.
The second act then descends into psychedelic excess and folk horror territory. It is not a spoiler to say that the well intentioned stranger has some nefarious intentions and they also come across a scientist (Hayley Squires) who is a little out there too.
Audiences are already fed up with lame, indulgent and claustrophobic "lockdown" films by now so it is so refreshing that Ben Wheatley does the exact opposite with his version of this new subgenre by setting it up in the open and in the heart of nature. He anchors it in reality however with the opening scenes featuring all the safety procedures we have grown so wearily accustomed to by now, from surgical masks to hand sanitisers, adding just a few extra elements to set his story apart.
Conceived during the first lockdown in the U.K and shot last summer when lower cases meant a little bit freedom but still with the risk of production being shut down at any time, the urgency seems to have energised and inspired the British director. It is as if the stars had aligned and all the elements that has made Ben Wheatley's career so interesting so far converge and blend perfectly, yet it also feels fresh and new. The deliciously British eccentricity and dark humour abound, with Haley Squires delivering a perfectly tuned performance, deranged but not over the top, having to go through a whole lot of expository dialogue to anchor the mythology at the heart of the story and channeling the demented scientist character from many retro British sci-fi films and TV series in the process.
Joel Fry's subtle comedic timing is a joy, as the not so brave Martin he finds himself at the receiving end of an increasing amount of pain due to a worsening wound and various makeshift attempts to heal it so it is down to Ellora Torchia to take the lead with a physical and quietly heroic performance.
The visuals are often awe-inspiring and bring back memories of A Field in England but still feel very distinct with the colour palette a match for the eco vibes of the story, there is even a touch of Annihilation at times. The wonderful score by Clint Mansell adds to the disorienting atmosphere with its heavy bass and general eeriness.The film's main theme is the place of man in nature and finding back our connection with it once again and for the odd lashings of dark humour, its tone is kept serious enough throughout.
Despite so many constraints Ben Wheatley was able to make the most of what he had and delivers such an assured and controlled film, the culmination of various past experiments that come together so well. One could even argue that this might be his best work yet.
In The Earth is a treat for Ben Wheatley's fans and a film that might win him some new fans too.
Review by Laurent de Alberti
Star rating: ★★★★☆
In The Earth. UK 2021. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Starring Ellora Torchia, Joel Fry, Hayley Squires...
In The Earth premiered at Sundance. It will be released later this year.