Ben Wheatley’s career continues to be fascinating. Dark, independent features like Kill List and A Field In England (and Sightseers) led him to adapting J.G Ballard’s High-Rise, and – now equipped with more resources than ever – he followed that up with a low-key, single location shoot-out film with a star-studded cast (the wonderful Free Fire). The sad underperformance of this film led to Happy New Year, Colin Burstead – a Festen inspired TV movie made for the BBC with minimal resources. And then he made Rebecca. Netflix put Wheatley in the driver’s seat of an expensive adaptation that – though actually pretty good – garnered a lot of negative reviews (primarily people who could not get over the fact that a movie not made by Alfred Hitchcock was not a Hitchcock movie). This, yet again, leads us down the Colin Burstead track, with Wheatley making a minor film that is clearly just for him – out of the love of filmmaking.
In the Earth is a deeply flawed work. It is baggy, it is often utterly bewildering – sometimes effectively, sometimes not – and spreads itself far too thinly. However, it is a work of such obvious passion and love, a film made for the want of making a film. This is art for art’s sake, not in the empty sense of the phrase but in the need to create – a reminder of Charlotte Brontë’s famous statement: ‘I’m just going to write because I cannot help it’. So, while this film is a shambles, it is a highly enjoyable shambles – with great music from Clint Mansell – that shows off Wheatley’s undeniable strengths as a filmmaker (primarily his ability to unsettle, to work with claustrophobia and to get some great gore going).
This is pandemic horror, it is made during the pandemic and is – pretty much – about the pandemic. An unnamed virus has led to lockdowns and has taken its toll on the cities. Our protagonist, Joel Fry, arrives at forest location – one of seeming secrecy – in order to go on a vague mission. He arrives, greeted by people in surgical masks, and then he and Ellora Torchia head out into the woods. There is an undercurrent of societal escape and a bubbling paranoia that reaches boiling point early on. The parallels to real events are purposeful, but kept vague enough to give the film a wider scope. They are also kept vague because this is a film defined by vagueness. Very little is spelled out and the viewer is held in a persistent state of confusion, this is where the horror comes from and it is pretty effective. Though, by the end, it feels like the vagueness is in place of actual substance or content – but it is still a neat trick.
Where this film gets interesting is in its framing of an antagonist. Reece Shearsmith, a Wheatley regular, plays a long haired, bearded white dude that is living out in the forest – away from the pandemic – making his own produce out of obscure flora and buying into conspiracy theories. He also becomes our villain. This is a master stroke, coding this kind of character as the problem in the film is just wonderful and speaks beautifully to our times. This man’s rhetoric rhymes with that of Covid-deniers, or anti-vaxers. He’s the seemingly innocuous hippy that is actually pushing out dangerous misinformation – the kind of person that so many don’t realise really is the problem. But Wheatley realises, so he makes him a brutal villain – but one that thinks he is in the right.
This is a film of modest means. It is shot simply in constrained locations and relies heavily on editing tricks and sound design. Colin Burstead used simplicity so well, being inspired by Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (Wheatley originally wanted to call it the far better title ‘Colin You Anus’, in reference to the play) but keeping the narrative tight and the drama simple (thus allowing character to flourish). In this latest film, Wheatley just throws in everything. It feels like a man letting loose after perhaps being constrained, and just going back to his beloved tropes. We have the overt gore – and it is very good here – of Kill List, as well as the folk horror trappings. We have scenes that feel almost lifted – though in a different context – from A Field in England, and the general visual trends and themes that Wheatley loves. This is part of the messiness. It could so easily be a simple lost in the woods horror but the narrative decides to keep going, to keep complicating and it does – to be honest – lose the viewer. This would work so much better as a tighter or more focused piece. The things the film brings in, and it brings in a lot, bring such interesting ideas and themes with them. However, the film does not find the time – or display the want – to actually explore these or comment on them.
Oddly, this is part of the film’s charm. It has so many effective little moments that it is almost just a sizzle reel of what Wheatley can do. It does not hang together but it is independently fascinating and full of effective imagery and moments. The performances are also great, Joel Fry (also in recent release Cruella) continues to be a great presence in every film he’s in (even Yesterday). There is a down-to-earth, bashful and awkward brilliance to Joel Fry performances. He is such an atypical filmic presence, always coming across as uncomfortable, maybe a bit mumbly and just not typical movie star. He’s so good at this though, bringing a fresh voice that is always great to watch. His characters seem unconfident, incidental perhaps, and seeing them take centre stage creates a lot of tension and changes the rhythm of a film. He needs to be in more stuff.
Though, while a lot works, it is still a tough film to recommend. If you want some great looking gore, there is a lot of harm inflicted on a foot in this film – and that harm is really capably depicted and gets very intense. If you’re a gore hound, you will be satisfied. Ultimately, this film feels like Wheatley letting his hair down or purging something. As a fan of his work, I like the general Wheatleyness of this film. It is him doing the hits, but a greatest hits album does often remind you that albums are singular works and tracks work in contexts. That is this film. It is an endearing shambles that I like very much, and am glad that Wheatley made. It doesn’t play to its strengths and it loses itself but it is full of a love of filmmaking and it seems like everybody had a blast. If you want to watch some technically proficient horror with striking imagery, you will be well served. Just don’t expect anything beyond that.