In The Earth (2021), Return of Ben Wheatley and Cinema

There was good reason to be fearful going into In The Earth and not just because it’s an icky weirdo horror movie. Ben Wheatley has been a favourite director of mine for years but seems to have been losing his way recently. My eye was first caught with his incredibly confrontational folk horror Kill List which on first blush was so edgy and uncomfortable that I hated it, but it’s a film I’ve grown to love for all the same reasons in the years since. He’s maintained a tie to folk horror and his abstract horrific tone in years since with films like Sightseers and High Rise but the only straight folk horror film he’s made since is the expressionist nightmare that is A Field In England. Since then Ben has been trying harder and harder to diversify his palette and never stick to the same kind of film twice in a row. He scored a hit with action-comedy Free Fire but since then it’s felt a lot like diminishing returns. His Mike Liegh influenced riff on Coriolanus, Happy New Year, Colin Bursthead went straight to TV after a London Film Festival premiere and it was fine if lacking the inspired aspect of Wheatley’s best work. It wasn’t a film that was ever designed to challenge cinema’s foundations in the way Wheatley has done before. Then came his remake of Hitchcock’s classic chiller Rebecca, which was terrible. Just an absolutely inert damp squib. After that the only news coming out of Camp Wheatley were more very ill conceived matches, a sequel to The Meg and a sequel to the Alicia Vikander vehicle Tomb Raider. All ideas that, like Rebecca, appear to only serve to strip Wheatley more and more of the things that make him interesting to begin with. Ben Wheatley films aren’t great because they’re great pieces of classically made cinema, they are anarchic upsetters of the established order that break all the rules and have a lot of fun doing it. These ideas seemed more and more like The Sex Pistols doing an Elvis Presley covers album.

Then the pandemic comes and really it should be expected that Wheatley, of all people, would be one of the first filmmakers to capitalise on it in a way that didn’t seem completely tasteless. In The Earth, like A Field In England, was designed around the restrictions the filmmakers were facing. Whereas, for A Field In England, they wanted to shoot a film on the fly wherever they could find and created something of quite spectacular production value and majesty, a similar trick is pulled with making In The Earth in the middle of the pandemic. They succeed as well in making such a small budget film on such a huge canvas. Despite having a very small cast and at most 4 locations, it is absolutely true that if you haven’t seen In The Earth in a cinema that you really haven’t properly seen In The Earth, and I almost never say that about movies. It’s almost never accurate about movies, it’s normally pretentious waffle, but it’s true of In The Earth. It has a similar feel to Ken Russel’s movie Altered States meets Hostel meets Midsommar. Altered States is really worth highlighting though because it’s like Wheatley looked at the strange visions Russel conjured for that movie and attempted to do one better, which very few people have attempted to do and fewer have succeeded, but Ben does. Ben has described In The Earth as a huge welcome back to the cinema and that’s absolutely on the money, and I have a great fondness for the intention to make a film like In The Earth designed for the cinemas in the conditions under which it was made. 

In The Earth is a return to folk horror for Ben and at this point he’s very good at it. It seems to complete a trifecta with Kill List and A Field In England that makes the three films some collective, cohesive piece of work by themselves, of a kin with Kieślowski’s colours trilogy. Like before we had Kill List and A Field In England and they were both masterpieces but they weren’t complete as a pairing, and now Ben Wheatley’s made In The Earth and that complete piece is here now. It follows Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia as a scientist and park ranger respectively, who, in the middle of a global pandemic, go off to find a scientist who has disappeared in her research isolation. Unsurprisingly, she and her partner have gone a bit Colonel Kurtz in this journey into the Heart of Darkness. The pair of explorers are presented with dangers both physical and psychological as the mania that has come out of fixation mixed with isolation threatens to engulf the whole cast. Wheatley seemingly was very prescient with what the experience of lockdown would actually be like for most people. 

Now, it’s worth saying that the film, on a structural level, is an absolute mess. Now Kill List and A Field In England are structurally avante garde and unconventional, but they still have a lot of intentionality behind their structure and it comes together very well in the finished movies. I do not feel this way about In The Earth. The film, uniquely in Wheatley’s canon, feels like a movie made by people just trying to make a movie in their conditions, and when you’re anything other than an amateur that feeling is not very charming. The film makes up for it amazingly in two key respects, vision and ideas. This is up there with the most extreme and visionary of Wheatley’s works. It’s certainly his boldest vision to date, which is an exhilarating feeling to sit there and see things you’ve never seen on a cinema screen before. It’s also full to bursting with ideas about holism and loneliness and interconnectedness and psychology. When Hayley Squires comes into the picture, who you see here as you have never seen her before, these ideas really come into sharp focus in a really satisfying way. 

Squires is great in the film and the performances across the boards are spectacular. It’s interesting how Fry is essentially doing the same performance he did in cult Brit TV show Trollied but he’s using it in order to play a reclusive and shy scientist who’s competent and intelligent and knowledgeable in a way his character in Trollied is very pointedly not. His character is also very cowardly and more of a follower than a leader, but he understands the heady ideas at play in this movie in a way other characters starkly fail to. On this point, this is a folk horror with two lead actors of colour and that is a really wonderful thing and goes against so much of the accepted wisdom of folk horror in a way that’s incredibly exciting. It proves that it works in ways people have said it couldn’t in defence of the painfully white state of folk horror previously. Wheatley has modernised the genre that he put right into the zeitgeist with Kill List in the exact same way it felt like he was doing when he made Kill List in 2011. What it proves is that he can keep iterating his ideas in more and more relevant and exciting ways every time. He will never stagnate as much as it sometimes feels like he might be about to. 

So what of In The Earth? Well the fact is that it absolutely needs to be seen if you have any interest at all in the state of cinema. Is it perfect? No. Is it even Wheatley’s best horror film? Not by a long, long way. Is it essential viewing? Absolutely. It left me delirious and excited. It’s a perfect return to cinemas after a painfully long absence, and I’m incredibly excited to say that Ben Wheatley is back and with a bite.

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