In the Earth
2021, R, 107 min. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Starring Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires, Mark Monero.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 16, 2021
Alan Moore was right. Actually, German botanist Albert Bernhard Frank when, in 1885, he coined the term mycorrhiza to describe the fungi that live in and on plant roots, a symbiotic relationship essential to the survival of both, and newer research suggests it creates a vast network. When Alan Moore took over the writing of DC's Swamp Thing, he changed the story from being about a monstrous vegetable in human form to the story of the Green, the mystical elemental force connecting all plant life.
Which one is right? Both. Neither. Either. It's the same with Zach (Shearsmith), the pleasant lunatic who believes that a dead necromancer is communicating with him through the interwoven mystical fabrics of Britain's plant life. Nonsense, argues Olivia (Squires), who sees a biological interface that almost creates a brain beneath the surface, a superintelligence that can communicate if we only use the right mix of light and sound. Or it's Parnag Fegg, the arcane creature of folklore that lives in the woods. It's something, and everyone is wrangling with what it is. "It makes sense that they should give that feeling a face," park ranger Alma (Torchia) tells visiting researcher Martin (Fry) when they're paired up for her to escort him to Olivia's research site in the middle of a wood somewhere. She's experimenting with mycorrhiza, nominally for its effect on crop production, and Martin's been sent to check how she's doing. Unfortunately for the wanderers, they run into Zach first. He's helpful at first, but his increasingly unhinged behavior makes them more prisoners than guests for his unhinged ramblings. If only he wasn't so polite, they'd have more reasons to flee, but one cannot be rude ...
On the surface, In the Earth fits into the modern wave of folk horror: but quietly it is Wheatley's funniest film since the more overt comedy of low-key serial killer road trip Sightseers, a genteel comedy of English manners as much as it is a gory ecohorror (if you made a drinking game out of every time someone gently apologizes for the mildest imposition, you'd be hammered before Martin sets foot in the forest). He then layers in jokes and nods that are often deliberately esoteric (academics of folklore will get a quick chortle from a throwaway gag about the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index). Such details mean everything and nothing, just like everything else happening here. In the Earth is a story of and told with instinctual connections. As Olivia explains, "I wouldn't try to make any logical sense of it."
Filmed and set during the pandemic (a core mechanic for both the minimalist structure of the film, and several understated conceits of the story), in it Wheatley melds aspects of his earlier work here: the understated pagan horror of Kill List, the pleasant rural settings of Sightseers, the mycology of A Field in England, and the misguided experimentation "for the greater good" at the heart of High Rise. In many ways, it' the perfect distillation of his work, making the subversive slo-mo shoot 'em up Free Fire look more of an aberration with any frame. But it's the profound Britishness of In the Earth that is its unique bedrock, with all its complicated substrata. It's in the weaponized politeness, the implication of the ancient concept of Albion, of connections to the island's land, and an implicit sense of identity that transcends the ugly, racist, post-Brexit ideas of Little Britain (the casting of two actors of color in lead roles feels like no accident). Even a sideways glance to that most American of genres, the slasher, is brought into focus through that lens.
Sinister and hilarious, psychedelic yet grounded, absurdist while still gripping, In the Earth will take root in you.