In the Earth (4 stars)

In the Earth

Ben Wheatley gets back to basics in this woodland-set, blackly comic thriller

When Covid-19 put a spanner in the works of Tomb Raider 2, the film he was about to start shooting, British director Ben Wheatley opted for a dramatic change of direction. The result could just as easily be seen as a reaction to the constraints of his last and most commercial film to date, Rebecca – a very polished but artistically anonymous effort. Wheatley's In the Earth thrillingly returns us to an earlier era of his filmmaking, one of woodland menace, the blackest of comedy, much smaller budgets and hallucinogenic trips down the rabbit hole. It's a film that evokes the director's Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England and that will delight his fans, whilst unashamedly alienating others.

Written and directed over the course of 15 days, it's set rather appositely during a pandemic, though fails to play particularly fruitfully on this real-world resonance. Instead, it takes us deep into a forest near Bristol, as shifty scientist Martin (Joel Fry) heads to a government-controlled outpost to assist in the research of his former colleague and ex-lover Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who is experimenting with mycorrhiza to increase crop efficiency. His guide through this unusually fertile terrain is Ellora Torchia's Alma, with The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith playing his own, inevitably sinister, part.

Dialogue-wise, In the Earth doesn't have the strength of Wheatley's collaborations with his partner Amy Jump, who wrote the screenplays for many of his previous efforts, and it's not as scary as it could and perhaps should have been, despite the presence of a woodland spirit – in the shape of local legend Parnag Fegg. But it conjures an enjoyably uncanny atmosphere; it can be extremely and occasionally uncomfortably immersive, and the soundscape and visuals are something else. It features a spiralling synth score from regular Wheatley collaborator Clint Mansell (who also works with Darren Aronofsky) and with Wendle's experiments using sound and light in dramatic fashion, the film makes the most of that, in sequences that can be very startling.

Subject matter this otherworldly needs a certain amount of credibility to cling onto and, luckily, the ensemble have been expertly selected, with Torchia delivering sincerity and tangible fearfulness, Fry some nicely judged and vaguely comic disbelief, Squires cast cheeringly against type and bringing delicious ambiguity to her role, and Shearsmith playing on his darkly humorous League of Gentleman and Inside No. 9 repertoire, but with an undercurrent of all-too-real menace. It absolutely won't be for everyone, yet for fans of Wheatley, or those looking to escape the heat and bury their heads in something stunningly strange and unashamedly esoteric, this is bang on.

Available to watch in cinemas from Thu 17 Jun.

In the Earth

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • UK / US
  • 1h 47min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Ben Wheatley
  • Written by: Ben Wheatley
  • Cast: Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires, Ellora Torchia, John Hollingworth, Mark Monero
  • UK release: 17 June 2021

Horror film written and directed by Ben Wheatley.