Movies evolve, and one day it will be possible to look at “In the Earth” and not see the contingencies of pandemic filmmaking. The director, Ben Wheatley, started writing it at the beginning of the lockdown in Britain, and elements of the finished product — the outdoor setting; references to quarantine, a third wave and a disease ravaging a city; the actors’ surgical masks at the beginning — bear unavoidable hallmarks of the past year.
Viewed now, the film’s resourceful, even ingenious solutions to problems double as distractions; as those diminish, some of what is potent about the movie may also subside. What will be left is a back-to-basics effort from Wheatley, who has lately dabbled in splashy literary adaptations (J.G. Ballard in “High-Rise,” Daphne du Maurier in last year’s remake of “Rebecca”) but earned his cult reputation straddling horror and dark comedy in lower-budget fare like “Kill List” and “A Field in England.”
Now the setting is a forest in England. “In the Earth” trails Alma (Ellora Torchia) and Martin (Joel Fry) on a mission to meet up with Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who is about a two-day walk deep into the woods. Her communications have stopped, and we’ve been told that “people get a bit funny” out there. Dr. Wendle’s research — involving trees connected and controlled in a network that behaves like a brain — sounds more than a tad peculiar.
But reaching her isn’t easy. Alma and Martin stumble on an abandoned tent whose occupants may have been murdered. They are jumped at night by someone who steals their shoes. They encounter Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a back-to-nature survivalist who keeps his social distance until — in two displays of debatable first-aid skill — he gets far closer to Martin than Martin would like. Zach’s insistence, as he wields an ax for surgery, that he’s acting in Martin’s best interest makes for one of the funnier gags, and the characters’ repeated claims that there is no time to get to a hospital become almost a gallows joke.
Wheatley, who led hit men into a den of occult ritual in “Kill List,” isn’t one to let coherence get in the way of a good high concept. Expecting “In the Earth” to reconcile its influences (is this a plague movie, a folktale or science fiction?) is missing the point. As a glue, the movie employs a moody synth score from Clint Mansell, composing in a vein reminiscent of John Carpenter, whose presence hovers over several story developments. (Alma’s method of breaching a dangerous, encircling fog owes something to both versions of “Village of the Damned.”)
The director operates with a faith that almost any plot element can be assimilated in a climactic freakout of editing. (Wheatley did his own.) And if the bigger picture of “In the Earth” doesn’t appear fully realized — this is a movie not just of the moment, but perhaps rushed to meet it — it would be difficult, this year, for at least some of its atmosphere of isolation-induced madness not to inspire a chill.
In the Earth
Rated R. Blunt medical instruments. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
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