I Think We’ve Reached An Impasse
IN THE EARTH (2021)
It's no secret that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of filmmaking seemed unclear. With full productions and theaters shut down - both the means and ends for all films - filmmakers scrambled to not only adapt to constantly changing conditions but to also act on their creativity. So far the result has been split. For every Host, the definitive and ideal quarantine-themed film, or Malcolm & Marie, we've gotten a film like Songbird or Locked Down. However, the latest entry in this new genre of films, visionary director Ben Wheatley's In The Earth, falls somewhere in between.
Anyone familiar with Wheatley's work will know just how off-kilter it can be. He's a genre director who likes to take risks. While making a film during a pandemic is a great risk in its own right, I wish that was the only risk here. At its core, and as I discuss later on, this is a film about contradiction. Nothing is ever as it seems, but at the same time it feels as if the film either doesn't know what it wants to be or doesn't want to tell us. There are moments and sequences composed of constant quick cuts, some that even interrupt a character mid sentence, and there are also instances where the camera lingers on a single shot or image until it's uncomfortable. These choices are sure to leave viewers with more questions than answers, but if they weren't so frustrating then the film would be a more enjoyable puzzle to solve.
On the surface level, the film is set in a not too distant future where the world has become ravaged by a deadly virus. It follows a scientist and a scout who head into a local forest for a routine equipment run. However, it's really what happens to both characters once they enter the forest that becomes the primary focus of the film.
One night our main characters get beaten in their sleep and have most of their things, including their shoes, stolen. This ultimately forces them to wander around the forest for help. After meeting a forager named Zach, things go from bad to worse as it's revealed Zach is actually a maniac who worships the woods. This isn't the film's biggest reveal though; unfortunately, it’s just the beginning.
Zach's introduction marks the departure of logic. Without becoming nonsensical, the film invites the audience to come to its own conclusions while knowingly keeping the absolute truth from them. While I'm all for films that demand the audience to think, I found the film to be reminiscent of Trey Edward Shults' It Comes At Night in that regard. It's too ambitious for its own good.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Now, the acting is easily the film's best quality in my opinion. Unlike the film itself, it’s actually enjoyable to decipher our four main leads and learn who they are because none of them are who they say they are when we first meet them. Each of them carries a secret.
While not all secrets are great and some characters are still kind of dull, the performances are the exact opposite. As confusing as things get, I still felt compelled to care because the actors made me care.
Of the four leads, Joel Fry, who plays the main character Martin, is easily the standout. Not only is it because he’s given the most to do, but because it’s really a departure from his previous work. While I’ve only ever seen him do supporting comedic roles prior to this film, here he proves that he has potential as a serious leading man.
One of Fry’s best scenes in this involves him losing toes, and while it does physically weaken him, it equips him emotionally for what the rest of the woods (and the story) have in store for him.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
Speaking of that scene, I think all of the effects in this film are pretty well done. Make no mistake, this entire production is minimalistic, and there aren’t that many effects in the first place (considering the circumstances it was made, it makes sense). However, every scene with practical effects looks realistic.
While I still have a problem with Wheatley’s overall direction and most of his editing, I will say that his use of editing to elicit visual effects and to illustrate how our characters feel towards the end of the film is impressive. With clear budget restraints he certainly makes the most with what he has.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Given the film’s setting, I’m actually surprised that the natural acoustics of the woods aren’t used more. Instead sound, like the film’s effects, is used scarcely and similarly to amplify the experiences of our characters. As a result, with the exception of a trippy sequence midway through the film, it’s hardly memorable.
Even though I know this is far from the last film we’ll see in this genre, I think we’ve reached an impasse. Regardless of whether or not you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it. While a part of me wonders if I’d feel different had this film not been the product of a pandemic, as much as In The Earth aspires to be something greater, it just never gets off the ground.
NEON will release IN THE EARTH in theaters April 16th, 2021