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In the Earth
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by Jay Seaver

"Ambition and atmosphere, at least."
3 stars

"In the Earth" is simultaneously a movie that Ben Wheatley pulled together quickly as something he could make while folks were self-isolating - it was allegedly written and directed in two weeks - and something that must have been kicking around his head for a while, which leads to a certain tension. There's big ideas and times when the film either has too much or too little to do to get to the next leg, messy in a way you might expect from a film made under weird conditions.

The first that the audience meets is Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), approaching a hunting lodge on foot, although it and the forest behind it, are being used as the home base for scientific experiments during lockdown. He's arrived to assist and/or relieve former colleague Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has been studying the forest's interconnected root system but has, of late, been out of communication. Her base is deep in the woods, two days' hike with the help of park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), and while those woods are supposed to be uninhabited, they have a couple of worrying encounters even before meeting eccentric squatter Zach (Reece Shearsmith).

Wheatley has not yet made a found-footage-style horror movie yet, but even his genre movies have always seemed to have a lot of influence from independent kitchen-sink dramas, and the effect is somewhat the same; both his scripts and his casts' performances prioritize realism over anything close to theatricality. The way that Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia make Martin and Alma feel charmingly ordinary - unmatched instead of mismatched - is probably a lot harder than it looks; it's easy to make characters like these into an odd couple or exaggerate their contrast, because stories often see their main pairing as a puzzle to solve; these two grow closer in an intense situation naturally but it's not about anything but that. Fry and Torchia sketch the pair well and perhaps benefit from not having time to overthink things, even if it might sometimes make their characters feel simple compared to typical horror movie leads. Reece Shearsmith and Hayley Squires aren't quite so grounded in their performances, but one sort of expects the woods to do that; on the other pole, folks like John Hollingworth and Mark Monero do some nice work grounding what is inherently an odd situation in thoroughly believable ground.

The main story, itself, is the sort of thing Wheatley is good at, digging under the surface of modern Britain to see how it is influenced by ancient tradition and folklore, in this case quite literally, as Wheatley finds inspiration in recent research about how tree root systems can actually act as a communications network to make those concepts literal. He combines that with his usual sharp eye for getting the most out of a simple location - the woods themselves have a personality, but every bit of human habitation seems off, even the lodge which seems cast against type as a scientific base camp. He knows how to get weird with the imagery and editing but still communicate, and lets Clint Mansell's unearthly score carry a fair amount of weight. It sounds neither human nor mechanical, so it's not hard to believe that sampled plant sounds were used.

Even in the best of cases, making this sort of bare-bones horror movie can be a challenge, and a world-wide pandemic is not the best case. There are moments when the filmmakers can't quite square scenes of two people talking with their widescreen framing where the bumpiness seems to go beyond Martin and Alma getting to know each other, enough to make one wonder if safety restrictions kept everyone from being on the set the same day or necessitated fewer takes with smaller crews. Not being able to get things just right might also be a factor with the multiple times when he maybe goes for too easy a gross-out, like he wants to make a point about how inhospitable nature is but can't resist the reaction he'll get from the squeamish. It's also worth noting that there's a warning about stroboscopic effects at the start of the film and it's not messing around, but even appreciating what the filmmakers are doing, it may still be a little much.

The ambition here is impressive, and Wheatley does nifty work in updating the sort of 1960s/1970s British horror and thriller that the title sequence implies into something modern. The pandemic ultimately may prove one challenge too many, but "In the Earth" is still more interesting than most horror movies and effective despite its shortcomings.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34037&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/22/21 15:15:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2021 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  16-Apr-2021 (R)

UK
  18-Apr-2021

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Ben Wheatley

Written by
  Ben Wheatley

Cast
  Joel Fry
  Hayley Squires
  Reece Shearsmith
  Ellora Torchia
  Mark Monero



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