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Photo: ‘In the Earth’/Neon
Ben Wheatley, the auteur behind the films ‘Free Fire’, ‘High-Rise’, and ‘A Field in England’, returns to his horror roots with ‘In the Earth’, descending back down into the dark depths of the occult, into a phantasmagoria of terror, previously explored in his film ‘Kill List’. Unlike ‘Kill List’, however, released a decade ago now, the circumstances surrounding the production and release of this film are far more different, far scarier.
It would be impossible to write this review without mentioning the ongoing pandemic we’ve all experienced for over a year now, the effects of which shaped everything from how we interact with other people to how we consume media to how we shop for groceries, everything from the banal to the essential; coronavirus changed how we experience the world; and we changed because of it; our movies are no different. Now, whether or not the real thing lives up to the horror Wheatley crafts in this film is beside the point, the point being: Wheatley channels its energy into something totally psychedelic and truly unforgettable.
‘In the Earth’
Like the world right now, the film is set during a global pandemic, setting up the various dialectical thematic engagements of the movie. nature vs. society, art vs. science, image vs. sound, which I’ll talk about later in the review, but, for now, it’s evident from the opening scene of the movie that the world of the film could have been lifted out of real life: masks, hand-sanitizer, viral-testing, isolation, lockdown. Biologist Martin Lowery, played by Joel Fry, most notably from ‘Game of Thrones’, arrives at a research facility out of a locked-down society, as he prepares to journey into the surrounding forest to assist his ex-girlfriend and biologist Olivia Wendell, played by Haley Squires, most notably from the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, on a mysterious experiment for less than clear reasons, even to him.
Accompanying Lowery on his journey into the forest, is Alma, a park ranger, played by relative newcomer Ellora Torchia, and so the two embark into what becomes a hallucinatory but very real nightmare by the end of the film; but for the first act of the movie, the two ponder the natural world, the violent, tangle of life, and discuss the isolated modern world that they’ve left behind. It’s not until they meet the haggard and unhinged Zach, played by English television’s Reece Shearsmith, that the descent into nightmare begins, and what a nightmare it is!
So This Is What Shrooms Are Like?
Anyone who has ever seen a Ben Wheatley film knows the director likes to compose strobing, almost pulsating psychedelic images. If I was to choose the two movies from his filmography that remind me the most of this film aesthetically and thematically, I would choose ‘Kill List’ for its exploration of the occult and ‘A Field in England’ for its distinct visual style, its violently pulsating images. There is a logic to these sequences in a Wheatley film though; they don’t merely exist in the movies just because they look cool.
In ‘A Field in England’, for example, the diegetic world doesn’t begin to breakdown in the film’s edit until after the characters consume a bunch of magic mushrooms, and in ‘In the Earth’, mushrooms are again responsible for the transfiguration of the diegesis, although their function in the film is far more obscure than in ‘A Field in England’; here mushrooms spores form a sort of physical and psychic barrier between the modern world and the natural one, physically preventing the characters from getting help, but also psychically transporting them past the limit of rationality, thrusting them into an occult reality. In this way, the edit doesn’t so much as breakdown as it does open up the world of the film, even though this might not be a world that the characters want to be transported to; it’s a world that exceeds everything and in doing so contains the horror of everything.
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Though horrifying for the characters, the images’ overwhelming excess reflects the beauty of an almost inaccessible world to the viewer, cut together in such a way as to remind you of a Stan Brakhage film, but unlike any Stan Brakhage film, the film’s images vibrate through a soundscape as much reverb as it is ‘80s synth-wave; and it’s in the entanglement of image and sound, the essence of Cinema, that the film itself comes alive, as a force equal to that of the nature that torments the movie’s characters.
The real genius of the film’s soundscape, however, is that it emerges through the film’s diegesis, as a means of attempted communication between the forces of the occult and the scientists hoping to make contact with it through sound, using the frequencies produced by nature in an attempt to go beyond nature; and nature is sonically eclipsed by these sounds; sounds so pure they can only be described as noise; and in that noise, looms the occult. The characters feel it as much as the audience. It’s all one big, seemingly endless trip, one complete, unending whole, which in our limited intellectual capacity, we view as pieces, as opposites, fragments of the whole, and the film reveals this inability to make sense of the great excess for what is it: the scariest truth of all.
Beyond Good and Evil
The two characters that drive the narrative forward, Zach and Olivia, use images and sounds respectively in an attempt to make sense of this powerful force living in the forest and do so in a way that representative of their different ways of being, Zach using images the way an artist does and Olivia using sound the way a scientist would, and while they appear to have wholly different approaches to understanding the world, they are connected in a surprising way, as image and sound are in the film.
This is often true of life: we want to believe that these systematic oppositions are essential, absolute, that art must oppose science, that nature must oppose society, as image and sound might appear here to oppose each other as a means of understanding what’s happening in the forest, but it’s not true; they only appear to oppose each other and are instead connected eternally, bound eternally to the other, as phenomenon all related to the same expression: ritual, as the film shows us.
Ritual as a concept carries an inherent connotation of being related to the occult or occult practices because rituals often follow a particular esoteric methodology, but is this not unlike our scientific method, which while not esoteric in the sense of being outwardly religio-spiritual, often deals with subjects pertaining to the nature of things, substances, and even the unseen in a rigorously methodological way, bordering on the mystical sometimes? Is this not where science, as we know it today, comes from: the first cosmologists, the alchemists, who are considered occult practitioners nowadays, but who, at the time, viewed themselves and were viewed as men of science? Is chemistry not a more refined form of alchemy? Is film not chemistry in motion?
Newton proclaimed the existence of God even as he changed the world forever, scientifically and beyond. Is there no art in the sounds of the natural world reflected back at us through scientific experimentation? Ritual in the minds of many has been relegated to aesthetic practices, people posing in pictures, dressed up, playing a game, but it’s far more than that: it’s your morning routine; it’s the way nature transits its cycles. Ritual binds everything together, but our scope as humans is often too narrow to see that; and sometimes it takes something horrible to shake us awake, to see the world, even the world’s ugliness, if we want to see its beauty, if we want to get out of the forest.
It Only Appears Like Magic Because You Don’t Know How It Works
Zach says the above line in the film or something to that effect when he talks about how photography functions, and I think it’s true; I’m not just saying that because he has the same name as me. I think there’s a lot in this world that we don’t understand, that we can never understand, but if that’s true, then that means there’s a lot of magic in the world. I like to go to the movies because I like to face the world, not run away from it, and that must mean I’ve witnessed a lot of magic in my life; and I think there’s something magical about movies; and I think that’s become especially evident over the last year, as people lived in isolation and lockdowns, watching movies to pass the time; but it can’t have all been bad, if we take a page out of Wheatley’s book and make something out of the experience, even if it’s something horrifying.
Actors: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires
Director: Ben Wheatley ⏐ Screenplay by: Ben Wheatley
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