Ben Wheatley revisited: In The Earth (2021)

In The Earth
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Shot during the first year of COVID-19, Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth is a low budget, back to his roots kind of film: we’ve taken a look back.

Though peak COVID-19 may be in the rear view mirror, the effects of the pandemic on our psychological and human sociology will be felt for years, even perhaps decades to come, and filmmakers are only just beginning to explore what it means.

In the Earth is one such very early example, born by Ben Wheatley (in only his second independently penned script, without usual collaborator Amy Jump) during the throes of the first, hellish stage of COVID-19 in 2020, shot with a low budget and extremely tight crew of actors and collaborators, and released on Netflix during 2021. After the gloss of Rebecca and the American explosive sojourn of Free Fire, it sees Wheatley return to his ‘weird Albion’ roots, serving as part of a thematic quadrilogy alongside Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England.

As he told Sight & Sound:

I started writing it in the second week of the lockdown, so I was trying to process what I was feeling about what was going on. There’s a line in the sand, like a pre-and post-Covid, that’s a little bit like the Second World War to filmmaking, and if you’re making stuff that doesn’t reference it, it feels really odd.

What intrigues me about this statement is just how often filmmakers now seem to be avoiding COVID-19, two years on. Many are dipping their toes in period fare, freed of the restraints of masks and PCR tests, engaging in genre storytelling based on fantastical or futuristic worlds (even alternate realities where the pandemic may never have happened), or simply ignoring the reality of it altogether. I haven’t seen it yet but I can’t imagine Meg 2: The Trench has Jason Statham stop halfway through fighting a shark to check if he’s two-metre distanced from his colleagues. Much as corporations have studiously avoided learning lessons from the pandemic, filmmakers seem intent on abiding to a pre-Covid status quo.

Several filmmakers developed pictures in the throes of the disease which do hit aspects of it head on – take Steven Soderbergh’s claustrophobic thriller Kimi for example – and Wheatley chooses to tap less into the technical constructs of COVID (outside of an early sequence set in a research station where guidelines are abided by) and decides to explore the intersection of isolation and the natural world. He throws the four core characters key to the narrative into a haunting, netherworld forest; a space beyond compacted, over-populated city life where extremists lie. It feels almost dystopian, a glimpse at human survival with nature in a world where COVID wins.

Being Wheatley, he also drip feeds the place with an aroma of mysticism. In contrast to the populated world, with reports of places like Bristol being hit hard by ‘waves’ of virus (COVID isn’t actually specified), the forest where Hayley Squires (returning from Happy New Year, Colin Burstead) scientist Dr. Wendle is conducting research is described as “unusually fertile”, bearing too its own Pagan legend in ‘Parnag Fegg’. “She’s the spirit of the woods” our protagonist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), the ‘alien’ interloper in this strange land, is told by fellow scientist Alma (Ellora Torchia), and references to children who vanished in the 1970s suggest as much of a Blair Witch inspiration as Wheatley invested in the occultism of Kill List.

Can we draw connectives between Parnag Fegg, the occultism of A Field in England and then the cult actions of Kill List (which as we know already have a connection)? Perhaps. There certainly feels like tendrils in existence between Wheatley’s pictures in this manner. The backstory of Parnag Fegg could be that of an exiled, persecuted necromancer or alchemist, “All they found was an ancient standing stone. He had gone. Inducted into the stone. Transferred into the ancient matter of the forest.” This is the stone that bookends the film. A 2001-esque monolith with an open centre, through which perception of the forest becomes a myopic balance of viewpoints. It suggests a deeper truth beyond our imagination.

Wheatley is fascinated by, as Rob Young describes in his book ‘The Magic Box’, “a small genre in which mythology prowls around the edges of society or even totally dictates it”:

At the centre of it all, the shamanic leaders and their followers are driven by a higher calling, a belief system that goes deeper and further into Britain’s past spiritual life than Christianity, but which somewhere along the line has become mixed up with the game of power for its own sake. It is as if the ghosts of ancient Britain are seeping out through the medium of these films and stories.

One such figure in In the Earth who reflects a certain shamanic fixation is Zach, played by Wheatley-regular Reece Shearsmith, the estranged husband of Dr. Wendle who now lives in the forest as a survivalist. He is introduced in unerring fashion, camouflaged almost in the foliage, before presenting a prosaic level of strangeness driven by his intense isolation. He is soon revealed as a zealot, a familiar of the ‘spirit’ in the forest, indeed in the earth, who believes his ex-wife is working to tame ‘him’ with the magic of technology, of science. “I trusted her, but she has profoundly misunderstood him. She wants to enslave him but he doesn’t care … He’s not interested. He likes art, he likes flattery … She thinks she can talk to him. Bargain with him. I’m talking to him in a purer way.”

Wheatley here intersects Zach’s zealotry with occult horror. Martin and Alma suffer vicious attacks, drugging, stumble upon murdered people who got lost in the woods, as Zach stages imagery to appease his ‘God’ that presents him as much serial killer than a man turned to extreme living. He believes ‘the spirit’ is bringing people to him in the forest. “You were drawn here to live in the land. Did you ever… consider what the ultimate expression of that was? When you’re completely separated from the process of humans. And you return to the green. To its rhythms. Rather than the selfish beat of humans. I’m making flesh what you know is right. Your world has shrunk. Your world is sleeping and ritual.” This feels like a particularly post-COVID response to the world. You can imagine Wheatley writing this in the fugue of self-isolation as we were staying safe, protecting the NHS, saving lives.

He talks about his motivation for exploring such ideas:

It came out of drowning in all the Trump stuff, watching American politics and British politics, and thinking about the erosion of fact, and this weaponising of narrative. That started to make me think about the folk stuff I’d done. Does it contribute to the problem of what people believe and don’t believe, or is it just taken as entertainment? That was the thinking behind this movie: that various people were using the narrative to try and push a reality, but in the end they’re trying to make a story around a thing that’s beyond their comprehension. The reality is that the thing in the woods makes its own decision; and it decides on someone who isn’t a narrative maker – someone who is practical and is more likely to understand what it wants.

The suggestion is that Wendle has ‘gone native’, almost Colonel Kurtz-like, severing communications as she works on a ‘mycorrhizal map’, in which trees of the forest connect like a natural brain. We see Wheatley line up two opposites here – scientific rigour and Pagan faith, both driven by heightened isolation thanks to the pandemic assailing the world beyond. She believes Parnag Fegg wasn’t a person but an expression of prayer and light, chiefly sound, though her work too is influenced by the occultism inside the 17th century witches tome, the Malleus Maleficarium. She believes she can communicate with the forest itself, though admits she created a monster in doing so: “We tried to make contact with the mycorrhizal in a more direct way using the rites in the book, and we pushed it too far. Zach was never the same… Whatever Zach saw, terrified him. He ran.”

Ultimately, as Martin threatens to succumb to an infected foot wound and Alma’s belief in Wendle’s work is challenged, we are sent by Wheatley down the rabbit hole, trapped between two extremist exponents who are utilising the space isolation has given them to connect with a natural world they both believe humanity has sundered. I suspect we will see many films exploring the psychological effects of COVID that suggest it was a response to our attack on nature, and Wheatley’s folk horror examination of lockdown is a unique blend of mythology and our deepest existential fears. In the end, Martin and Alma – facsimiles of us – become sacrifices of Zach and Wendle’s experimentation with nature.

Wheatley doesn’t quite see In the Earth as folk horror but does retain a fascination with this sub-genre as “a kind of historical context of Britain”:

Of thinking: ‘What is here? What was here before? And, is modern life in a total bubble, or are we connected backwards to the things that happened here before?’ Where I live in Brighton, I can walk out of my house and be on a Stone Age hill fort in two or three minutes. That kind of stuff I find fascinating. This place is ancient, but we’re also at the bleeding edge of the history at the same time.

In the Earth transports us from the world we know into a post-truth natural corner of Britain haunted by myth, by obsessive scientific discovery, and the intersection of the two. Isolation drives extremism. This isn’t a film about COVID but feels a product of the dark fantasies inherent in that period, one now increasingly becoming lost in a haze of memory itself. As the mist surrounds Wendle’s camp, so too it surrounds the liminal space COVID provided. It feels fitting that In the Earth would exist here.

We can only hope Ben Wheatley gets the opportunity to lead us out of the woods again and again.

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