I Can Feel it Coming in the Air Tonight: Ben Wheatley’s “In The Earth”
For those who paid close attention to his “rise,” it’s rather humorous to think of Ben Wheatley as having a reputation of any kind, let alone one so radioactive, but after the failure of his new Rebecca (2020), Wheatley is playing defense with critics. He practically began a festival staple, and so like other such phenomena (your Xavier Dolans, Hong Sang-soos, and Jeff Nichols), for a lotta years the only people who had opinions about him were the hardcore sleepless. Wheatley has threatened to become a bigger deal, but, along with Rebecca, the dismal returns on energetic double bill Free Fire (2016) and High-Rise (2015) have conspired to keep him president of a very small clubhouse. Not that I wish failure on anyone, but there’s an easily supportable argument that when he’s only out to please himself and listen to his own inner voice, he makes his best work. His intimate post-modern comedy of manners Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018), and now the Neon-funded experiment In the Earth, have found him on sturdier ground than his flights into star-studded re-interpretation. He’s a good conventional entertainer, but he’s a great eccentric, and the world needs more of those.
It’s something like the film’s first joke that In the Earth is a COVID movie. Agriculture worker Martin (Joel Fry) is in from “the city” at a vast nature preserve. His colleague and ex-girlfriend Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires) has written to him and says she needs assistance with a project she’s begun. The details are deliberately hazy, but after getting tested and having his vitals checked and his piss tested, he’s off on the two-day hike with guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). They get through the first day alright, but things most certainly seem off. There are tents where there shouldn’t be, Martin seems unusually guarded about his work and his life when Alma asks, and then on the second day they’re attacked and robbed. Shoeless, they set off on foot again (Martin cuts himself but good almost immediately, slowing them way down) and run into Zachary (Reece Shearsmith), a man who’s been living illegally in the park for a long while. Long enough indeed that he’s built an enormous tent and set up a photo studio out there. Something’s also quite clearly off about him, too. Maybe it’s his desire to amputate Martin’s toes to stop the spread of infection, maybe it’s him rambling about some strange creature that’s maybe in the forest or maybe is the forest, maybe it’s that Doctor Wendle is just over the hill and, despite their anathematizing goals here, they haven’t done each other serious harm or tried to run away. Just what on earth is going on out here anyway?
Wheatley’s best film is still the blistering, psychedelic folk rock odyssey A Field in England (2013), one of the most fabulously singular works of narrative fiction of the 21st century. At once a tribute to England’s long tradition of folk horror in both literary fiction and genre cinema, it nevertheless finds a grandiloquent language all its own, coarse and profane on the one hand, elegant and delicate on the other. Wheatley and his co-writer and wife Amy Jump constructed the kind of deeply personal statement of purpose that most makers of horror, sci-fi, and crime fiction don’t usually get to. Lots of people can throw on the clothes of older artists, few add something with both modern grammar and force of personality that brings their ideas into the present. Despite the relative successes of his projects since then, there’s nevertheless been a kind of tension at the heart of Wheatley’s art. Yes, it’s good to try new things, but when would he return to the mushroom-laced well of A Field in England? In the Earth is that and more. As with his bruising, genre-jumping Kill List (2011), there are elements here that are as old as British fiction itself, but they’re brought into an up-to-the-second modern context despite the retro trappings suggested by the folkloric symbology and the Clint Mansell-drone score (a component as essential to the film’s feel and textural successes as Nick Gillespie’s soft, dynamic photography, Martin Pavey’s sound design, and the forest itself). This movie’s own version of alchemy is in the way it toys with sights and sounds that, while new, feel antique. The music suggests early synthesizer experimentation, just as the third act is wrought with hallucinations that harken back to classic avant-garde cinema. They’re simple enough ideas, and heaven knows they’re shopworn, but somehow they make gold.
In the Earth is, like A Field in England, a talky exploration of the mad overlap between natural science and the occult, this one deliberately splitting its mania into two camps: religious fervor as exemplified by the axe-wielding zealotry of Zachary, and the academic megalomania of Dr. Wendle. Zachary thinks that some extra-sensory force, maybe something like a God, has found its latest corporeal form in the woods in which they sit and that it’s sending them signals about how to keep it, and thus the rest of all life, alive. He does absurd and dangerous things, believing himself to be following orders from this higher life form. Dr. Wendle thinks that by communicating with this force, which she perceives as some kind of (super)natural confluence of plant and animal life, she can learn secrets about how to keep the planet safer. Or… anyway, that’s what she says. Both of them are still essentially possessed of the idea that they’re the only ones chosen to divine divinity. Wheatley knows that both of them have cracked being out too long listening only to the bizarre “will” of the forest itself. Shearsmith’s presence here deliberately suggests that the mania of A Field in England (in which he starred) has gotten its claws into new generations of lost souls and that as long as people seek guidance, there are ancient forces in which to seek solace. This seems to be Wheatley’s metaphor for cinema itself, a transcendent pseudo-science grounded in scientific principles that works differently on everyone who comes near it. And it’s an argument he makes rather persuasively, offering up a bounty of severed limbs, home-made synesthetic freak-outs, rock-solid compositions, and, as always, his marvelously unhinged and classical British sense of humor. Wheatley has proven he could be doing just about anything with his time — well-behaved classicism, gangster films, whatever — but it is a small miracle that twice now, he’s chosen to make highly personal explorations of the search for meaning inside the contours of art both ancient and newly old. The songs are old, but they’re brand new when he plays them.
Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.