The one thing you can say on behalf of In the Earth is that it is almost certainly the first dramatic feature film to emerge from the Covid era that is explicitly about the worldwide plague that has sidelined and fractured international filmmaking—not to mention the world at large–as we’ve always known it. Aside from that, British horror-and-mayhem specialist Ben Wheatley’s little quickie is a tedious walk in the woods, a ho-hum affair featuring dull characters and a succession of unpleasant injuries. Imagination and surprise are in short supply. Neon is handling U.S. distribution after the film’s Sundance bow Sunday evening in the festival’s Premieres section.
Shot over 15 days last August in a forest between London and Oxford, this evident low-budgeter represents Wheatley on a down-and-dirty rebound after his fancy and thoroughly pointless Rebecca remake starring Lily James and Armie Hammer. But as invigorating as it may have been to quickly whip up an urgent survival tale linked to the same dangers everyone on Earth must contend with daily, imagination is in very limited supply here in a story fueled by concocted threats and entirely arbitrary violence.
“We’ve been down nearly a year now,” someone mentions, as Wheatley directly connects the film’s milieu to the here-and-now, not that watching a dour movie about an insidious virus that requires careful isolation from other people will rate as anyone’s idea of a good time at the moment.
But Wheatley sallies forth regardless, sending the unprepossessing Dr. Martin Lowry (Joel Fry) on a two-day hike through the wilderness with park guide Alma (Reece Shearsmith) in order to visit a remote research test site. It wouldn’t seem that bumping into other people, much less infected ones, would pose much of a concern in this immense unpopulated area, prompting concern that the film might prove as boring as living under Covid. Martin’s minimal way with words doesn’t do much to alleviate such fears.
With Wheatley at the helm, however, one can be assured that not much time will pass without a weirdo, nut-job or flat-out looney letting loose to jump-start some mayhem. Sure enough, toward nightfall, the dullish couple unknowingly enters the woodsy lair of Zack (Haley Squires), a conspicuously off-the-grid type who occupies a large multi-tent compound filled with commodities welcome (food, dry shoes, a photo lab) and sinister (blades to cut off Martin’s infected toes). This is a guy who’s been in the woods far too long.
Given Zack’s proclivities and Martin’s vulnerability, there’s more mayhem where that came from, but it isn’t long before the film wades deeper into hokey mystical territory with talk from a naturalist about her belief that the woods can directly communicate with humans. It would help if Martin had a sharper edge to him so as to provide good rebuttals to such gobbledygook and livelier give-and-take; a three-minute accidental encounter with the remaining Monty Python crew, lost in the woods themselves, would have been most welcome indeed. But the character as written is a bore, with no interesting conversation or opinions. The women at least have some pluck and points of view.
Horrormeister that he is, Wheatley reliably supplies a few queasy moments and a couple of uncomfortably bloody scenes featuring pliers, but not enough on that score to attract hard-core fright and gore fans. If only Covid itself could be here and gone as quickly as the film will be.