Ben Wheatley, who gained a loyal following with Kill List and A Field in England, has done a bit of stumbling in subsequent years. The relevant cliche for his take on JG Ballard's High-Rise was "easier to admire than enjoy". Free Fire didn't quite succeed in its high concept. Let us pretend his bland variation on Rebecca was the dullest dream we endured in 2020.
Not everything works in the admirably bizarre In the Earth, but nobody can deny Wheatley is back in his freak-folk wheelhouse. This is a very English class of psychedelia. It is to Zabriskie Point as The Incredible String Band were to Jefferson Airplane.
The film is rooted in the land. It is at home to runes and standing stones and forgotten incantations. Its occasional incoherence and eventual abandonment of conventional narrative will drive some viewers crackers, but you will surely know you’ve seen a Ben Wheatley film.
Like Alex Garland’s recent Annihilation, In the Earth concerns scientists making ultimately dangerous investigations into mysterious wilderness. Dr Martin Lowery (the deservedly unavoidable Joel Fry) arrives at an isolated woodland facility on his way to take supplies to a colleague, Dr Olivia Wendle (Wheatley recidivist Hayley Squires). Martin and his companion Alma (Ellora Torchia) meet up with wandering nutter Zach (an unrecognisable Reece Shearsmith) and get drawn into psychological conflict with a malign incarnation of Gaia.
Wheatley conceived, wrote and shot the film during lockdown last summer and the action plays to pandemic beats. The scientists need to be tested. Their researches are vaguely connected to the fight against the disease. More potently, the sense of pervasive menace gets at the particular disquiet that was at its height during the middle of 2020.
He gives us some traditional shocks – fans of amputation will have no complaint – but the film’s selling point is an eventual descent into a surreal never- world created almost entirely from physical special effects.
Perhaps, given time to hone his script, Wheatley might have delivered a more digestible structure. As it stands, In the Earth asks some indulgence of its audience. There is little to hang onto in the eventual derangement. You’re alone in the chaos. “If you answer this riddle you’ll never begin” as the Incredible String Band failed to explain.
Released on June 18th