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In the Earth
Review by Rich Cline |
dir-scr Ben Wheatley
prd Andrew Starke
with Joel Fry, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires, Ellora Torchia, Mark Monero, John Hollingworth
release US 12.Apr.21,
21/UK Neon 1h47
SUNDANCE FILM FEST
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With a moody Clint Mansell score and atmospheric Nick Gillespie cinematography, this British horror freak-out quickly gets under the skin. Writer-director Ben Wheatley obviously relishes returning to the genre that made his name, expertly holding the viewer in a grip that won't let up, adding jarring grisly touches and witty hints of Wicker Man-style nuttiness. It's a bonkers movie with a clever message about the impact of human discovery.
A year into a pandemic, Martin (Fry) arrives at an isolated lodge to research soil fertility a two-day walk into the forest, where former colleague Olivia (Squires) is already working. But she's been silent for months. Guide Alma (Torchia) explains a local legend about the spirit of the woods, then as they hike through the trees they run into Zach (Shearsmith), a clearly unhinged wild-man who speaks ominously about "Him" and has plans for Martin and Alma. When they finally get to Olivia, her research provides even more sinister implications, including surprising details about Zach.
The story unfolds with an insistent, slow pace that remains darkly gripping mainly because it's impossible to predict where things might go next. It's immediately clear that there's are a few very nasty things in these woods, and that someone or something is carefully plotting all of this. Each sequence looks spectacular, with clever design and lighting that build a marvellously unsettling ambiance. And there are some incredibly colourful sequences along the way that ramp things up exponentially using sound, lighting, editing and inventive effects.
Performances are generally understated and offhanded, capturing humour and fear in earthy interaction. Fry and Torchia maintain a nice camaraderie even as they're pushed over the edge, remaining likeable enough to make us care what happens to them. With his woolly appearance, Shearsmith adds a terrific touch of hypnotic menace as a devout servant of some pagan deity. And when she turns up, Squires offers vague bits of mythology that pushes everything much further. Eventually, the story becomes a startlingly tense and often very nasty tug-of-war between these four characters.
Wheatley deploys all kinds of trippy fun, even as the oppressive tone begins feeling somewhat relentless and increasingly grotesque. But the psychedelic freakiness is hugely engaging, as are the grisly horrors inflicted on Martin's left foot, among other things. Rather a lot of time is spent on mumbo jumbo about the hazy goings-on in the woods, including creepy rituals outlined in old books and Olivia's research into the language of the trees. All of which taps cleverly into the resonant idea that nature has powers we can't begin to imagine.
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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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