The woods are lovely, dark and deep

In a Ben Wheatley film a verdant field is not just a verdant field. The woods are alive with a timeless awareness that’s beyond supernatural.

“In the Earth,” has Wheatley firmly in his genre-defying wheelhouse exploring a disturbing relationship between humanity and nature. Set during a pandemic, a scientist sets out across a forest, guided by a park ranger, to make contact with another scientist who has ceased communication while conducting experiments on fungus.

Joe Fry headlines as the seeking scientist (Martin) with Ellora Torchia as his guide (Alma) and Haley Squires as the missing scientist (Olivia).

The concept of the film being set during a worldwide pandemic plays into the kind of post-apocalypse events that transpire. On their first night of their journey Martin and Alba are attacked in their tents and have their shoes stolen. A prologue has established a forest hermit (Reece Shearsmith with the film’s meatiest role as Zach) implanting intricate razor sharp stones punji stick style along the only viable path.

Zach’s makeshift camp has a separate darkroom and a larger enclosed space that he uses to torture Martin and Alba after having rescued them only to drug them.

Ads may give “In the Earth” a horror specific vibe but that’s barely the first half of the film. After escaping from Zach and finding Olivia the characters and the film starts to get weird in a metaphysical manner. Eventually the whole pandemic setting seems excessive when the story gets to its roots.

Surely the film that comes closest to the trippy atmosphere Wheatley creates here would be his own “A Field in England,” which used a psychedelic connection of its 17th century characters who’d eaten magic mushrooms to edit the film in a mode that warps space and time. Lots of filmmakers emulate this fashion but Wheatley has perfected the technique.

Images are defined by the graphic and sound. Disorientation becomes spatial normalcy so we adjust our expectation to the warped nature the characters are experiencing.

There’s a kind of running joke albeit cruel and unusual involving Martin and his various wounds. Each new character he meets want to sew him up or remove a piece of him, each time without antiseptic.

There’s a theme of what’s inside trying to get out, not unlike an early Cronenberg film. There’s also some killer sound design that accentuates the mythology on display.

“In the Earth” opens April 16 in theaters.

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