Finding meaning in Ben Wheatley's
In The Earth
Caitlyn Downs returns to the films of Ben Wheatley, this time exploring the search for meaning in his 2021 psychedelic folk horror, In The Earth…
Ben Wheatley’s horror offerings tend to contain a political, social and cultural point. I’ve already written (some might say too much) on the role of aspirational masculine myth born of frustration with the ‘real world’ in Kill List (2011).
High-Rise (2015), although an adaptation of an existing novel, is perhaps where this (small ‘p) political sentiment is most clear, with the whole film echoing a class struggle in a chaotically decadent backdrop. A pivotal scene includes the voice of Margaret Thatcher, a clear indication of how her policies sought to inspire social mobility above all else, especially compassion. If you haven’t seen In The Earth (2021) yet, stop reading here. Go check out Andrew Pope’s review on the site and you can also listen to an episode of Socially Distanced Cinema I appeared on with Darren Gaskell to discuss the film without spoilers as far as is possible. There are also likely to be some plot details for other Ben Wheatley films, including Kill List, Sightseers (2012), High-Rise and A Field in England (2013). In Wheatley’s films, political dissatisfaction leads characters to pursue more esoteric meaning and structure.
Wheatley’s horror always comes with a sense of self-discovery or search for meaning. Kill List has Jay find a destiny he never imagined in the wake of his dissatisfaction with being a modern man. Sightseers has sheltered Tina (Alice Lowe) step out from one controlling environment into another one, discovering her own sense of freedom along the way. High-Rise has Laing (Tom Hiddleston) discover his place within the building and A Field in England is a study of men fleeing a war they want no part of who are forced into another nightmare as a result. In Free Fire, Down Terrace and A Field in England, extended violence is disruptive, devastating and ultimately pointless. In all these films meaning is sought, resulting in physical and mental cost that ultimately, leads to the abandonment of meaning or purpose. With all that said, what does this mean for In The Earth? In essence, the film is a portrait of a situation in which everyone is in flux, battling a changed world around them. This is peak pandemic paranoia played out in the form of psychedelic eco-horror, reflective of the situation we all find ourselves in. Wheatley tells violent, effective shaggy dog stories. However, In The Earth is likely the first point that he has said this ‘out loud’.
Pandemic projects are a tricky sell. There is not always the appetite to consume the media that explicitly references the situation, but projects that ignore it entirely also seem odd, especially with the need for distancing measures, limited casts and locations often having a very visible impact on film productions. The idea for In The Earth was conceived during the initial UK lockdown of March 2020, but shot a little later, albeit still under many restrictions. The film sidesteps the potentially thorny issue of the real pandemic by not naming it and making clear that the tests and restrictions are not for those we have seen in day to day life. The pandemic has brought huge challenges, be they personal, medical, social or cultural and it is no surprise to see that film, particularly the horror genre, has been quick to pick up on and exploit these anxieties. Of course, horror is usually seeking to explore the unsaid, taking the worst possible outcomes and playing them out on screen by way of catharsis.
In The Earth functions as a kind of sensation-seeking move into the open, following the flatness and restrictions of lockdowns. That the film so leans on its hallucinogenic imagery and vivid soundscape, including a Clint Mansell soundtrack made in part from plant noise, is key in its desire to use every facility to move the audience, to fully impact them. The characters within the film are similarly sensation seeking, exploiting the use of industrial sound and light to move the natural world for their own means. One of the posters for the film urges viewers to TAKE THE TRIP and this really functions as an instruction for watching the film, abandoning the need to fully understand and just experience the journey.
Mycorrhiza is referenced early on – calling attention to the idea of everything working within a network for the betterment of all. Many eco concerns focus on our damage to the environment and the elements we continue to take from without replenishing. Mycorrhiza within In The Earth is used both in the terms of the crop network but also becomes a way to link the humans with the earth and also exploit the disparate nature of the humans, their distance from one another and how each one seeks to only further their own desires. In The Earth details how humans who have been faced with loss and chaos try to rebuild and reassert their own needs in the aftermath.
This being a film focused on nature and particularly a re-introduction to nature, the film also contains phallic and yonic imagery. The standing stone that appears near the start of the film functions as both in one symbol, in fact, we travel through the centre of the stone, birthed into the narrative of the film. The standing stone reoccurs late in the film, becoming a focal point for the ritual. Crucially, the camera moves through the stone in the same way following the final set-piece, heralding the film’s second rebirth. In terms of penetration symbolism, Zach (Reece Shearsmith) hits the stone into a triangle, planting it in the grass to be stood on. When Martin (Joel Fry) steps on the stone, it opens his entire foot, leaving him vulnerable. Martin’s initial tests also see a close-up of a needle entering his skin – in this sense, he is already opening himself up to everything the situation offers of him. This fits the conventional idea of folk horror in which people are drawn to a community or area that is dangerous, often by what they consider to be their own free will. Martin is drawn mostly out of isolation, his own loneliness and the lure of Olivia (Hayley Squires). Zach’s head wound in the middle of the film opens and more importantly, bleeds in another example of the film’s symbolism around birth, penetration and associated imagery. As the bleeding continues, Zach is even compelled to stuff the wound with moss, literally attempting to fill the void with clumps of earth.
The film also confronts the arduousness of rituals. In too many films, rituals involve a little daubing of blood here and there, a bit of chanting and maybe a ceremonial robe, but the process is structured and delivers results. Here, like in excellent British occult horror A Dark Song, the ritual is exhaustive and exhausting, making demands on those conducting it and constantly wrongfooting them. The madness that comes from repeated, tiring attempts is written across the characters of Olivia and Zach in particular, but Martin too is clearly suffering the effects of too much isolation. Only Alma (Ellora Torchia) is where she is meant to be, taking up her role as guide, affording her stability over the others.
Throughout the film, there are references made to how humans crave order and understanding and how this prompts them to search for meaning. When a film like Kill List keeps starting conversations ten years after its release it is usually because there is still a dialogue taking place surrounding the meaning and In The Earth follows this thread. With In The Earth, that subtext is made text, primarily in a scene where Alma introduces Martin to the mythology of Parnagg Fegg. Alma explains that this entity is the spirit of the woods. By turns an essential part of the woods but also a kind of boogeyman, children are encouraged to make their own drawings of it. The risk of danger in the woods should be obvious – poor terrain, darkness, the ease of getting lost, but those very rational fears are almost not enough and that the woods are capable of creating unease without these things happening gives rise to the creation of a monster to explain it. Alma says that she believes it makes sense to ‘give that feeling a face’. This phenomenon may also be linked to pareidolia – the human brain’s ability to see faces where there are none (usually Elvis in a crisp, or something equally as banal, but has also been used to explain events like ghost sightings). Once useful in evolutionary terms (a need for heightened awareness of any predators in the dark) our brains still hold onto that, an example of a once rational, even essential skill now one that appeals to our sense of irrationality, more often than not.
Zach’s irrationality is foregrounded when he lures Martin and Alma to his base. After drugging them, he dresses them in cloth and drags them outside the tent, seemingly arranging them in similar fashion to the figures on the Parnagg Fegg depiction back at the lodge. His photos are unusual and it is at this point that you can most be drawn to look for clues as to the kind of folk horror being invoked. However, like many things with Wheatley, you have suggestions rather than concrete answers or set practises being invoked, allowing for a multiplicity of readings. Everything within the film exists as an uneasy union that arguably falls apart if poked at too much or too much meaning rests upon it. In The Earth is an exploration of the madness that comes from too rigidly assigning meaning to chaos: it isn’t interested in concrete answers. Furthermore, the callback of the photography to the mural in the lodge at the outset of the film calls one key difference to mind. Of the two figures at the bottom of that image, it is possible to read one as a male character and another as female. The male character is blindfolded, reflecting Martin’s ill-prepared nature. The female character, in that sense, could be seen to represent Alma: the guide. Another male and female character appear to be floating above the spirit of the woods, which seem easier to assign as Zach and Olivia – faces obscured, caught in the orbit of the spirit but not connected to it.
Zach appears as the most outwardly unhinged of the characters with his attempts to appease the entity with flattery and appeals to ego. Shearsmith plays him as eerily as possible in his first (second, but Martin and Alma are not aware he has attacked them previously at this point) meeting with the pair, presenting an almost impossibly polite and serene appearance. When they discuss his need to go into town he states he likes it ‘less every time’, an indication that he is now entirely consumed by his activities in the woods. In addition, when Alma mentions a child’s belongings they have seen, he denies it, seemingly not even admitting to himself that his drive to find an answer has led to such drastic, taboo action. That serenity extends as he takes them back to his base, keen to offer Martin medical assistance. His persona is one of offering caring actions that ultimately lead to harm, typified in his offering of a drugged drink. As they slip into sleep, Zach begins reciting ‘reassuring words, just being kind, triggers a social response, a trade of trust’. Zach is a man now so far outside himself he can’t even find the actual reassuring words, but relies on the tone of his voice. This dissonance between what is being said and how it is being said is another way the film exploits the loss of meaning. His calm demeanour continues even as he sets about the amputation of Martin’s foot. Despite Martin insisting that he is ‘happy with it as it is’, he continues, passing blame onto Martin when he misses. It would be remiss at this stage to not comment on the excellent dark comic performances of Fry and Shearsmith in this scene because it really is a perfect example of Wheatley’s excellent feel for finding the laugh in the darkest circumstances and exploiting that. It feels notable that of all the injuries within the film, it is the injury to Zach’s eye that seems to render him at least temporarily coherent again, or ‘see sense’, immediately stating that he will need to go to the hospital he denied Martin earlier.
The idea of making sense of things returns later, as Olivia examines Martin’s arm. She remarks about it having bonded to the skin unusually, teasing Martin as ‘the One’ but also instructs him to not try to make any sense of the symbols. The format of In The Earth and its switches from eco-folk into full psychedelia give the viewer little consistency to hold onto and those tone switches can be alienating. Still, the instruction to not try and make sense of these things but continue to be taken on the journey is one that works for those prepared to abandon that need for things to make sense. Some may be thrown by the presence of what appears on the surface to be an industrial DJ set from Olivia. But, it tells us enough about her ability, drive, means and most importantly, complete detachment from reality. Her ‘scientific’ methods come to make as much sense and difference as Zach’s irrational ‘art’ methods. There is a nihilism within this to some extent, a hopelessness across methods. This is, of course, until the forest chooses. The earth has the power to decide.
The imbibing of a kind of ‘mushroom milk’ returns to Wheatley’s other work, also starring Shearsmith. A Field in England is populated by men who find the idea of war senseless or ultimately pointless for them. Their escape from the horrors of war drives them into a further nightmare, added to considerably by the eating of mushrooms from the field. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) laments that he finds ‘pages easier to turn than people’. His preference for the order of books over the unpredictability of people means he is uniquely uncomfortable around the new group. Whitehead also views a communion with the ground as an option for escape, unleashing a passionate response to a threat from O’Neil (Michael Smiley): ‘then I shall become it! I shall consume all the ill-fortune which you are set to unleash. I shall chew up all the selfish scheming and ill intentions that men like you force upon men like me, and bury it in the stomach of this place!’
Similarly, Martin views himself as taking control of the situation, insisting that he came to the site willingly. That his choice has arguably been influenced by an intense period of isolation and a relationship with Olivia that appears to have been entirely one-sided. He now finds himself horribly injured, for life, spurned by not only a potential lover but also an academic companion and the idea that something beyond his internal thought process that he had no control over brought him there. As indicated earlier, he is repeatedly penetrated with ideas and injuries, taking an ever more passive role in his own life, even though the journey to Olivia was meant to be about him taking control. It speaks to the folk horror tradition of victims going willingly to their dark fates, like Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) in The Wicker Man, often out of a sense of purpose. Those victims find themselves faced with a world in which their reason is thrown into question, complete with symbols and practises they cannot understand.
Early in the film, we are led to treat Martin as our main character – he is the driving force in that it is his decision to enter the woods and Alma is only there as a guide. Similarly, both Zach and Olivia are using their own methods and colluding to draw Martin there. The focus on Martin being ‘the One’ has all the energy directed to him. It is key when Alma dons the hazmat suit and experiences the intense sensory overload and connection with the earth that Olivia stares at her so intensely. It is the first hint that Alma may be the key…not Martin. Still, the focus remains on him as Olivia is faithful to the text and process she is using, rather than accepting the potential opportunity for an unknown element. Alma is the only one who truly works with nature on every level and the only person doing anything without any ulterior motive other than her job. Her connection with the earth, therefore, affords her a greater status. By the end of the film, she is not only a guide in her role but in a rather more supernatural sense.
Alma’s first vision, or more accurately, her first conversation with the earth is appropriately terrifying. However, her second encounter, although still punctuated by often baffling imagery and audio ‘pops’ is rather softer. While still chaotic there is considerably less dread within this sequence, altogether more inviting. This may still not be a language we entirely understand but the emphasis is different. After revealing the twin madness that brought both science and idolatry together in Olivia and Zach’s unravelling, a hush falls across them all – that frantic energy spent. Olivia also utters her thanks, echoing the bizarre sentiments from victims in Kill List who appear to view their undoing as necessary steps on the way to something far greater.
The Malleus Maleficarum becomes the basis for the rituals that Olivia and Zach enact. Commonly named as the Hammer of Witches. A book like this may be the last thing you would expect to connect In The Earth and a QAnon podcast produced by the BBC, but this lends further strength to the idea that In The Earth is as much about the absence of meaning than it is the need to reconvene with our planet. The Coming Storm, hosted by Gabriel Gatehouse, probes QAnon conspiracy theories and how a senseless, often disparate world has allowed them to flourish. As referenced within The Coming Storm, the Malleus Maleficarum was, in essence, a viral text made possible by the advent of new technology – the printing press. The availability of the text meant its damning verdicts on witchcraft allowed the messaging to travel further and assisted in the persecution and murder of those considered to be practising witchcraft. Within the podcast, it is suggested that the accessibility of the internet has similarly allowed damaging messages to permeate wider culture and find a foothold that ultimately leads to violence. The book’s presence in In The Earth as the tool that the misguided, dangerous couple are using to guide them suggests a similar theory of messages finding a home with the lost and desperate. The persecution of ‘the other’ to solve problems is a message that, unfortunately, endures. Although Olivia and Zach are not using the text in order to persecute witches, their experiments are harmful all the same, showcasing how the text is recycled for the present time and situation. That many conspiracies and prejudices are ultimately recycled from ancient disputes is laid bare in the presence of the book.
In The Earth is ultimately about a search for meaning, where no meaning will ever be available and no meaning will satisfy everyone. It is a chronicle of the methods people are willing to invoke to find comfort in elusive meaning. Arguably the scariest thing about the pandemic has been the lack of control and this severe discomfort with that idea has likely been responsible for the rise of conspiracy theory into the mainstream. If, as conspiracies suggest, there is a shadowy higher power pulling all the strings, then there is at least order in that. Without that, all we have is the frankly terrifying idea that something on this planet has the ability to cause so much devastation, not out of malice or revenge, but as a simple, brutal mutation capable of throwing humans into disarray.