‘In the Earth’ Follows Its Cinematic Brethren Into the Woods

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In the Earth (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith, Hayley Squires

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for A Few Scenes of Grievous Bodily Harm

Release Date: April 16, 2021 (Theaters)

In the Earth combines elements of some of my favorite dread-filled horror and sci-fi flicks, which is good enough to grab my attention, but you can see the seams in the synthesis. A scary trip to the woods quickly leads to reality-altering vibes in the vein of Annihilation and The Blair Witch Project, and then there’s also the society-breaking-down milieu typical of any zombie flick. And I even catch a whiff of pod people-energy, as I worry that certain characters’ misplaced priorities could lead to some body snatching. It’s a hodgepodge, occasionally a visual feast, and ultimately more of an experiment than a landmark achievement.

My only previous exposure to writer-director Ben Wheatley was his overcaffeinated shoot ’em up Free Fire. In the Earth is equally non-squeamish (it does feature a guy getting his toes cut off, after all), but it’s also more reflective and meditative. Conceived and produced during the pandemic, it obviously required a more scaled-down and intimate approach. It’s ostensibly about the cure for a global virus, but it hardly resembles our current reality, at least not in any way I or anyone I know has been experiencing it. In practice, it’s just a spooky sylvan journey, making it just the latest in a long and dense cinematic tradition. Something weird is happening, a couple of characters are sent off on their own to figure it out, and then they encounter some other weird happenings. It happens!

During In the Earth‘s early going, I said to myself, “Is this just Annihilation but with a micro-budget?” That trip to Area X is one of my favorite movies of the past five years, so I quickly steeled myself for inevitable disappointment. But it’s always nice to be reminded of something that I love, so it wasn’t all bad. Then about halfway through, there was a sharp turn to a completely different movie. Well, perhaps not “completely” different. More like “tangential” and “different enough.” One major crisis had been dealt with (or at least escaped from), and then some other characters got some more screen time, and I felt myself thinking: well, it’s better to steal from a whole bunch of movies than it is to be the cheap knockoff of just one movie.

In the Earth is Recommended If You Like: Annihilation, Blair Witch, The Walking Dead, and whatever ever else Ben Wheatley watched during the pandemic, all tossed carelessly into a blender

Grade: 3 out of 5 Backpacks

This Is a Movie Review: Free Fire

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Living Up to the Promise of Its Title

Release Date: April 21, 2017

Free Fire dresses up an illicit arms deal in fancy ’70s formalwear and then bloodies up the pretensions with unrelenting chaos. The trick to making all this pleasant – or at least attempting to do so – is an equally endless stream of witty rejoinders. This technique is strongest between the odd couple pairing of Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer. The former is all high-wire, unpredictable energy. The latter is all suave unflappability. Both are thoroughly confident in their own skins. I would be happy to watch these two volley back-and-forth all day. But I gotta ask, is it necessary that their team-up occur amidst such a destructive hail of bullets?

The obvious antecedent, when it comes to a crime gone amok leading to ultraviolence and goons yammering on, is Quentin Tarantino’s breakout Reservoir Dogs. The difference is that QT’s characters have an inherent point of view, whereas Free Fire co-writer/director Ben Wheatley’s crew mostly just screeches hysterically (not always literally, but it feels like it). There can be humor found in the panic that sets in when a dangerous situation goes pear-shaped, but Free Fire too often confuses nastiness with lunacy. I don’t oppose on-screen graphic violence as a rule, but there ought to be a good reason for it. In this case, it feels like an excuse for a movie that hates all of its characters to just pick them off one-by-one.

Getting back to the folks populating this film, there are several more hooligans besides Copley and Hammer, among them Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, and Sing Street’s Jack Reynor (who often strikes me as Ireland’s less schlubby answer to Seth Rogen). The fun of these players is primarily geographical. Their dispersal around the warehouse after the shots start firing creates a sort of constantly shifting maze. The narrative thrust is basically sorting out this puzzle. Who makes it out alive? Who cares! What matters is the physical space and the treachery between these dots of human beings. But that’s small change. Let’s cut to the chase and get to work on the Copley-Hammer follow-up.

Free Fire is Recommended If You Like: Pulling the Heads Off Bugs

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 V Necks