★★★★☆

A bruising, beguiling return to the big screen, In the Earth finds Ben Wheatley once again on top form. Provocative, despicably playful, and consistently punishing, stitched into the skin of the writer-director’s latest film are a multitude of issues relating to Covid-19 and the anxieties of lockdown, the fragility of our environment, the brutality and arrogance of mankind, and our inability to recognise or truly understand the power of the natural world, or indeed ourselves.

Throw in a generous dose of medieval folklore, supernatural spirits and their conflict with modern-day science, and grandiose ideas are sliced, diced and cauterised in front of our disbelieving eyes. It constitutes a delirious melting pot of ingredients, which Wheatley stirs and upends with glee. And though through an ever-darkening, maddening fog, some of the narrative threads may prove a little far-fetched or unresolved, the cumulative effect of watching, or rather enduring, In the Earth is much like being pulled violently through a hedge backwards, such is the impact of its visceral assault on all of the senses.

Suffering the literal slings, sledgehammers and arrows of the director’s eighth feature – part horror, part survivalist thriller, part mind-bending trip – is as much a physical experience as it is a chilling psychological undertaking. Never one to anaesthetise his creative vision or pull any punches, to pigeonhole In the Earth as a ‘pandemic film’ would be reductive and do a disservice to the scope of this nerve-jangling, far-reaching project. “People get a bit funny in the woods sometimes,” scientist Martin (Joel Fry) is warned upon arrival at a remote outpost after months of isolation, before he and park ranger, Alma (Ellora Torchia), set off into the unknown.

Their quest, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, is not upriver in search of Kurtz, but deep into a mysterious forest, seeking a colleague (Hayley Squires), of whom no word has been had in some time. It goes without saying that this tongue-in-cheek remark will prove a woeful understatement, but it speaks to the devilishly dark comedy that Wheatley weaves into the script, delivered with dry relish by certain members of his small cast. The aural landscape of the film – creaking trees, the crack and rustle of leaves underfoot, bumps and shrieks in the night – adds layer upon layer to the growing dread, complimented by cinematographer Nick Gillespie’s prying, stealthy camerawork.

Clint Mansell’s pounding synth score, emanating shockwaves from the screen and up through your feet further sets pulses racing as Wheatley ratchets the tension before well and truly throwing the kitchen sink at the final act. Perched on the edge of a cinema seat, or slouched down, peering through a forest of fingers, In the Earth offers a cerebral, sensory overload, including blinding strobe lighting. Indeed, a warning for viewers with photosensitive epilepsy appears as an opening intertitle. Wheatley’s kaleidoscopic editing further toys with his audience, blending jarring jumps, abrupt cuts to black offering no time for respite, and trippy, psychedelic montages.

“Photography is like magic, really,” says Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a slippery character who crosses Martin and Alma’s path. Not necessarily in thrall to his medium, but well aware of its power and how he may push its boundaries, Wheatley nods knowingly at cinema as a powerful means of communication, misdirection, manipulation even. Is it, as Michael Haneke famously once said, 24 lies per second at the service of truth? Communication through light and sound takes on a higher meaning here, but In the Earth will leave you questioning your eyes and ears as you stagger away from the darkness of the cinema, battered and bruised.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63