In the Earth (2021)

Understandably, there have been hundreds of attempts to make timely COVID-era films over the past year and a half. Most of these productions are on the level of Doug Liman’s Locked Down: throwaway novelties of limited scope & budget that’re only worthwhile as cultural time capsules of the minor inconveniences and quirks of daily life that define this never-ending global pandemic for most people surviving it. I’m interested in this burgeoning exploitation genre the way I am with most fad-cinema novelties of the past: disco musicals, aerobics-craze horrors, sports dramas about skateboarders, etc.  There is something especially cynical & dark about exploiting COVID-era “lockdown life”, though, since this particular global “fad” comes with a real-life bodycount in the millions.  From what I’ve seen so far, there have only been three works of COVID cinema that have really grappled with the grief, isolation, and exhaustion of the pandemic: the “screenlife” cyberghost story Host, the Bo Burnham video diary Inside, and Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic folk horror In the Earth.  This is likely a cinematic subject we’ll be unraveling for the rest of our lives, since it affects every last person on the planet, but genuinely great films made in the thick of this ongoing crisis have so far been in short supply.

For its part, In the Earth smartly reflects on the maddening grief of COVID-19 indirectly, from a distance. Its characters discuss the social isolation of quarantine and the bureaucratic discomforts of routine testing, but they never specify the exact scope or nature of the virus they’re protecting themselves from.  It’s less about the specific daily safety measures of COVID in particular, but more about how a year of social & spiritual isolation has permanently remapped their brains in chaotic, fucked up ways. By stepping away from the lockdown restrictions of city life to instead stage its COVID-flavored horror show in the woods, it recontextualizes this never-ending global crisis as a dual Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Man struggle, attempting to document something a little more philosophical about the absurdity, violence, and emptiness of living right now.  Its two central villains are trying to directly bargain with Nature through science and through religious mysticism, respectively, as if all our modern ills can only be solved by radically overhauling the way we live among each other on this planet (which feels right, even if nearly impossible).

A field researcher is guided by a park ranger into the thick of British wilderness, searching for a rogue scientist who’s gone off the grid and off the rails in her recent experiments.  They eventually find the mad scientist, who is directly communicating with trees trough a convoluted system of strobe lights & synthesizers she’s arranged in the woods like a sinister art instillation.  In her mind, this human-to-Nature line of communication could potentially unlock some great, authentic power that will help us better understand (and potentially command) our place in the global ecosystem.  The philosophical counterpoint to her experiment and the main obstacle on our journey to her is an axe-wielding maniac who stalks the woods.  His plan to reconnect with Nature involves local folklore rituals that honor the elder god Parnag Fegg, The Spirit of the Woods.  The advocate for science and the advocate for religion are both violently insane, of course, but they have a way of luring in the two new interlopers in the woods with calm, disarmingly kind demeanors that make them vulnerable to their respective extremist rhetoric. These are extreme times, after all, and the social isolation of the past year has made us all a little batty in our own special ways.

I can’t tell you exactly what Ben Wheatley was trying to communicate with this gory, psychedelic horror show, nor do I really want to hear the specifics of his intent.  As a horror movie, it’s perfectly entertaining & unsettling mix of sci-fi, folk horror, and woodland slasher genre tropes.  The surgical details of the axe wounds are just as effectively upsetting as the psychedelic freak-outs of its strobe light centerpiece.  As a nightmare reflection of our collective, COVID-era mindset, it’s much more difficult to pin down exactly what it’s doing except to say that it’s impressively strange, upsetting stuff considering its limited scope & budget.  So many movies being made in and about these times are so caught up in the mundane, practical details of daily life that they never transcend the novelty of its setting.  In the Earth is a rare example of COVID Cinema that aims for something a little more intangible and indescribable — something that captures the existential horrors of current life rather than the logistical ones.

-Brandon Ledet

Free Fire (2017)

About halfway into Free Fire, Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to last year’s excellent existential horror High-Rise, I began worry I was watching something much more pedestrian than its predecessor. In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

Staged “in real time,” Free Fire depicts a weapons deal gone horribly wrong in a 1970s Boston warehouse. Irish gangsters representing the IRA attempt to purchase a large quantity of assault rifles from South African crime lords with impartial American mediators maintaining order between them. The only reason the audience really has any incentive to prefer one faction’s victory over another is because one group is introduced first. Besides there being one woman in a sea of overly macho personalities hitting on her and referring to her as “Sweetheart,” “Doll,” and “Bird,” there isn’t much variation in the film’s various intergangster dynamics. Mostly, Free Fire‘s dozen or so characters are all irredeemable criminals, boys with their toys, who are attempting to get one over on each other in an exchange of funds & murder weapons. Once the familiarity of their antagonism breaks down and their vendettas transition from business to personal, the deal devolves into an hour-long shoot-out where everyone’s shot multiple times and it becomes a weird joke they there’s anyone still alive to continue the narrative. Even with exposed brains & bullet-shredded flesh, the warehouse full of bloodied-up reprobates somehow find the energy to lob witty insults at each other between the roars of gunfire. For something so horrifically violent, it’s decidedly goofy.

There’s a Walter Hill-style exploitation throwback quality to Free Fire‘s bare-bones premise and its “All guns. No control.” tagline suggests it actually has something to say about modern culture’s relationship with firearms, but the film often feels like a naked excuse to watch beautiful people (Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, etc.) model 70s fashion & fire weapons to incongruous pop songs by acts like CCR & John Denver. It’s easy to see why the marketing team felt it was appropriate to tout Martin Scorsese’s executive producer credit so prominently in its advertising. Wheatley knows exactly what genre confines he’s working within here, though, and subverts them not through joking meta-commentary, but by playing them straight to an absurdly prolonged extreme. The last time I laughed this much at a character’s improbable, strained survival was watching Leonardo DiCaprio crawl & gurgle blood for hours on end in The Revenant. The difference in Free Fire is that the humor is intentional and every character is a post-bear attack DiCaprio, functioning like dead weight zombies who barely have the strength to lift guns in each other’s directions, much less take the time to aim. The film is impressive in its simple alchemy of making a familiar premise feel fresh again by sustaining it for an absurdly prolonged stretch of screentime. You may feel as if you’ve seen this exact film before, but you’ve never seen it pushed to such a sublimely silly extreme.

-Brandon Ledet