Ben Wheatley had, in my estimation, one of the most exciting early runs of any director in the last 20 years: a tonally aggressive feature debut with 2009's Down Terrace, a genuinely visionary horror film with 2011's Kill List, a surprising pivot to goofy dark comedy with 2012's Sightseers, and then a psychedelic freak-out costume drama with 2013's A Field in England, which at the time struck me as the first mild stumble in a nearly perfect run of weird, bold genre riffs about the strange power of the English landscape. Since then, he's been wobbling through one not-very-interesting project after another, culminating in the almost unwatchable banality of the 2020 made-for-Netflix Rebecca, the kind of project that would generally make me ready to finally give up on a director altogether. Fortunately, it's taken him just a couple of months to follow that up with In the Earth, a return to his wild early work on the nervy spiritual undercurrents of the land and forests - it is very much a film in the tradition of Kill List and A Field in England, and at their quality level, too.

The film is one of those "pandemic movies" that we're all going to have to pretend are an interesting phenomenon, despite their unifying characteristic being a general miserableness of production: movies conceived and shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, using only the resources that can be scrounged up under quarantine. The difference is that In the Earth is actually interesting, with "quarantine" not meaning time spent stuck in a house, but the limitless forest, terrifyingly empty of people; insofar as it is about the pandemic at all (and it is at its best when it's not), it's about the isolating terror of feeling very much alone in a big empty world, and about the slightly morbid attempts to reach out to people who are, one supposes, equally isolated. It starts with a man named Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arriving at a lonely ranger station on the edge of the forest, where he is sprayed down and sanitised with a ritualistic horror that suggests medieval plague rituals, and from here he and a guide named Alma (Ellora Torchia) plunge into the woods, looking for a colleague of his named Dr. Olivia Wendle (who will be played by Hayley Squires when we eventually meet her). Dr. Wendle is doing research far, far into the woods, and nobody has talked to her in ages; why exactly Martin has decided to choose this exact moment to seek after her is one of the questions Alma asks without asking it, and he's not interesting in answering it.

In the Earth is a film in three movements, and every one gets better. The short prologue setting this journey into motion is perfectly fine, with the caveat that it seems to be setting up quite a different movie than the one we get (and this is arguably the point, given that the movie is all about thrusting people into bizarre situations they're not even a little bit prepared for), and while it's not a movie I'd be uninterested in seeing, it's hard to shake the feeling that, even devoting a relatively short portion of its time to the ranger station and what Martin learns there about the woods and their legendary protector spirit imbalances In the Earth, right at the start.  Certainly, its attempts to "do" COVID fall completely flat, feeling more like local color than anything resonant, and being expressed so obliquely that I initially assumed the film was set during an apocalyptic plague, for no obvious narrative reason.

But it's a quick enough push to get us into the second movie, in which Martin and Alma do their best Blair Witch Project impersonation as they push through the murky stillness of the woods, finding little hints and traces of things being not right. Or even scarier, things being simply indifferent, with the quiet feeling increasingly hostile as they go along. And eventually, about halfway through the whole movie (which runs to 100 minutes, some of them much tighter than others), they come cross a squatter named Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who seems weird but harmless, but of course we'd have no movie if it was as simple as that, and what Zach tells them starts to kick off the third part of the movie, which I shall not be able to talk about in terms of specifics much at all.

This is too bad, because as much I as enjoyed the traipsing through the spookily beautiful and peaceful woods, it's in this last stretch that In the Earth becomes pure vintage Wheatley, all about the terrifying things we don't know and can't imagine in the primordial natural mysteries of England. Suffice it to say that the film takes the psychedelic elements of A Field in England and amplifies them through an all-out formal assault, as the visual track turns into a virtually-impenetrable flurry of strobing lights and cutting, while the soundtrack - including a fantastic score by the ever-reliable electronic music composer Clint Mansell, whose work here is even more striking in its tuneless, hallucinatory droning than it generally is - roars and crashes.

The whole thing is stuffed with excellent craftsmanship, including some lovely, soft, shadowy cinematography by Nick Gillespie (making the jump from assistant camera, in which capacity he's served under most of Wheatley's previous films), and editing by Wheatley himself that does excellent work in contrasting slower, more relaxed moments with sudden flurries of discontinuity. The sound is the best part of it, I think, if only because the sound is by far the weirdest thing. And given that much of the plot involves sound behaving in weird ways, this is appropriate.

In the Earth is a very handsome, striking film, then, one whose ambient tension and bursts of horror cut across the inscrutable madness of the story and give it emotional logic even when the plot is losing its mind in an attempt to grasp the mysteries of nature. It would, to be sure, maybe benefit from being a tad less mad and visionary, and a tad more aware of what the hell it's trying to do (there's a difference between the characters and audience not knowing what's happening, and the filmmakers not knowing what's happening, and I'm not sure that this film is always on the right side of that distinction), but it has such committed energy and a singular artistic voice that even in its limitations, this has a dangerous vitality that feels truly necessary right now.