Sundance Festival Hits stream in Toronto
By Marc Glassman
In the Earth
(UK/USA, 107 min)
Ben Wheatley, director and script
Starring: Joel Fry (Martin), Reece Shearsmith (Zach), Hayley Squires (Olivia), Ellora Torchia (Alma)
With COVID-19 still raging around the world, it’s not surprising that films are responding to it. Documentaries shot from Wuhan to Toronto are appearing at festivals, online and steaming on TV—and it’s certain that we’ll see far more in the next year. Fiction films usually take a bit longer but, in less than a year, British maverick auteur Ben Wheatley has come up with one that was a hit at Sundance and is sure to be the harbinger of many more to come.
In the Earth is Wheatley’s second foray into dark imaginative fiction, the first being his controversial adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s acclaimed novel High Rise. With In the Earth, he ventures into witchcraft and British myths about primeval forests while showing the unexpected effects that a scientist with equipment which can amplify sound and light, can explore in such an environment. The results are terrifying and visually stunning.
Wheatley’s film is set in a forest near Bristol, very close to where the pandemic has changed life in the UK. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) has come to the National park reserve to be taken to work with ex-lover and highly regarded scientist Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires). Everyone is properly masked at the park and, after Martin is tested for diseases, he’s introduced to Alma (Ellora Torchia), who will guide him to Olivia. Naturally, things go awry. Within a day, the duo are attacked and their equipment, including shoes, is taken from them. Barefoot, Martin steps on a sharp stone, causing a huge gash. When they’re rescued by a strange man, Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who is illegally in the forest, Alma and Martin are still relieved to be taken in.
Once again, things go awry. Zach turns out to be a ritualist, who believes that strange forces are prompting him to wreak havoc and protect a wild earth spirit. When Martin and Alma surprisingly turn the tables on Zach, they are pursued by him, using a bow and arrow and a big blade. Though some violence takes place (rather more than I’m letting on), they’re eventually rescued by Olivia. She tells them that a 17th century book warned about a creature called Parnag Fegg, which controlled the forest. Olivia has figured out that Parnagus meant “sound” and Fegg meant “light,” so she’s devised a machine that can change the environment somewhat like the kind of things you used to see at big rock concerts or planetariums.
As the forest becomes immersed in a dense fog, Alma and Martin want to escape but Olivia preaches caution and then admits that Zach is her ex-husband and might help them. As a member of the film critic union, I’m at pains to not reveal the ending of In the Earth but suffice it to say that any lover of chase scenes, semi-psychedelic sound and light f/x and occasionally gross violence will be entertained. For those who like ideas, it’s fair to say that Wheatley has many good ones in this film but hasn’t really come to grips with its shaggy dog plot. What is his feeling about the pandemic and Mother Earth’s reaction? We’re not sure, but the ride will amuse some, but not all, viewers.
The Killing of Two Lovers
(U.S., 84 min)
Robert Machoian, director, script and co-producer
Starring: Clayne Crawford (David), Sepideh Moafi (Nikki), Chris Coy (Derek), Avery Pizzuto (Jess)
In a film that begins with a despairing man pointing a gun towards a sleeping woman, pretty much the last thing you’d expect to see would be the duo, fully clothed, bustling into their car, kids in tow, as the final credits start to roll. Yet that’s what happens in the surprising Killing of Two Lovers, which is less about bloodshed and more about learning to love again. It’s good to see a film where incipient violence doesn’t lead to death but merely towards conflict resolution. If the noir title attracts an audience for this intense relationship drama, that’s fine.
‘What Happened to that Nice Young Couple,” the more accurate title for Robert Machoian’s first solo feature film, is a mainly naturalistic tale about the classic small-town boy and girl who married out of high school and now have four kids. They’re not even 40 and are in a mid-life crisis. Or, at least, Nikki, the wife is: she would like to go to law school and date other guys. Before the film begins, she has convinced David, her husband and the town’s general handyman, that they “need a pause” in their relationship. Although he agrees to it, David wants things to return to what they were and he’s stoked into thinking about confronting Nikki when Jess, their teen-aged daughter, yells at him to “fight for the family.”
In a town of less than 500 people nestled in flatlands framed by stark mountain ranges and boundless blue and purple skies, nothing is hidden. David finds out from Jess that Nikki is already having an affair and he has to figure out what he should do. Out in the countryside, he shoots a female mannequin. Scenes in his car become nightmarish as gears and other mechanical sounds become louder and louder, mimicking his dark thoughts. Playing with his three raucous boys alleviates some of his stress and so does talking with his dad, with whom he’s living a block away from his family. But a confrontation is clearly in the cards.
Like a well written short story, The Killing of Two Lovers builds to a solidly constructed denouement, which is simultaneously unexpected and the perfect ending.
Machoian, a film prof and creator of quite a number of shorts, has crafted a beautifully photographed and well-acted drama on a minimal budget. The effective soundtrack doesn’t even have a composer, merely a foley artist with an acute atmospheric sense. It’s no surprise that The Killing of Two Lovers was a hit at Sundance; it’s a classic Indie film. If your tastes run to those of Sundance—small, character driven, realistic in many parts—this is film you’ll like. And you don’t have to go to Utah to see it.