Ben Wheatley's filmography has made interesting reading in recent years: his most recent film was the lavish Netflix adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's classic gothic novel Rebecca, while his next will be a sequel to Jason Statham blockbuster The Meg.
Sandwiched in-between those two behemoths, though, the darling of British indie cinema has found time to go back to his roots with In the Earth, a chilling slice of pandemic-themed folk horror that was conceived, written, and shot during lockdown.
The film stars Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia as Martin and Alma, a scientist and park scout who venture deep into the woods to help the experiments of the former's ex-colleague, but soon find themselves a little lost - both literally and spiritually, not helped by the appearance of Reece Shearsmith as a crazed man named Zach.
The film is rather enigmatic and has an ending that may have left some viewers a little stumped – so we've done our best to provide an explanation for the events of the film's climax below.
Read on for everything you need to know about the ending of In the Earth – but if you haven't yet watched then be warned, major spoilers lie ahead.
In the Earth ending explained
Before we dive headfirst into the film's ending, it's important to provide some context. The first key thing to understand is explained by Alma before she and Martin have even entered the forest and concerns the legend of Parnag Fegg, a local legend known as the Spirit of the Woods, who was apparently invented to warn kids from straying too far into the forest.
The legend does little to keep Martin from heading into the woods, and it doesn't take too long before things take a turn for the worse when he and Alma are attacked in their tent by a mystery assailant and wake up to find all their possessions, including their shoes, missing.
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Not much more time passes before they come across Zach, a man who appears to live in the woods and is clearly obsessed with the aforementioned legend – leaving offerings for her in the form of staged photos. Although Zach initially appears friendly, he soon drugs and ties up Alma and Martin marking them with what appear to be occultist symbols and taking photos – presumably for Parnag Fegg.
After escaping Zach's clutches, Alma and Martin eventually find their way to Olivia Wendle, the scientist they had originally been setting out to find. It turns out that she is also doing research into Parnag Fegg, believing that the legend can be explained using science and that ancient journals and drawings reveal that there is a way for humans to communicate with nature. (It also turns out that Zach is her ex-husband).
Upon hearing Olivia's theory, Alma reckons that she and Martin should leave – in part because she's scared they'll be found again by Zach, but they are prevented from leaving by a strange sensation caused by mushrooms releasing a cloud of spores into the air – which Olivia believes backs up her theory.
Olivia then persuades Martin and Alma to help with her experiments, but they are somewhat curtailed by the arrival of Zach on the scene, who hopes to offer Martin to Parnag Fegg as a sacrifice – which he believes will allow them to communicate with the spirit – and it soon transpires that Zach and Olivia have actually been working in tandem the entire time.
Upon making this discovery, Alma fights off Olivia and kills Zach before the mushroom cloud returns and causes the three survivors to have visions. After the visions have passed, Olivia appears to die, while Alma regains consciousness, finds a barely conscious Martin, and offers to guide him out of the woods.
Naturally, it's a somewhat ambiguous ending, and is largely open to interpretation – there isn't necessarily a perfectly rational explanation for everything that happened. It certainly appears that Zach and Olivia had been driven to insanity by their solitude – but as for whether there was any truth to their research, that's left deliberately oblique...
The mushroom clouds certainly seem to point to there being some truth to Olivia's findings, but there could be several explanations as to why she passes away while the other two are able to survive. Is nature sending them a message not to interfere?