Film Review: UNEARTH (2020)

UNEARTH **** USA 2020 Dir: John C Lyons, Dorota Swies. 94 mins

“There’s no birds…there’s no bugs…” Here’s a 21st century eco-horror film that would serve as an impactful feature length promotional video for any environmental group’s anti-fracking campaigns. Punctuated by imposing aerial shots of the slowly poisoned countryside surrounding Silverthorn, Pennsylvania and accompanied by the anxiously atonal sounds of Jane Saunders’ score, it’s an exercise in slow-burn unease that truly chills.

Divorced mechanic Marc Blucas -who’s superb- lives in an economically flagging community and is struggling to support his daughters (and new granddaughter) while his business, which relies on the personal touch, wanes drastically. Widowed farming matriarch Adrienne Barbeau struggles to recoup her losses from the enforced shutdown of dairy production and the highway that runs through the back of her field. During a heatwave, his township gives the greenlight to gas drilling and the impact is disastrous.

The monster of UNEARTH is a corporate one: “Patriot Exploration” canvas door to door, exploiting the hardship of a dying town that can no longer guarantee income and survival. Blucas is sympathetic and believable as the desperate dad who recognises the dire straits facing them all (“The world is leaving us behind…we need a miracle”) and takes up the company’s offer of $12K an acre. The royalty cheques, when they eventually arrive, fail to live up to such lofty expectations. As families fracture, relationships show credible strain and even a cornfield sex scene proves oddly unsettling to watch, co-directors Lyons and Swies superbly visualise the fracking process like a bonafide creature feature. Dripping slime-like fluids, hellish flames and bubbling rivers dominate, along with the relentless, infernal sounds of the oppressive machinery looming over the landscape. Repeated shots of running water echo real-life horror stories of fracking-induced contamination in rural communities across America- and set the scene for the physical decline of the characters.

Barbeau has her best role in years as the elegiac elder lamenting the loss of her livelihood -and, by extension, her heritage and her family’s identity. She and her family and friends get progressively sicker while despair and self-harm kick in. A mother flails in her efforts to feed her baby as the formula begins to taste very wrong. An appropriate companion piece to this year’s THE BEACH HOUSE, and Todd Haynes’ disturbing ripped-from-the-headlines horror story DARK WATERS, UNEARTH pays off with hysteria, disorientation and Cronenbergian mutation. The soundtrack increasingly mutes the natural audio of the first half in favour of what might be the Earth itself rumbling and roaring in defiance at the abuse meted out upon it. It’s a genuinely frightening indictment of the enduring power of large corporations, for whom the destruction of nature and communities is justified by the mighty dollar, regardless of the deafening climatic alarm bells surrounding fossil fuels.

Review by Steven West


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