Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Overall, the story is slight, but Lee Eun-ah's atmospheric cinematography enables Unearth to punch above its weight." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Since companies have begun fracking in various places around the world, numerous unexpected things have occurred as a result. Sinkholes have opened up, earthquakes have taken place - even far from fault lines - and water tables have dropped, turning arable land into desert. In light of this, it doesn't seem all that far fetched to suggest that the process might awaken some deep-dwelling, forgotten chthonian entity inimical to humankind. As Tolkien warned, there may be dwellers in the depths that should not be disturbed.

The strength of Unearth is that it doesn't go overboard with this. If you're hoping for towering Lovecraftian monstrosities the very sight of which drives people insane, you'd be better to look elsewhere. If this film resembles HP Lovecraft's work then it is more in terms of tone and that abiding sympathy for forgotten farming communities displayed in classic tales like The Dunwich Horror and The Colour Out Of Space.

Copy picture

This is a place where, before anything else has happened, one can feel the ache of generational poverty, the sense of desperation that develops as yields from tired soil grow smaller and buyers offer less and less. The uncaring behemoth that is corporate agriculture has left these small farmers obsolete. They're crushed by the weight of bills and debts, yet their land is all they have - land with which the stories of their families are inextricably interwoven, land close to the places where they have sowed their own dead. When a man comes to the door offering big money for just part of it, giving them the chance to remain in their homes, it seems like too good an opportunity to turn down. And of course, only one person in the community needs to break. The rest will profit nothing but will also pay the price.

John C Lyons and Dorota Swies' film features a formidable performance from Adrienne Barbeau, cast against type as a community leader who seems bound to the land and, perhaps, doomed to share its fate. The dirt ground into her face only serves to increase her natural authority and she does all she can to keep the enemy at bay, but we know from the outset that it will not be enough. All she can do then is try to impart her philosophy to the women who will come after her, hoping that they will be able to turn things around. As she does so, a few stereotypes about rural Americans are overturned, though the pressures of living such an isolated life affect everyone.

The body horror here, though it gradually becomes more grotesque, is not a world away from the reality of what certain pollutants have wrought in agricultural communities. It is distressing not just for its own sake but because of the deep sense of wrongness it imparts in a context which ought at least to be natural and wholesome. Overall, the story is slight, but Lee Eun-ah's atmospheric cinematography enables Unearth to punch above its weight and gives it the class one would expect of a Fantasia 2020 pick. Don't look away when the credits roll. The final long, aerial shot opens up a much bigger picture, and not just literally. It's a reminder that what happens in remote places like this ultimately affects us all.

Reviewed on: 27 Aug 2020
Share this with others on...
Unearth packshot
The relationship between two neighbouring farm families is strained when one of them chooses to lease land to an oil and gas company - and something long dormant and terrifying, deep beneath the earth's surface, is released.

Director: John C Lyons, Dorota Swies

Writer: Kelsey Goldberg, John C Lyons

Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Marc Blucas, Brooke Sorenson, Allison McAtee, PJ Marshall, Rachel McKeon

Year: 2020

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Banshee Chapter
Dark Waters