Two neighbouring farms find their lives forever changed after one of the households agrees to permit fracking on their land. The process unleashes something that has been dormant in the ground for centuries, something that is intent on claiming the lives of as many as it can.
Unearth is the ultimate in slow burn storytelling. Before we get to the action, we spend a good forty minutes or so getting to know both households, the Dolans and the Lomacks. With almost half the run time spent on this, one would hope that the characters get really drilled down into; that we find out exactly who they are, how they relate to one another, and what the stakes are for each of them. Instead, we get a lot of slow drawn-out scenes that, despite their length, don’t really tell us a great deal about the film except that the Lomacks are poor and in desperate need of money. The Dolans are fractionally better off, but matriarch Kathryn (Adrienne Barbeau) is far too stubborn to even consider selling their land. As cash woes increase, the Lomack’s patriarch, George (Marc Blucas), agrees to sell; cue a one year time jump. It’s a long time to set-up story elements that could have been done in half the time. The intention was obviously to enable the audience to build a strong connection to the family groups, but that desired result fails to land as the audience is more exasperated about the lack of forward momentum.
Things don’t really improve much in the second half of the story either. The narrative jumps forwards a year where we discover that there’s something not right with either farm anymore, and as each member becomes ill, we realise that whatever it is, it’s truly deadly. There’s a strong argument in film for how much to explain and how much to hold back. Typically, excessive exposition gets tedious, but sometimes, lack of information is just as infuriating. In Unearth, very little is explained about the phenomena that takes a stranglehold on the farms, with the characters seemingly unaware what is happening to them themselves. This leads to a lot of confusion. At least in Cabin Fever, which also dealt with an unknown cause making people ill, the characters figured out that it was something in the water. Here the characters are almost completely ignorant to what is occurring, which means no kind of resolution and more frustration.
As the carnage unfolds – it is carnage – the character dynamics and relationships that have been built up completely dissolve, with most of them quietly suffering their own personal Hell alone. This means lots of painful wailing and screams, and almost no character development. In fact, there is so little dialogue and so few exchanges in the last third, that Unearth plays out almost as if it were a glorified silent movie. It’s an interesting move, but when heaped upon what is already cause for a lot of confusion, it becomes even more difficult to follow what is happening.
What Unearth manages to do well is, its instances of violence. These moments are graphic, disturbing, and haunting. Parental discretion is most definitely advised, and by that, we don’t mean keep it away from the kids (that’s a given), but if you yourself are a parent, you might want to give this one a pass. Especially those that have very young children as the most disturbing incident involves one of the younger family members. This moment above all others will almost certainly be your nightmare fuel for the next few months.
A slow and confusing mess with some highly disturbing imagery, Unearth lacks the connection so vital to films about families in peril.
Unearth was reviewed at Fantasia 2020.
Some genuinely nightmarish images sadly cannot save Unearth from its lack of clarity and cohesion.