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by Jay Seaver

"A story that needs much more or much less fracking horror."
3 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's a pretty good movie to be found in "Unearth", but I am reasonably sure that it is not a horror movie, and trying to make this film into one does it a disservice. That's not a knock on horror as a genre or even saying that it's inappropriate for this setting; it's saying that the sudden turn in this movie's last act means that the filmmakers can't make the most of either what came before or the potential of what happens after.

It focuses on two neighbors in the small town of Silverthorn, Pennsylvania. Tom Dolan (P.J. Marshall) has recently lost his father Joe, who ran the family farm with Tom's mother Kathryn (Adrienne Barbeau). He has no children of his own, but wife Aubrey (Monica Wyche) has a daughter, Christina (Allison McAtee), who had been largely responsible for looking after Joe in his decline, learning a great deal about the farm, although her passion is photography. George Lomack (Marc Blucas) is a mechanic, though he inherited a fair amount of farmland from his late wife. His older daughter Heather (Rachel McKeon) is at college on scholarship, while younger daughter Kim (Brooke Sorenson) is returning to highschool after having had a baby. Both are seeing their fortunes squeezed - the Dolans had to sell off the cattle for their dairy operations, and locals are going to a chain for their inspections - and while Kathryn thinks they should merge their land, a natural gas exploration firm has come with offers.

Unearth is 94 minutes long and it is an hour in before there's any hint of something supernatural or paranormal going on, but that is not a particular weakness. Though many films about farming communities or families in decline focus on how small farms are squeezed by big business - and the script certainly makes reference to that - writers Kelsey Goldberg and John C. Lyons have a stronger focus on how they can crumble from the inside, as generations regard each other with suspicion and disagree about how to handle challenges they don't understand. Kathryn doesn't trust her son to handle her husband's legacy, George and Tom cannot adapt to a changing world, and the young women are sensible but lack the resources to venture out on their own. Directors Lyons and Dorota Swies do fine work in steadily operating the crank that grinds these people down, and how they are caught in a process that they were not given the tools to manage.

There's plainly potential to be seen once George accepts the gas company's offer, and there's something suitably apocalyptic to how there's always some mechanical noise in the background and dust in the air during the film's last act, with every glass of water looking just far enough from crystal-clear to be regarded with suspicion. The trouble is, the filmmakers completely lose track of the strong, precisely-measured storytelling they had been doing before: Subplots are brought up and discarded helter-skelter, the suggestion that the fracking is tapping into something dangerous beyond the usual is done via shots of something looking kind of vaguely unnatural underground. When it starts killing, or maybe driving people insane, it happens in such a way that the audience can't get a good look at it or associate the results with anything. It plays especially poorly after previous films at the festival where the scares clearly tied in with the evil that spawned them; this just feels like capable but generic use of special-effects makeup.

To give the cast credit, they don't flag during that last act, although their good work isn't quite so well-aimed. Alison McAtee and Rachel McKeon do good work as the smart young women who are probably the best hope for both families going forward and have clearly bonded over how they have different ambitions than this place affords them (at least). It's a contrast to the men a generation up, with P.J. Marshall and Marc Blucas each seeming resentful in a different way, Blucas's George turning it inward and Marshall's Tom seeming to look for an argument but never quite finding one. Adrienne Barbeau is particularly memorable as Kathryn Dolan, never letting her settle into the comfortable category of the tough, stubborn old gal who knows what's right but instead always highlighting how she's bitter and controlling; a betrayal revealed relatively late comes out of nowhere but feels right.

Lyons and Swies also serve as editors, and it's possible that not having an outside perspective at that point is why pieces of the film feel rough. There are pieces of the story involving Aubrey that feel like they should have been expanded upon or cut out entirely, for instance, like they saw it bogged the main track down but couldn't have her just disappear for long stretches. Christina sometimes seems to exist in an odd sort of age limbo, where she's either college student Heather's contemporary or five to ten years older. As with the horror elements, a lot feels like it may have been clear in the filmmakers' heads but didn't make it to the audience.

There's no way as a viewer to know how this sort of mismatch happens - is this a smart film about a decaying way of life with 25 minutes of horror-movie stuff tacked onto the end or something that started as a horror movie where the filmmakers decided to emphasize the good material in the set-up once they had the footage in front of them? Or is it just a bunch of good ideas realized unevenly? Whatever the reason, "Unearth" is good enough in places to be interesting but eventually feels like the people behind it should have picked one thing and done that well.

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originally posted: 08/27/20 05:29:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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