Directed by John C. Lyons & Dorota Swies.
Screenplay by Lyons & Kelsey Goldberg.
Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Marc Blucas, Allison McAtee, Brooke Sorenson, Rachel McKeon, Monica Wyche, P.J. Marshall, Chad Conley, & Lauren Valentine.
AK47 Presents / Lyons Den Productions / Unearth Film
Not Rated / 94 minutes
Drama / Horror
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS!
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled.
Eco-horror has produced a number of interesting films over the years, all the way back to 1978’s Long Weekend right up to more recent stuff like Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter or Barry Levinson’s The Bay. I figure it’ll only continue to become a popular subgenre, given that we’ve pretty well reached the point of no return with climate change and other environmental issues humans have largely long ignored for the sake of capital. Now along comes Unearth from John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies.
The screenplay, by Lyons and Kelsey Goldberg, involves two families in rural America experiencing their respective struggles with failing farms. Kathryn Dolan (Adrienne Barbeau) is the hard-headed matriarch of a farming family she feels is coming apart at the seams, and George Lomack (Marc Blucas) is a single dad whose wife left him with two daughters, the youngest of whom has just become a single parent herself. The families aren’t best friends, though they get along. Until George decides his economic hardships are too much to bear, selling his land to a natural gas company. Kathryn and George really start butting heads after the deal’s done, but it has nothing on the tragic, horrific effects the fracking causes.
There’s nothing subtle about the way Unearth uses horror as an allegory for the environmental effects of fracking. It isn’t a movie where you have to dig too deep looking for themes and symbols. That’s not a bad thing, either. The film makes great use of its obvious allegory by starting off as a working class drama full of social realism, all about the by-products of rural economic struggles, and the predicaments facing farmers in the 21st century. Then the plot spirals into gruesome horror to fully hammer home its desperate ecological message.
Before the concept of fracking is ever introduced in Unearth the film starts to take a long, hard look at the helplessness of some rural economies. The screenplay presents how a fractured economy leads to fractured communities and fractured families. George’s family particularly epitomises the struggle of such families within those communities.
Single parents extend across generations in the Lomack family with Kim (Brooke Sorenson) having her new baby Reece, deepening their general economic burden. George is in serious financial debt because of a declining business in a declining community/economy, to the point he has to take shifts mopping floors in a takeout restaurant on the side to make ends barely meet. Lack of business and insurmountable debt, including hospital bills for Kim’s recent birth, also drives George to alcoholism. There are mental health issues throughout the Lomack family, too. We see that Heather cuts herself in secret, likely struggling with her repressed lesbianism living in a rural community just as much as her family’s dire situation. More troubling, George keeps a gun right next to his bed so he can occasionally contemplate suicide. All these issues are very real issues people face in rural areas due to a rapidly declining national economy, not to mention an Earth that’s dying even faster and changing the way they live/make a living.
Real trouble comes once a natural gas company aptly named Patriot Exploration shows up, offering George what seems like the deal of a lifetime, just at the right moment before the Lomacks fall over the edge into abject poverty. Again, this part of the screenplay is so real it hurts. Rural communities are preyed upon every day in the 21st century by the new capitalists: eco-capitalists. The bourgeois class have cleverly, and deviously, used the altruistic intent of environmentalism for economic purposes, which at a certain point makes that altruism economically infeasible, once more equalling more profits for the owners of the modes of production. Natural gas presents itself as, yes, a fossil fuel, but one that’s far better for the environment than coal or oil, yet the fracking process used to extract it is fraught with issues. Plus there’s the fact these companies rely on economic desperation, and a lack of education in the working class. This is unfortunately the case for George, whose inattention to the finer details of his natural gas contract results in a lot less money for the family’s land than he’d hoped for in the beginning. The Lomacks suffer far more than financially, literally destroyed due to George’s decisions.
“The world is leaving us behind”
The gruesome horror of fracking comes down upon the Lomack and Dolan families like a Biblical-level reckoning. The Bible pops up in Unearth a few times, like when George verbally eye-rolls as Heather’s talking about the Dolan farm: “It‘s not exactly the Garden of Eden over there.” A couple times, Kathryn references the Bible in regards to the land itself. She tells George at one point she can turn his land around if he sells it to her, rather than Patriot Exploration. She says: “But if you make a tree good, its fruit will be good.” This is directly out of the Bible, coming from the parable of the Tree and its Fruits from the New Testament. Likewise, Galatians 6:7, though not mentioned in the film, is fitting as a Biblical quote that defines the story: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”
Fracking’s destructive altering of the natural landscape leads to an altering of the physical human landscape, representative of humanity’s intricate connection to the land. Human life is dependent on the survival of the natural world. Unearth embodies this by having poisonous spores released from deep inside the earth by fracking alter the Dolan and Lomack families, destroying them mentally and physically.
Two important, albeit brutal moments in the film encompass important themes related to environmentalism. First, after George has been physically affected by the fracking’s poison he murders a Black man while in a frantic mess. This again sadly reflects real life and how the white man’s general lack of care for the environment inherently involves the destruction of people of colour/their ways of life. More graphic is a later scene involving poor baby Reece turning into chunky black soup when Kim tries to lift him out of his crib. This explicit moment— I, no joke, just wrote THE BABY!!! OMFG in my notes while screening Unearth— acts as a nasty symbol of what fracking/other violent environmental disregard does to the next generation, destroying them before they’ve ever had the chance to live.
Unearth depicts social decay that inevitably leads to decay in the collective body and mind of a community. Apart from the heavy story, the performances match all this thematic despair. Adrienne Barbeau, as usual, proves why she’s been a horror icon for decades, and just a generally fabulous talent. She can act and scream with the best of them. I think it’s Marc Blucas who stands out most in my mind, portraying a man on the thin edge of a razor doing a terrible balancing act while trying to hold his family together. The pain and sadness Blucas puts into George makes all the social realism of this eco-horror so unsettling and affecting.
The film’s ending offers equal parts despair and hope. One character remains standing, left with the land’s destruction, but also with land left to keep on tending. They can never escape the damage that’s been done to the land. All they can do is move forward, to try and be better to the natural world than those who came before them because they’ve seen what comes from disrespecting the Earth after all it has given and continues to give to humanity. There is hope. Nevertheless, there’s also always that glimmer left in the eye, of human greed and narcissism, like a tiny spark that we, like the final character standing, must make sure doesn’t catch fire and spread.