You had me at “a horror story about fracking.” Unearth, directed by John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, takes place in a working-class Pennsylvanian community with valuable oil resources under its bedrock. This story has old-timey flair as a battle of wills between neighboring farm families, the Dolans and the Lomacks, becomes a feud of almost biblical proportions. But Unearth does offer up a contemporary twist in its focus on bitingly real environmental issues.
The eco-horror story begins with George Lomack (Marc Blucas), patriarch of one of the clans, and a struggling mechanic. The Lomacks have fallen on hard times, and they have little resources to besides their property. Thus, they turn to what seems like the only logical choice: leasing their land to an oil and gas company willing to pay a good rate. This is what causes Kathryn Dolan (Adrienne Barbeau), their steely neighbor, to start staring daggers at the family and sending them endless ominous warnings.
It seems like a simple enough set-up: man makes a deal with the devil, and he and his family pay a high price for selling out. But the direction and cinematography instill the wholesome-seeming Americana setting with far more gore and grimness than might be expected upon first glance. This is a film that’s all about what might be lying dormant under the surface — and the naturalistic performances from the lead actors make strong use of deep-seated tension and slow-burning rage, always hinting that something terrible might soon erupt.
It’s quite obvious that George should have heeded Kathryn’s warnings, and it’s quite obvious that the fracking in this film is bound to release much more than natural gas. As drills burrow deep under the earth, they begin to drain away life in other ways: contaminating water, affecting the locals’ health, and eventually leading to strange disappearances. The environmentalist messaging here is not subtle, but perhaps that didacticism is intentional — simple dialogue and a haunting score instill scenes of carnage and community annihilation with an awful and prescient parable.
At its core, this is a story about inheritance — what we give to our children, what we take from them, the better futures we try to create for future generations, and the bleak future we leave them because of our environmental degradation. Scientists have argued that one of the largest actions an individual can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is simply to have one fewer child, and in the face of increasing resource scarcity, it may be irrational — if not downright irresponsible — to put more people on this planet. But it is impossible for families to not be motivated by a profound desire to secure their legacy through them.
By leasing his family’s land, Lomack sacrifices the property for the sake of their present-day survival; he also unintentionally wreaks havoc upon the world as they know it. How do we act in our best interests, and in humanity’s best interests, given our competing priorities? Unearth seems to offer a pretty bleak assessment: maybe humanity is doomed to pay for its collective sins against the environment.
This isn’t a story to tell to children right before bed unless you want to give them fuel for a thousand nightmares — but maybe that is exactly what we need to kick ourselves into action. We should be scared about where our planet is heading and the effects human choices have on our future paths. Unearth lurks in the shadows, and makes the most out of its limited budget and setting by using the terrifying political issues it alludes to. While it’s small-scale and local in its portrait of a particular community and family crumbling under pressure, it shows what could befall all of us — collapsing under the weight of our own selfish decisions.