God Bless Jamin Winans and his filmmaking team.
Their indie effort ‘Ink’, a fantastical mish-mash of children’s bedtime stories, surrealistic imagery and sci-fi action is an honest to goodness sleeper. You won’t see it, or its emotional impact, coming. It’s been some time since a film this low budget achieved so much in regards to what ends up on screen. The world of Ink is like 80’s Spielberg meets Terry Gilliam by way of Neil Gaiman. At the same time, it has originality and heart. Plenty of that last one.
Most of the film is set in an invisible world that exists underneath our own. While the physical realm sleeps, the ethereal ‘Storytellers’ (who are envisioned as an ethnically diverse group of grungy punks) roam the night planting happiness, hope, encouragement and solace in the dreams of humanity.
Behind them, sometimes trailing and sometimes stalking are the subversive and malicious Incubi, creepy phantoms who resemble The Strangers from Dark City with one cosmetic difference: they wear deceiving masks that look like black-and-white view screens featuring leering human faces. The Incubi instill doubts, fears, jealousies and night terrors into their victims. They are, more or less, the architects of bad dreams.
Taken on its own, this idea is almost eye-rolling simplistic and dramatically silly. However, Winan has designed a very specific and detailed environment around this supernatural facet of the film. The Storytellers travel in teams, have real and identifiable individuality and behave like your average low-pay courier workers. For the most part, they are a happy lot unless something gunks up the job. When they aren’t dream tinkering, they hang out in a wooded glade that evokes the mythological Elysium. The Incubi, on the other hand, work as a single, malignant unit and if there is one, there are likely to be hundreds more right around the corner. Their world is linked to ours by a dark, ephemeral corridor and the land on the other side looks like ravers took over an abandoned Radio Shack.
One night, a shadowy, cloaked figure sneaks into the bedroom of young Emma and snatches away her soul. His name is Ink, and underneath that cloak there are suggestions he is a deformed wretch; the audience can only see his beak-like nose protruding into the light. The Storytellers try to apprehend him before he can pull Emma from the house. There is a struggle, and he escapes with the girl into a portal.
They fear he will take her to the Incubi, for what purpose no one rightly knows. It is implied that Incubi and Storytellers cannot impact the physical world directly, unless an earthly creature passes into their realm via death or spiritual kidnapping, as in Emma’s case.
At this point, the narrative of the film has been pulling in two directions. Winan follows Emma’s dad, John, a man obsessed with his high-level corporate work and who has been estranged from his daughter since his wife’s death. This real world sequence is glimpsed mostly from his perspective, with the Storytellers hanging out in the background. It could well be the kind of emotionally redemptive tale that films like 2007’s Bella aspire to tell. It works, but it occasionally slows down the more fantastical sections that focus both on The Storytellers trying to motivate John towards Emma and the relationship between Ink, Emma and Liev, the woman who has come to save the little girl from her abductor.
As a visual experience, Ink is truly impressive. While the film isn’t as polished as a multi-million dollar project might be on the fx, set design and acting fronts, that doesn’t matter so much because Winan is a very talented and resourceful director. The shots have been intelligently and thoughtfully staged throughout, and the soundtrack, an immersive ambient score that reminded me of the work of Clint Mansell is seamlessly grafted onto the film’s emotional identity. The acting is occasionally amateurish, but all performers manage to capture the spirit and struggles of their characters. In particular, the trio of Ink, Liev and Emma has a well-rounded dynamic and they walk the tightrope between playing symbolic ideas and real, flawed people. Ink, in particular, hides more under his menacing visage than is originally guessed.
In the end, I came away most surprised by the way the film works as an adventure. There are opportunities for the three parallel stories to derail, and the action sequences to underwhelm, not to mention the film getting mired in its own layered view of spiritual warfare and existential redemption. But, instead, the story actually unifies these pieces and we are left with a film that stimulates the senses, challenges the imagination and satisfies on an emotional as well as sensory level.
When the Storytellers and the Incubi have a massive Matrix-style cat and mouse battle within the shadow-drenched corridors of a real world hospital, while John wanders about looking for his daughter, unaware of the war around him, Winan captures one of the most kinetic and intriguing portraits of good vs. evil that I’ve recently seen. Ink, created outside of the studio system with passion and dedication, is the kind of movie we often crave but rarely find: a good story well told. And it has plenty of worthy subtext to boot. It’s a fantasy lover’s dream.
Ink is available on Netflix Instant.