(Original post date: 1/5/18)
For as long as intelligent life has existed, or maybe even longer, so have those elusive enigmas we call dreams. I once read in a book that the mind is like a room, and the process of dreaming is the mind’s way of “cleaning” or reorganizing this room, to look through our subconscious and reassess our thoughts and memories in a new light. Whether you believe this particular analogy has merit or not, there is no denying that dreams—and nightmares—are extremely powerful things, tools for inspiring us and teaching us about ourselves. And this film shows us a fine example of exactly that.
John Sullivan is a man whose purpose in life has become increasingly nonexistent: his wife is dead and his young daughter, Emma, is in the custody of her grandparents due to his grief-induced alcoholism and drug abuse. Now all he has left is his business job, selling bonds and keeping all the rich investors happy, even at the expense of what little compassion—and sanity—he has left. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him and everyone else on earth, two great forces battle every night for the souls of mankind through the power of dreams: the Storytellers, who give joy, hope, and strength through good dreams, and the Incubi, whose nightmares fill the mind and heart with fear, pain, and despair. But the entire game changes when Ink, a disfigured creature covered in a robe of chains and black rags, appears. Despite the Storytellers’ best efforts to stop him, Ink kidnaps Emma’s soul, putting her real body into a deadly coma. But even this tragedy isn’t enough to take John away from his work, or make him face the grief of his past. Now Storytellers Allel, Gabe, Sarah, Liev, and their blind eccentric ally, Jacob, must not only find a way to rescue Emma before Ink sacrifices her to the Incubi, but help John find his humanity before it is consumed by darkness forever.
If films like Napoleon Dynamite and The Blair Witch Project have taught us anything, it’s that even with little money and resources, a bit of imagination and perseverance can go a LONG way in creating a high-quality movie. And Ink is no exception. Husband and wife duo Jamin and Kiowa Winans took on many roles in the creation of Ink: besides both of them executive producing, Jamin was its director, writer, editor, and score composer, and Kiowa was its art director, consume designer, and sound designer. Now that is some serious skill and dedication. Still, they were unable to find a big studio to pitch the film, so they decided to pitch Ink directly through their own independent film company, Double Edge Films, and see to the theatrical and DVD distribution themselves. Word soon spread—as did the online piracy of the film. But the Winanses couldn’t have been happier, as it’s given the film all the more “unprecedented exposure” to wider audiences, most of whom have praised it highly.
The idea of sentient beings being responsible for humans’ dreams isn’t a new one, but this is the first time I’ve seen it presented in a way that’s so . . . well, cool. This story takes place in 21st century America, and has a very dark, urban aesthetic. Likewise, instead of juxtaposing this with medieval wizards or demons or anything traditionally mythical as is often the case in stories like this, both dream-giving races have also been designed to be contemporary in appearance and character. But this creative choice goes even further. According to the DVD commentary, in designing the Storytellers and the Incubi, the Winans’ used as inspiration a quote by Narnia author C.S. Lewis: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.” The Storytellers look and act like the kind of people you’d see on a college campus or in a coffee shop, or maybe even babysitting your own children: young men and women of every ethnicity, attired in jeans, leather, shades, and piercings, smart and confident in their individuality, and yet as warm and comforting as their name.
LIEV: (Curiously.) Why do you want to go home?
EMMA: (Afraid.) I’m scared.
LIEV: (Frowning thoughtfully.) That’s strange. I didn’t think a lioness could get scared. [. . .] Don’t tell me you don’t know.
EMMA: Know what?
LIEV: . . . In this world, you become something else. And as soon as you came here, you started to turn into a lion.
EMMA: A lion?
LIEV: Well, you used to look a little girl, but you started turning into a lion as soon as you woke up here.
EMMA: (Touching her face in confusion.) I did?
LIEV: (Earnestly.) Yeah. You see, that’s why I’m so surprised. Because usually, lionesses are big, brave suckers. I’m sure you can tell.
But the Incubi are like a hospital patient’s worst nightmare (no pun intended): each covered in black smocks and gloves, smug but lifeless grins forever plastered on their bespectacled faces, which flicker in a painful monochrome behind a sheet of glass like a broken T.V. screen; much like the demons whose name they share, they delight in the psychological raping of their victims, a weak heart cowering behind a façade of power.
KEY MASTER INCUBUS: (Coolly.) Are you a failure, Ink?
INK: (Chastened.) No.
KEY MASTER INCUBUS: Because failure is not an option with us, Ink. Only perfection. [. . .] Would you like help, Ink? You need it. (In a mocking drawl.) With that shame, that stench. . . . You only have one opportunity, to become numb.
It’s also worth noting that the dreams and nightmares shown throughout the film depict not the fantastic, like gaining superpowers or seeing monsters, but much more realistic or down-to-earth events. Now, before you start thinking how dull that sounds, let me ask this: if you were to experience a wonderful surprise like reuniting with a lost loved one or winning the lottery, or a horrific tragedy like attempting suicide due to bullying or enduring a spouse’s verbal abuse, would you truly feel any less emotionally or spiritually affected than by anything bizarre or impossible?
The visual effects also give Ink a unique look that I’ve rarely seen in film. The lighting is unusually bright, almost blinding in daylight scenes, as though to blur the line between realities even further, and to remind us of how the protagonists may—or may not—be seeing what’s right in front of them. And much of the editing, namely of the more distressing scenes, is reminiscent of that of the Saw films: rapid cuts from one shot to another (often alternating between past and present events) combined with frantic fast-forwarding, all serve to emphasize the characters’ chaotic desperation to escape their suffering.
Even with all the supernatural elements, this is still a very realistic portrayal of self-destruction. John believes he must maintain perfection and an almost cutthroat detachment in order to feel safe and at ease, to pretend he no longer has a family in order to not feel the pain of that loss.
JOHN: I’m asking you, Ron, what can I do now? I’m good enough to be [Emma’s] father now?
RON [Emma’s grandfather; John’s father-in-law]: (Struggling.) We have to let that go. It’s in the past now.
JOHN: (Angrily cutting him off.) Is it? . . . You know, you convinced the world I’m the Antichrist and you take her from me, you can’t throw that in the past, Ron! ‘Cause that’s where I live now!
RON: I know that you’ve suffered with this. We all have.
JOHN: (Rolling his eyes.) Oh, no . . . please. I don’t want to hear it . . .
RON: (Desperately.) Look, I am pleading with you--
JOHN: (Yelling.) I don’t want to hear it! (Quietly.) I don’t even have a daughter . . . anymore . . . remember? (Dully, watching Ron’s stricken face.) Those words ring a bell?
Ink, likewise, desires nothing more than to become an Incubus, free from emotion and immune to empathy so that he needn’t ever face heartache again—a desire that fuels his paranoiac rage while deepening the shame behind his appearance.
INK: (To Liev, enraged.) Why are you here?
LIEV: What do you mean?
INK: (Snarling, pointing his knife at her.) I know who you are, Storyteller! This is a trap! You set me up!
[. . .]
LIEV: (Sadly.) You’re confused by your own paranoia.
INK: Who is this girl? Why do you care about this child?
LIEV: (Calmly.) You are in complete control. What is it you’re so afraid of?
INK: (Roars as he lunges at Liev, only to back off in panic when his hood falls back, revealing his face.)
LIEV: (Watching Ink with pity.) Why the scars, Ink? Do you even remember how you got them, or did you lose your memory when you came through?
[. . .]
INK: (Softly, his back to her.) You can see nothing. They’ll be gone soon.
LIEV: (Disappointed.) At the assembly. . . . When you become one of them? You’ve been given promises of beauty and bliss in exchange for your soul.
In fact, Jacob, with his quirky, unruffled humor, illustrates this hellish trend in a literally and allegorically beautiful manner. Sporting a tattered hoodie and thick black X’s taped over his eyes (an absolutely brilliant touch, by the way), Jacob is a Pathfinder, who is able, unlike other spirits, to physically affect the human world. It is not only due to his blindness that he constantly counts under his breath. He is listening for the rhythm that can only be made by an entire world, the “sound” to which everything in creation “dances” without even realizing it. He compares man’s destruction to a chain reaction, a “downward spiral”, one that can be stopped only if and when one listens for the cues and moves accordingly. And the sequence in which Jacob “conducts” this “music” is accompanied by smooth notes and a gentle, echoing beat, a seamless blend of the urban edginess of hip-hop and the spiritual comfort of New Age (like much of this film’s masterful score.)
JACOB: (To Allel, with forced patience, as if to a child.) One thing begets the next. A man has a weakness, he’s flawed. That flaw leads him to guilt. The guilt leads him to shame. The shame he compensates with pride and vanity. And when pride fails, despair takes over and they all lead to his destruction. What will become his fate. (Nods as if it should all be obvious.) Something’s got to stop the flow.
It is often circumstances beyond control rather than any inherent evil that drives one down the path of hostility and sorrow; but here we see that these feelings are what makes these supposed antagonists all the more human—the very part of themselves they want to destroy, no matter how heinous the method or how steep the cost. Their greatest fear is the belief that all their misfortune is their own fault, and if that is so, how, they wonder, can they ever hope to be redeemed when all they’ve ever received from the world is damnation?
Whenever I can actually recall my dreams upon waking, it’s rare that I have one I truly feel is trying to tell me something about myself . . . but I never stop trying to understand. If there’s one story that shows how dreams are more than just images in our brains, it is Ink. This cinematic labor of love is too visceral not to invoke heart-wrenched tears or long, hard thoughts on how depression and loss can turn even the best people into monsters, and how they can be healed by kindness and understanding. A true mirror to the soul, if ever there was one.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“We Can Hear You Big Eyes” - The 129ers
“I Am a Man Who Will Fight for Your Honor” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
All other sound clips are from Ink (produced and distributed by Double Edge Films).
Watch the original preview and episode videos here!
Listen to the episode here!
Ink on Wikipedia
Jamin Winans on Wikipedia
Jamin Winans' Official Double Edge Films Website
Ink on IMDb
Ink on Rotten Tomatoes
Ink on tvtropes
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