One of my favorite movie review quotes comes from Chris Vognar’s review of Donnie Darko, in which he writes that Donnie Darko “may be too ambitious for a debut feature, but ambition and imagination still trump mediocrity any day of the week.” Over the years, that has become my “go-to” phrase to describe movies that may contain considerable flaws, but that are nevertheless enthralling, enchanting, and fascinating. Which is a perfect way to describe Jamin Winan’s Ink.
And just how is Ink too ambitious? I suppose that if you’re making a film about dreamworlds, altered states of consciousness, and other planes of existence, you get a free pass to skip on a standard or linear narrative structure. Saying that might bring to mind such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Being John Malkovich, but Winans (who also wrote the film) is not quite Charlie Kaufman.
Ink is, to put it simply, jumbled, pitting together multiple narratives that exist within alternate timelines and states of existence. That certainly makes for a head-trip while watching the film, but it also means the film occasionally collapses under the weight of its convoluted storyline. And it doesn’t help that Winans employs a fair amount of hyperkinetic editing during the movie’s action and chase sequences, editing that doesn’t so much thrill you as it does give you a headache.
But therein lies the rub: by employing a narrative structure that doesn’t make a lot of logical or rational sense (although it’d be interesting to see someone attempt to plot it out à la Primer), Winans frees his film to go for broke, emotionally speaking. Ink definitely wears its heart on its sleeve, and is packed with themes of redemption, guilt, forgiveness, the cancerous effects of materialism and pride, the importance of fathers, and the power of stories — to name a few. I was quite moved at several points during Ink; even if the film didn’t make the most logical sense, it certainly cut to the heart.
The danger then becomes that Ink might go too far towards this end of the spectrum, and instead of drowning in narrative quicksand, it ends up drowning in melodrama, or even worse, comes off as emotionally manipulative. Here, too, Winans’ “ambition and imagination” come in handy, by giving us glimpses of a larger mythology that cuts through any emotional sap by setting the viewer’s imagination ablaze.
In the world of Ink, there are two factions that watch over us when we sleep: Storytellers, who remind people of their value and worth via good dreams and memories, and Incubi, who infect people with fear, pride, and hatred via nightmares. These two factions constantly war with each other, striving for the souls of mankind — or at least, our self-esteem.
There are other entities in this world as well, including the Pathfinder, an individual “blinded by God” who is capable of hearing the beat of the world (which basically means that the coolest scene in the movie belongs to him) as well as the titular character, who kidnaps the (soul? mind? astral projection?) of a young girl in order to become one of the Incubi for reasons unknown. The movie doesn’t explain all of this in tremendous detail but rather, gives viewers just enough hints and clues to draw us in and put our imagination to work. (For what it’s worth, part of me hopes Winans explores the mythology of Ink some more, perhaps in other media.)
Bringing life to these hints and clues are the film’s impressive visuals. There’s no hiding or ignoring the film’s $250,000 budget. The special effects may not have much in the way of Hollywood sheen, but that’s actually a good thing here. Their roughness and “kitchen sink” approach — such as the reversed film effect used to “reset” objects (e.g., chairs, tables, lamps) that are smashed during a dreamworld duel — give the visuals a sense of dimension and “earthiness” that makes the trippy scenes more believable than any display of multi-million dollar CGI could. This is especially true of the Incubi, who walk around in black leathery garb and hide their faces behind static-riddled viewscreens that accentuate their grotesque smiles. They bring to mind the most nightmarish elements of Gilliam and Jeunet, but on a shoestring budget.
Finally, there’s an extremely clever usage of soft focus cinematography, color palettes, and visual styles to help convey the film’s many alternate worlds. It’s a wonderful example of “show, don’t tell,” and it makes for some of Ink‘s most arresting imagery, such as when the film cuts from a man walking absentmindedly through a hospital to the Storyteller/Incubi battle of which he is blissfully unaware as it erupts around him. (If nothing else, it’s one of the most vivid representations of spiritual warfare I’ve ever seen in a film.)
I first learned of Ink over a year ago and instantly added it to my “must see” list, based on the strength of its trailer. But real life kept preventing me from seeing it even though it was sitting in my Netflix queue for a good portion of the intervening time. I’m sorry it took me so long to watch it, but I’m happy to say it was worth the wait. Deeply heartfelt, with captivating visuals and indelible images, Ink handily sidesteps its flaws. Some might be put off by its narrative challenges, or even by its low budget look and feel. But I suspect that, for many viewers, those will ultimately fade away in light of what Winans’ “ambition and imagination” have achieved here.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on May 20, 2010.