24 Lies a Second: An Owl of Incomprehension

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An Owl of Incomprehension

I bought a cinema last year. Well, I should clarify that by saying that it wasn't just me buying the whole thing; it was a collective sort of undertaking. So perhaps it would be better to say that I bought about 0.07% of a cinema. (Maybe. Possibly quite a bit less than that.) Still, it's more than most people own; it's a nice cinema, and I have many happy memories of previous visits to it – I saw La Flor there, all God-knows-how-many-hours of it, not to mention One Cut of the Dead, many silent German films, The Wild Bunch, Spartacus...

The thing is, though, that the last time I actually went there before very recently was on the Saturday before the first lockdown kicked in, to see Little Joe (an Anglo-German botanical horror movie). Then everything shut down; my cinema wasn't able to reopen during that brief period in the summer of 2020 when the big chains were hopeful there would be audiences for major films that year, and then I found myself stranded out of town for over twelve months for complicated reasons sort of connected to the pandemic but also sort of not.

So it was weird to be back there again after such a long break, and to be honest a lot of memories came flooding back – it used to be on my route to and from work, so I went there quite a lot, back in the days when going to see over a hundred films a year was both practical and possible. But as well as remembering some good films, I also found myself feeling rather melancholy because it seems that I just wouldn't be able to manage that kind of work-rate even if the films were being released to warrant it – it doesn't feel like they are, and that's before we even get onto the whole issue of cinemas being in danger of closing. The lovely old two-screen next door to where I used to work closed down just a year short of its centenary, while the web page for the multiplex just down the alley from it went ominously dark over the weekend – it's still there, thankfully, it's just stuffed with summer movies and cartoons, the equivalent of junk food.

So it felt good to be going off the beaten track and seeing a film like Inland, written and directed by Fridtjof Ryder (no, I don't know how to pronounce it either). A classic example of obscure summer counter-programming, this is Ryder's debut, which presumably owes the limited release it's received to the presence of Mark Rylance in the cast (anyone looking at the publicity for this film would be forgiven for assuming it's actually called Academy Award Winner Mark Rylance, so prominently is this information featured).

All righty then. We have reached the point at which I try to summarise the premise and initial events of Inland. Here goes. A young boy stands in a forest, apparently crying out to a small statue of a woman. Many years later, the same boy, now grown (and played by Rory Alexander), is released from some kind of psychiatric institution. His mother mysteriously vanished in the Forest of Dean a while back. While driving through woodland his car hits an owl and apparently kills it. The main character visits an older man, a sort of mentor who also (I think) had a relationship with his mother. This is Dunleavy (played by Rylance). They play backgammon and watch Night Tide together. As the protagonist is at a loose end, Dunleavy gives him a job working in the garage.

Some of the other garage mechanics take the protagonist off to what seems to be a strip club or other house of ill repute, but in the place where you would expect to find actual women, there are some more statues instead. This does not stop our boy from beginning an apparently obsessional relationship with someone in the club (a real woman, not one of the statues). Brooding shots of Gloucester at dusk regularly appear, as does the dead owl. The ominous backdrop of the Forest of Dean likewise makes frequent appearances.

As you can perhaps tell, I am limited in my ability to describe the plot of Inland in any meaningful way, mainly because I never honestly had a clue as to what was actually going on. The exposition is oblique to the point of actually being incomprehensible – his mum has disappeared, the forest's a bit spooky, Rylance has a lot of gnomic wisdom to unload, and the dead owl is clearly significant, but beyond that, you may as well make up your own interpretation. I suspect it's all meant to be some sort of exercise in psychological post-folk-horror, but I could very easily be completely wrong.

'Sounds like Awix hasn't been paying attention again,' you may well be muttering to yourself, which is not unreasonable. However, while I was queueing for the restroom in my cinema after the film I heard most of the other members of the audience sticking the boot to Inland quite grievously, as none of them had been able to make sense of it either. Once I got into the restroom I was accosted by a complete stranger who whispered 'That was a strange film, wasn't it?' – and when people who start conversations with complete strangers in cinema toilets think a film is strange, it almost certainly must be. Even the person who flogged me my ticket (no owner's discount, dagnabbit) confessed to complete incomprehension. So it's not just me. Inland makes Enys Men (which came up as a point of folk-horror reference in our conversation) feel about as straightforward as Halloween in comparison.

Even legitimate critics, who have been generally very positive about Inland, have shied away from actually praising the script or plot – words like 'enigmatic' and 'Lynchian' get bandied about a lot. Normally I would start muttering and grumbling about the Emperor's New Clothes at this point, but on the other hand – there is something very watchable and assured about Inland; it does generate an effectively creepy atmosphere and Rylance is as good as usual. So those who are hailing Ryder as one to watch for the future may have a point; but watching him right now is likely to prove an ambiguous, if not actually frustrating experience. This feels like a film which was aiming for 'mysterious' and ended up hitting 'baffling' instead – but there are some impressive elements to it nevertheless.

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