A young man (credited only as “the Man”) was recently released from a psychiatric hospital and he attempts to re-enter his small community on the outskirts of the Forest of Dean. We never learn exactly what landed him in the institution, but the implication is that it stems from his mother’s disappearance (her kidnap? Her abandonment?). A local mechanic and father figure to the Man, Dunleavy, gives him a job and takes him under his wing, but the Man is haunted by images of his mother, feeling her presence in the forest and seeing her reflected in the sex workers at the local brothel.
As the title suggests, Inland is strongly tied to the land. The film takes the form of a modern folk tale, bordering on folk horror, while the presence of the forest looms large in both the scenes and the characters’ minds. As the Man washes the dishes, for example, the leaves reflected in the window cover his face in a way that is evocative of Green Man imagery. As the forest draws him ever closer, his body begins to creak as though it itself were a tree, and a crone-like voice (his mother?) speaks in riddles about fairies and goblins. However, the folk elements do occasionally feel forced. At one point, the Man references the Green Knight seemingly just to remind the audience that this is meant to be a folk tale.
Director Fridtjof Ryder certainly succeeds in creating an ominous atmosphere. The score is relentlessly foreboding, while aerial shots of the characters show them as though viewed by a bird of prey. The performances are also uniformly strong, especially that of Mark Rylance, who is always a joy to watch. While the lead actor Rory Alexander does the best with what he’s given (his wide-eyed expressions gave the Man a certain fragility that I really enjoyed), it is nevertheless difficult to truly enter the character’s head. For a film so wholly about a character’s state of mind, the script tells us little, and the atmospheric horror, though well-done, is too one-note to be emotionally engaging.
Inland flits between hyper-realism and surreal symbolism, and on a technical level both of these modes are executed well, but the two never quite seem to form a cohesive whole. The simplicity of the story is highlighted by the lingering shots and every-day discussions of supermarket meal deals, so that when the owl and statue symbolism of the more “Lynchian” scenes are introduced, they raise fewer questions than the film seems to want them to. There is no mystery to this folk tale, nothing beneath the surface. Inland promises themes of identity, family, nature, liminality, and gender, but it never properly sinks its teeth into them.
Fans of folk horror might enjoy Inland for its eerie vibes and plentiful references to fairytale creatures, but its slow pace ultimately offers little to the average movie-goer, and its forays into surrealism may prove too surface-level for the arthouse aficionado.
Inland is in cinemas across the UK on Friday, June 16th. Plus, the film is part of BFI Presents programme at Vue: on Wednesday May 24th there will be special preview screenings across the country in 87 Vue cinemas. On BFI Player on Monday, September 4th.