It is difficult to find much background on Inland, other than it is director Fridtjof Ryder’s feature debut. As a resident of Gloucester, he shot it in 2020 in and around the city, at the age of twenty. He managed to secure the involvement of Academy Award-winning actor Mark Rylance, by putting a copy of the script through the letterbox of his home. How he managed to get a number of executive producers involved, including actor (and wife of Sting) Trudie Styler, and the reasonably well-known actor Shaun Dingwall is less clear.
What is clear is that the final product will entrance and alienate any audience it finds, probably in equal measure, as this is a work that is suggestive both of immense potential, and of the immaturity of a filmmaker who seems happy to be obscure, whilst reaching for metaphors that range from impenetrable to laughably obvious. As Ryder matures, we may find ourselves with a special filmmaker on our hands. With Inland, some will argue he is already there.
The film deals with a young, unnamed man (Rory Alexander) who is released from a mental health facility at the start of the story (as far as there is really a story here – much of what we are about to discuss is more… implied). Prior to this we see him in local woodlands at around ten years of age, clearly having lost his mother. As the film unfolds, we shall see that his mother never turned up, and the source of his health issues may be entirely this, or it may be some unknown crime that is hinted at through a conversation with a friend later in the film.
Then, he turns up at the house of Dunleavy (Mark Rylance), a car mechanic from the area,whose relationship to the man is not quite clear. It is – again – implied that he went to this house on the night of his mother’s disappearance, but we do not know if this was already his home. Rylance is given all too little to do here, but Dunleavy is some kind of father figure to the man. If we were to guess, we would say a stepfather as he seems to have known the mother for longer than her son has been alive and has known the man all his life.
From there we do not get a completely linear plot. The man goes to work as a mechanic, hangs out awkwardly with members of staff there, including Dingwall’s John, a married man who, nonetheless, takes the man to a brothel, known as The Faerie Queen. The man is of Romani descent, and the links of the community to the natural world are a theme here.
The man creaks like the branches of a tree when he moves. This is the less clear symbolism – is his family a literal part of the forest? Did his mother become one with it? Does it speak to his inflexibility and awkwardness in social situations? Or is it simply a soundscape affectation in which the director found interest?
The more clear – in fact, embarrassingly clear – symbolism is at this brothel. After perusing a group of sex workers that the man sees as a set of floating statues, he partners up with the middle aged lady who starts to speak with the same voice as his mother, who provides… well, we cannot call it narration for the film, as it is simply a series of non-sequitur thoughts and poems, speaking to the general pretentiousness of the work, but does speak often over the visuals throughout the film’s running time. So, there is a clear Freudian interpretation here, but in service of what, we do not know.
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So goes the rest of the film, a series of relatively unconnected vignettes and encounters with a lead that is closed off to the world, does not know his place within it and does not let the viewer inside his head. For all this the visuals have real flair, and the soundscape is both inventive and deeply unsettling.
This leaves a work that manages to outstay its welcome, even at a mere 82-minutes; provides evidence of a filmmaker who is trying to impress rather than involve; and who has produced a work that will become a real calling card, as it is simply impossible to ignore the level of talent on display here. Once he stops trying to be David Lynch and finds a voice that is his alone, he will be a star. For now, he has made a dreadful film, but masterfully. To invert the advice given on poor homework: ‘must try far less hard’.
Inland is out in cinemas on 16th June.