Directed by: David Lynch
Starring: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton, Peter J. Lucas
Calling a David Lynch film “Lynchian” seems like such a cop-out, but for anyone familiar with the filmmaker’s work, it is effective shorthand for his specific kind of cinema. In this sense, it’s fair to say that his latest, Inland Empire (the title refers to the interior of the mind), is the most Lynchian of all his films. It may also be the most maddening—or the most brilliant. Or possibly both. Shot on a consumer-level digital video camera (in other words, you can pick one up for less than $3,000 and attempt your own Inland Empire, though I’d advise against it), it’s an often rough-looking—but occasionally beautiful—film that constantly tests the limits of its medium just as it tests the boundaries of narrative filmmaking.
I’ve been mulling the film over since Friday night, and I still don’t know if I liked it. I do know that it’s an unsettling work, even by Lynch standards. I’m certain that it’s art, and not just weirdness for its own sake—something I cannot say about such Lynch efforts as Wild at Heart (1990) and The Lost Highway (1997). I’m equally certain that it’s not a good starting point for viewers unfamiliar with Lynch’s oeuvre.
At three hours, it’s also something of an endurance test. It feels like three hours. It feels longer than three hours, but in this case that’s a plus rather than a minus. There are few films that can justify a three-hour running time, and only one movie I can think of—Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973)—where part of the film’s weightiness actually depends on its length. Inland Empire is something else—a film that uses three hours because, to work at all, it needs the illusion of having always been going on. The end result is like a perpetual nightmare that keeps doubling back on itself. The film ignores traditional notions of time. But then Inland Empire ignores so many traditional notions—while at the same time trading on those notions.
Inland Empire is not a film for passive viewers. If you object to being made to think, if you view movies in terms of mindless escapism, avoid this film as you would the plague. You will not be happy with it. The film requires patience and a tacit agreement with the filmmaker that you’re going along for the ride. Trying to make sense of the experience as it unfolds isn’t exactly futile, but it’s probably not the most effective approach. Lynch has made a film that refuses to give up all its mysteries—some of which are perhaps not clear even to Lynch. In some ways, it’s more to be felt than to be analyzed. Even if one were to watch it countless times and pick up all its symbols, its cross references to other Lynch films and its pop-culture arcana, I don’t think anything like a real understanding of what it all “means” is possible. This isn’t to say—as some have claimed—that Lynch has made a film so impenetrable that it’s incapable of being read. No, it’s simply incapable of being read one way.
There actually is a plot—though one has to wade through footage of a scratchy gramophone record announcing (I think) the final installment of “the longest running Polish radio drama,” a depiction of what may be this radio drama, and footage from Lynch’s 2002 Internet series Rabbits. The latter is peculiar beyond words, since it’s a kind of parody sitcom (there’s a laugh track to suggest great mirth over banal and unfunny dialogue) with characters who all wear rabbit heads. (Personally, I was reminded of the intro to the Bonzo Dog Band’s “We Are Normal,” where someone keeps repeating, “He’s got a head on him like a rabbit,” though I’ve no idea if this is part of Lynch’s lexicon of pop culture.)
Think of it as a necessary baptism of recurring imagery to get to the story proper, which begins when a mysterious neighbor (Grace Zabriskie)—if she really is a neighbor—pays a social call on movie star Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), congratulating Nikki on having gotten a part in a movie. But Nikki hasn’t gotten the part yet. The elderly neighbor brushes this aside and proceeds to ask about the movie, which, despite Nikki’s protests, the neighbor insists involves “a brutal f***ing murder.” Offended by her language (something that becomes humorous in light of Nikki’s later dialogue), she asks the woman to leave, but instead the neighbor starts talking about being out of synch with time. At this point, the film makes an important jump—the key to part of its structure—to the next day when Nikki learns she really does have the lead role in Kingsley Stewart’s (Jeremy Irons) new film On High in Blue Tomorrow—a work that turns out to be a remake of a Polish film that was never finished because “they discovered something in the story” and the leading actors were murdered.
There’s really no point in delving into the film’s story any further than this, because it would be impossible to synopsize the rest of the film with its multiple storylines, shifts in tone, shifts in location, shifts in time and shifts in character. You either go with the flow, or you don’t. There’s a little of everything in the film, and yet it finally seems all of a piece—even a scene where a group of women break into a miniature Busby Berkeley number set to Little Eva’s “Loco-motion.” (The soundtrack—mixing pop music with unnerving slabs of compositions by Krzystof Penderecki—is richly detailed and brilliant.)
Laura Dern has a field day as the many faces of Nikki, including a death scene amidst homeless people on Hollywood Boulevard that is at once chilling (“Don’t worry. You’re just dying that’s all”) and funny as Dern’s character finds herself dying between two characters discussing buses to Pomona, hookers and pet monkeys. There’s clearly a Hollywood allegory at work here, and the overall feeling of the film is sinister to the point of pure evil—at least up to the very end, which does an about-face (I won’t reveal what happens, but keep in mind the neighbor from the beginning) to such a degree that the movie’s last word (which I also won’t reveal) seems just right. It also sums up how you’ll probably feel about Inland Empire, if you went along with its very strange vibe. Rated R for language, some violence and sexuality/nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke