2006Director: David Lynch
Cast: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux
hen the lights came up after a sold-out Washington DC screening of Inland Empire, the crowd sat a moment in silence, perhaps wondering if there was more to come, or maybe waiting for the grand explanation that would untie this tangled knot of a film. And then the scruffy-haired hipster sitting in front of me broke the silence and said out loud, “What the fuck just happened?”
Inland Empire finds David Lynch—one of today’s great directors—delving deeper into his own subconscious than ever before. Always willing to risk confusion for his daring, dreamlike vision, Lynch’s inscrutability is nothing new. The release of his last picture, the superb Mulholland Dr., seemed to signal a zenith of enigmatic weirdness. But compared with Inland Empire—its companion piece in more ways than one—Mulholland Dr. is as simple as Sesame Street.
Lynch claims to have shot Inland Empire without a script, and while watching this unwieldy three-hour epic, it’s easy to believe him. Its subject seems to be the elusiveness of identity, the transformative power of performance, and Hollywood as a birthplace of dreams and nightmares, but the movie explores these themes with a collection of scenes and images that often seem to bear little relation to one another. Plot threads weave in and out: the filming of a melodrama titled “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” a living room full of talking rabbits waiting for who-knows-what, an unshaven guy in a rusty room atop a stairwell, a “Lost Girl” weeping in a hotel room, a gaggle of leering prostitutes, and a gang of traveling circus performers.
The film stars Lynch’s frequent collaborator Laura Dern, and features a surprising series of star cameos including Jeremy Irons, Harry Dean Stanton, Julia Ormond, and William H. Macy. Dern is in nearly every scene, initially as an aging actress with a dream role that will “bring her back to the top,” but later she plays a southern belle in a soupy melodrama, a working class housewife in a grubby kitchen, and finally a battered streetwalker having a breakdown on Hollywood Boulevard. In most of these guises, Dern is threatened by her Polish husband (Peter Lucas), alternately rich and well dressed or working-class and scruffy, and intermittently connected to carnies, gangsters, or both
Believe it or not, long stretches of this fragmented movie make sense, even on first viewing—but never get too comfortable, because Lynch is always about to yank the rug from under your feet. Since Mulholland Dr. goes out of its way to establish a set of codes to help viewers unlock its complex (but solvable) mysteries, I went into Inland Empire ready to decipher, and when I couldn’t, I grew frustrated. The film is loaded with Lynchian peccadilloes—lampshades, telephones, 60s pop, velvet curtains, and Hitchcock blondes—but they emerge out of a seemingly formless void, and what they’re meant to signify is anyone’s guess. Dern’s constant transformations may be dreams within dreams within nightmares, but who, exactly, is the dreamer? Much of what happens onscreen seems to be part of a movie-within-the-movie (and possibly a third movie within those), but only Lynch knows which is which. Scratch that. I doubt even David Lynch knows.
Since Lynch has abandoned celluloid for digital video, his latest piece lacks the impeccable mise-en-scene that makes even his creepiest work feel magnetic. Where his earlier films are thick with painterly prime colors and precise angles, Inland Empire is a hodgepodge of distorted lenses, Dutch angles, and shaky handheld close-ups. Even if stretches of this bleak, beguiling work give off an odor of self-indulgence, Lynch never strays too far. After twice traversing Inland Empire’s shadowy corridors, my strongest impression is one of admiration. Its passages seem coarsely beautiful rather than ugly, its weirdness more inviting than alienating, and its bent, bizarre sense of humor hilarious. And like Lynch’s best work, its impenetrable surface conceals a beating human heart.
Inland Empire is a flawed film, difficult to enjoy and often unpleasant to watch. Although not an unqualified masterpiece like Mulholland Dr. or Blue Velvet, it is undoubtedly one of Lynch’s most accomplished, mature films, and I suspect it will only improve with age. In time, Inland Empire may be seen as a turning point in Lynch’s art, because after this, he could go anywhere. Until then, we can all look forward to sorting through this film’s jagged jigsaw pieces, trying to find where they fit together and to see what sublime, grotesque images they form. What the fuck, indeed.
Inland Empire is currently playing in limited release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-01-23