Then again, what the hell. Lynch didn’t hedge his bets, so neither should I. Inland Empire is a work of genius. Some of it is interesting, some of it is positively befuddling, but it is all riveting, all 172 minutes of it, like a fascinating nightmare where people say things that don’t connect and traditional logic goes out the window, but a sense of doom and gloom pervades.
Lynch’s narrative (if you can call it that) breaks every imaginable rule, makes some up, and then breaks them. It is a brutally head-scratching puzzle picture, but not entirely impenetrable—it begins (almost mockingly) as a fairly straight-forward plot (at least for Lynch), before splintering into a vaguely hallucinatory, strangely erotic fever dream. Lynch throws us a rope once in a while—a key phrase from an earlier scene might be repeated, a number reappears, a blistering image returns. There’s just enough logic to keep you tuned in, but not enough to make any real sense. I, for one, kept thinking I had it figured out, but then my thoughts returned to the sitcom populated by huge rabbits in suits and dresses, spouting strange non-sequitors between bursts of mistimed canned laughter and applause. Or maybe the rabbits are juts David Lynch being weird. Or maybe the whole movie is.
If there’s one thing Lynch can do, it is to create fear and dread and creepiness out of not much of anything, and sustain that note for as long as he cares to. There’s a strange scene early in the film (who am I kidding, they’re all strange) where a repulsive older woman marches into the living room of actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and announces in an unidentifiable Eastern European accent that she will “geet de part” she is hoping for, but that there is a murder in the film. Nikki, confused, tells her that there is no murder in the film, but finds later that previous attempts to film the script (given the wonderfully bad title On High In Blue Tomorrows) were abandoned when the leads were murdered.
Out of this simple (almost formulaic) set-up, Lynch spins a stunning mediation on the razor-thin line between actor, character, and madness. There are scenes of Nikki’s fantasies, scenes of her nightmares, scenes where she has become the film’s character, scenes of that character’s fantasies and nightmares, scenes where the character and actor appear to be in the same place at the same time, and scenes where she has apparently become another character altogether, in a completely different film (one of the lines, appropriately, in this series of scenes is “I don’t know what happened first—and it’s kinda laid a mindfuck on me.”). There’s also a scene where her sexy girlfriends lip-sync “The Locomotion”, a long discussion between two homeless women about a friend with a pet monkey, and an apparent (you never know with Lynch) framing device where a spooky young woman watches strange things (including scenes from this film) on a television as big round tears roll down her cheeks. Here’s the part where you can probably figure out whether Inland Empire is for you.
This is Lynch’s first dabble into digital video, and much of the photography ain’t pretty—but it’s plenty unnerving. He utilizes a jittery, blown-out aesthetic, with a borderline fetish for drab details (like ugly lamps and dirty staircases) and a love for creepy close-ups. Dern, in a performance of astonishing range and bravery, gets plenty of camera time, and not all of it is flattering. But she and Lynch engage in what feels like truly collaborative filmmaking, and she may take as many risks as he does—which is really saying something, as Lynch appears to have taken the freedom of working with the digital camera to its furthest brink, shooting loads of footage, working on the fly (he wrote the script as they went), and giving us what may very well be the closest thing we’ll ever get to an unfiltered look into a very twisted soul.
If you’re willing to give yourself over to Inland Empire, to surrender your demands for conventional narrative cause and effect, three act structure, closure, etc, Inland Empire is richly rewarding—indeed, a cinematic work of art. It is a daring, audacious, unforgettable picture, overflowing with moments where its inventiveness and ingenuity are downright exhilarating. And I can’t explain why the end credits are so perfect—they just are, and the same goes for the movie that precedes them.
-Originally written 11/06
"Inland Empire" is available on DVD and via Netflix Instant Viewing.