David Lynch has always been a challenging director, with films such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive rounding out his filmography. An abstract artist, his films register on many levels, namely the subconscious. He places images in front of our faces that we find repulsive, and yet because of his prowess as a visionary film director, we simply cannot look away. Mood and atmosphere take center stage in Inland Empire, Lynch’s three-hour tour de force.
Inland Empire centers on an actress named Nikki Grace – played with disturbing fervor by the wonderful Laura Dern – who is eager to make a comeback in Hollywood. As the film opens, Nikki’s neighbor – an incredibly eerie Grace Zabriskie – pays a small visit, during which she delivers a cryptic warning, regarding a role in a film that Nikki has recently auditioned for, entitled “On High in Blue Tomorrows”. Agitated by the old lady, Nikki sends her away. A few minutes later, Nikki receives a phone call informing her that she has the part. She is ecstatic, and goes to the studio a week later to meet the director, as well as her fellow co-star, the womanizing Devon.
On the first day of filming, the director, Kingsley, takes Nikki and Devon aside, and tells them that the film in which they are starring is a remake. As if that were not peculiar enough, he goes on to tell them that the film is based on an old gypsy folk tale, which is cursed. The previous attempt to film this story resulted in the ￼murder of the two leads. Upon hearing this, Nikki and Devon are unnerved, but decide to carry on with the film regardless. Once the shoot begins, things take a drastic turn, as far narrative is concerned. Nikki’s world begins to blend with that of the character which she is playing, and soon, the line between reality and illusion becomes distorted. Nikki is thrown into an unspeakable nightmare, complete with man-size, talking rabbits, singing and dancing prostitutes, strange apparitions, and deadly femme fatales.
At this point, it is recommended that you go along with the ride. You can analyze and interpret to your hearts content, but there is no denying that you belong to Lynch for the remaining two hours.
Lynch creates a world here that can be dangerously addictive, in the event that you completely surrender to it. As we are led through pitch black hallways and (quite literally) into the rabbit hole, we immediately become disoriented. Gone are the many “clues” from the likes of Mulholland Drive. Each individual will have to solve the puzzle in his or her own way – if that’s even possible. Then again, as with all things Lynchian, “solving” the film isn’t really the point. Even with a basic understanding of the film, it is nearly impossible to digest on a single viewing. This is why many of us keep returning and digging through the many layers. Given the stream-of-consciousness way in which the film was written, it is probably safe to assume that the maestro is as baffled by Inland Empire as much as his audience.
“I’ll show you light now. It burns bright forever. No more blue tomorrows. You on high now, love.”
There are several moments in Inland Empire which get at the heart of the mystery within. A polish prostitute, held captive in an alternate dimension, watches a sitcom with the aforementioned rabbits. The rabbits speak in riddles, which are followed by a laugh track as we hear the distant whistle of a train. Later in the film, the same prostitute invites Nikki to see into the past by putting on a gold watch and peering through a hole in a silk garment. The scene in which Nikki’s face twists into one of the most frightening grimaces in all of cinematic history is particularly memorable. More than anything, these moments reassure us that anything can happen in this strange world.
Out of all the performances in this film, Laura Dern is absolutely amazing, physically and emotionally. She does not hold back, and the result is as raw as it is upsetting. Justin Theroux and Jeremy Irons are both extraordinary in their supporting roles, and Harry Dean Stanton, Mary Steenburgen, Julia Ormond, Naomi Watts, and Diane Ladd all have small cameo roles.
David Lynch shot Inland Empire on an HD digital camera and the results are a bit grainy. However, this is not a problem, and actually adds to the overall mood of the film. All of the usual trademarks associated with David Lynch’s films are to be found here, from the ominous lighting, the pervasive use of dream logic, absurd humor, and a meticulously crafted sound design.
Inland Empire is a rewarding experience. Those who claim that the film is a pretentious bit of self indulgence are missing the point entirely. I’ve seen the film ten times, and I’m still not over it. Lovers of the avant-garde should seek it out immediately, and prepare to watch it again, and again, and again.