INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece. It is also an aggravating avant-garde amalgamation of incomplete ideas. It’s a brilliant distillation of David Lynch’s career defining dream logic. It’s also a three hour exercise in excess and a brilliant argument for the switchover to digital filmmaking. As with most works by the artist/auteur, this fragmented take on “a woman in trouble” (to quote the film’s tagline) raises many more questions than it ever dares to answer, and squeezes more imagination and invention into three hours than most movie STUDIOS manage in a lifetime. Lynch is a largely lamented figure in post-modern cinema, an individual noted as being purposefully obtuse and painfully non-commercial. In fact, his last few films – Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. , and now this – have been castigated as being indirect, indulgent, and purposefully arcane. In truth, such screeds are probably badges of honor for the 61 year old provocateur.
None of these contradictory conceits make INLAND EMPIRE any less fascinating. It’s a narrative built on feeling, a storyline set inside a wildly evolving world of sound and images. Lynch is one of the few filmmakers who actually takes the language of this artform on its literal face value. For him, no movie can be too loud. In his world, no visual violates the mandate of plot continuity. Began as a series of scene sketches – experiments with his newfound camcorder – Lynch lucked into Laura Dern while in France. Soon, the two were collaborating, traveling around the world, working out sequences and suggestions, sometimes on the fly. Once the material began to speak to its inventor, an idea was born. As he points out as part of a mesmerizing 20 minute interview on the two disc DVD release of this title (new from Rhino), you can never tell when such inspiration strikes – and you can never tell where it’s going to take you. In either case, he was compelled to hop on.
To describe the storyline here would be like trying to explain color, or telling how one hears the yearnings of the human heart. This is by far the most bizarre narrative Lynch has ever come up with, and this is the guy who turned Bill Pullman into Balthazar Getty as part of a psychogenic fugue. We begin with a prostitute facing an abusive John. Within minutes, she is sitting in a dingy room, crying. On TV, a surreal sitcom starring humanoid rabbits unfolds. Suddenly, we’re in Los Angeles, at the home of struggling actress Nikki Grace. Hoping to land a new role, she is visited by a strange Slavic woman who predicts she will get the part. She also hints that there will be “murder” in this new movie. After accepting the lead, Nikki meets her costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). Together, they are informed by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) that the shoot may be cursed. Apparently, a previous production tried to helm this seedy storyline about an adulterous couple. Right before the final scenes were filmed, the performers were killed.
Things go along swimmingly at first. The history is forgotten as Nikki and Devon dive into their work. With his history of womanizing, our leading man is warned about staying away from his costar. Her husband will kill you, and then her, they state. Soon, fate steps in and it appears the pair is involved. During some late night pillow talk, however, Nikki begins to crack up. She starts seeing visions – of the film set, of her husband, of another quite different life. Running away from the pain, she is propelled into a parallel plotline. Now in Poland, Nikki is a nameless hooker hoping to hire someone to off her abusive spouse. As she spills the story to a sleazy hood, we see the entire enterprise unfold. As part of a group of girls (for sale? as strippers? as pay for love whores?), she is jaded by the lack of respect she’s given. Even worse, there’s a man called the Phantom who may or may not be hurting these wanton women. Eventually, our pained prostitute is betrayed, and revenge seems the only way to settle the score – or is it all just part of Nikki’s new movie.
Since narrative is not the most important aspect of INLAND EMPIRE, deciphering what everything means seems pointless. For those requiring a more intellectualized approach, there are two ways to interpret what happens here. Either the callgirl we see at the start of the movie is fantasizing about a life outside her flesh peddling profession (including a career as an actress which morphs into a vigilante-like pimp killer) or Laura Dern’s actress loses herself so completely in her part that the material she is using as internalized motivation (brutalized trollop, unhappy mistress) starts manifesting itself in her waking life. Anyway you look at it, we are standing firmly in standard Lynch land. Long a filmmaker who favored the feminine point of view in his films, we get a terrific tour de force performance from Dern, who’s obviously in sync with what her director is doing. Taking a production credit and appearing in almost every scene, we witness the kind of layered, dense characterization that makes this heralded actress one of the best still working in the business.
In fact, the rest of the cast is almost ancillary. Theroux, who excelled in Mulholland Dr. , is so distant he’s almost indistinct here. He’s playing aloof and lost, and said psychological suggestions come across loud and clear. Jeremy Irons, as Kingsley, is lovely in what can best be described as ‘on a lark’ mode. His interactions with sidekick Harry Dean Stanton are fantastic. Other Lynch notables include Grace Zabriskie as the sinister soothsayer, and Diane Ladd as a dirt dishing tabloid TV reporter (her single scene is marvelous). More intriguing are blink and you’ll miss them moments with William H. Macy, Julia Ormond, and an amazing turn by Mary Steenburgen. As a cast completely capable of infusing their scenes with the many moods Lynch requires, the players involved are absolutely flawless – and that includes the many participants from Poland. Having to translate his dialogue into their native tongue before they could contribute, they are seamlessly incorporated into the Tinsel Town talent pool – sometimes, even stealing scenes from them.
This results in a kind of motion picture mesmerism. Even without completely understanding everything that’s going on, INLAND EMPIRE sucks you in and holds every fiber of your being. Lynch is such a complete filmmaker – focusing on every aspect of production, from design and lightning to editing and scoring – that he provides maximum enjoyment out of a minimum of cinematic standards. We get caught up in the mystery, though we readily recognize that there will be more confusion than clues. When individuals speak in the standard Lynchian riddles, we sit back and soak in every non-sequitor. There are moments of mean spirited menace here, as well as segments of sly social commentary and justifiable gender politics. A sequence where the white slaves dance to Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” is as startling for how it arrives as for how abruptly it ends. Similarly, the big picture storyline suggests that all women are heroes, villains, whores, saints, lovers, adulterers, mothers and mistresses. While that may seem like a critical overreach, an in-depth dissection of INLAND EMPIRE’s many sequences surely backs up this appraisal.
Those hoping for insight via this new DVD will be rightly disappointed. Lynch is notoriously gun shy about clarifying his films, wanted them to be experienced, not explained. There is a wealth of deleted scenes – or as they are referred to here, “More Things That Happened”, and the aforementioned Q&A (entitled “Stories”) revolve around the production and his perspective on art. Heck, about the only solid thing we learn is that Lynch HATES most home video (watching any film on a phone or a computer is “sickening”, in his mind) and that he really enjoys a good batch of Quinoa. Other added features include a nine minute ballerina montage, a collection of trailers, a wealth of publicity and behind the scenes stills, and something referred to as “Lynch 2”. This humorous piece appears to be a backstage glimpse of the man in action, and let’s just say, he’s an ornery cuss at times.
Frankly, he has a right to be. All David Lynch really wants to do is make movies his way. He doesn’t want interference from bottom line loving studio suits, and doesn’t need to conform to the succinct scheduling a Tinsel Town supported effort would require. For him, the digital domain is the futuristic wave he’s been waiting to ride – and it has to be said, this is one amazing non-celluloid effort. Michael Mann may be the perceived reigning prince of this new motherboard medium, but INLAND EMPIRE puts the cinematography in Collateral/Miami Vice to shame. And since he can work at his own speed, spending less money while getting more “movie” in the process, this may mark a kind of renaissance for the mostly marginalized director. Indeed, it’s easy to forget how fascinating his oeuvre remains, even though he seems to take forever in between projects. Part of the problem is clearly financial. No one likes to throw dollars after indefinable art. They want sellable product, that’s all. David Lynch will always weigh the creative higher than the commercial. INLAND EMPIRE is a pristine example of these principles in action.