[18 December 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
David Lynch would like you to know that Hollywood will drive you to the brink of insanity and that it certainly cannot be trusted. In fact, it could even kill you. Not exactly a subtle way of saying “up yours” to the very industry that professes to love him while still restraining him, but it’s a clever platform from which to launch his latest, most infuriatingly challenging film, Inland Empire.
Mr. Lynch would also like to share with you his penchant for eerily billowing red velvet curtains. And maybe he harbors a pervy little “thing” for lesbian kisses. The point is David Lynch is weird. At least that seems to be the popular opinion. Generally, there is a point to his eccentricity that is simultaneously elusive and obvious: take for example Lynch’s masterful juxtaposition of the benign comings and goings of denizens of a small town called Twin Peaks with the absolute evil of a supernatural force involved in the murder of a homecoming queen. He is able to mix normal with insane quite effortlessly; Lynch is able to wring suspense out of thin air it seems. Inland Empire is the most daring leap of faith Lynch has asked his cultish audience to take: the film is savagely disjointed, more so than any other offering in the maestro’s cannon. It is jam-packed with so many little tidbits of trademark Lynch-isms that after a certain point you will either just suspend your disbelief and go with the flow or you will hate it. A compelling argument could be made either way, honestly. It all depends on you, the viewer.
Beginning with a hooker and her john making a deal in an Eastern European hotel room, Inland Empire starts out vaguely disturbing almost immediately, and continues for a totally incomprehensible three hours of mind-boggling, awesome nonsense. It somehow weaves together Polish gypsies, a woman with a screwdriver protruding from her gut, and human-sized rabbits on some sort of terrifying sitcom. It’s easy to get lost in all of the bizarre-o details that sometimes don’t really add up to anything. For example, why is star Laura Dern in a hotel room watching a gaggle of whores doing a song and dance routine to “The Loco Motion”? The answer? Who cares? It’s perverse, stupid, and enthralling. You’re not going to see this at the multiplex next to the new Mel Gibson movie and you’re not going to see Reese Witherspoon puking up a torrential amount of blood in her next starring vehicle any time soon, I bet. Inland Empire doesn’t intend to reveal any promises or any explanations. It is a relentless, bleak, and uncompromising film that demands the rigorous participation of it’s viewer’s imagination.
While he might be “weird” according to most people, Lynch is the only American director who elevates the medium to this kind of art form: one that isn’t necessarily polished or beautiful (the film was shot entirely on digital video and each scene was written immediately before it was performed), and one that provokes extreme expressive reactions. He has created his own cinematic language and signature style that is unmistakable, and with Inland Empire Lynch raises the standards he helped to set. Comparisons to everything from Lynch’s own Lost Highway, to silent German cinema and classic ‘40s film noir are applicable here. True to form, Lynch returns to the struggle between good and evil forces, and their mysterious connections to his characters, only this time he manipulates the concepts of reality and identity in an aggressive, almost menacing way that he only began to touch on in 2001’s Mulholland Drive, a movie which serves as a nice companion piece to the proceedings.
While Mulholland Drive is the sort of mystery that, while inexplicable in it’s own right (and also a damning exploration of theme of Hollywood as a brutal mistress), it can be at least partially explained with plausible theories or tidy little answers, Inland Empire doesn’t really afford it’s viewer that luxury: some things just don’t connect, and you will just have deal with it.
Characters appear and disappear without much notice (and are played by such luminaries as Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irons, Mary Steenburgen, Justin Theroux, and William H. Macy). There are wild shifts in time and reality, which when you are flashing between ‘30’s Poland and the troubled emotional life of a character played by an actress in a film within a film, gets a little perplexing. There is an absurdly long sequence in which a rusty screwdriver is wielded by more than one character in a manic, murderous way. This lends an air of ominous unpredictability to the film that feels thrilling some times, exasperating others. Surely there is some sort of connection of these seemingly random events (in the mind of Lynch), but to enjoy this film, such mundane conventions must be abandoned.
What essentially glues Lynch’s jagged pieces together is Dern’s tremendous performance. In her third outing with Lynch over a period of twenty years (beginning in 1986 with Blue Velvet and their 1990 collaboration Wild at Heart), Dern’s Inland Empire work marks a turning point in her career as an actress: she is fearlessly committed to a performance that is like nothing else you will see this year. She begins the film as a sort of innocuous, prim actress named Nikki (who lives in a cold, luxurious home, and is trying to land a dream role), and ends up as someone else entirely: a character known as “Sue”, who at one point is covered in filth and blood, laying in the gutter of Hollywood Boulevard screaming “I’m a whore, I’m a freak”.
When Nikki gets the part and throws herself into her character, Dern splits her dual identity into so many different personalities that it is impossible to categorize them all: is she a hooker or an actress? Who is real, the actress or the character? Soon she unable to answer that question for herself (“Look at me. Tell me if you recognize me from somewhere”, she says at one point). Co-Producer Dern is capable of navigating all of these wild shifts and nuances with such skill and depth that is impossible to think of any other actress of her generation being capable of doing such an experimental, gutsy part. This is a performance that has some outrageous demands: grotesquerie, murderous rage, romanticism, and humor are among a tiny fraction of the multitude of tasks Dern seems to breeze through in a complicated, ferociously well-thought out performance.
Dern matches Lynch measure for measure in artistry, each of them working at top form. Their collaboration here will no doubt be dismissed by a disappointing amount of people as being typical Lynch weirdness, but if it is an atypical parade of horrifying surrealism that you’re after, Inland Empire is the film for you. His images may be positively harrowing (just take, for one example, the gorgeous black and white shot of a needle skipping on a record player), and his motives may be unclear, but if you blindly trust David Lynch to take you on an emotional artistic journey, you will not be let down. This is the only film this year to be so unapologetic in its artiness and so confident in its lack of vanity, and coming from a heavy-hitter like Lynch, it packs a powerful punch. It is unquestionably a most refreshing, nasty little change from all of the boring coherence and relentless sparkle of the holiday film season’s current offerings.