Inland Empire

| February 22, 2007

Inland Empire, David Lynch’s latest plunge down the rabbit hole, brings to mind that moment in Being John Malkovich where the titular character crawls through the wall and into his own brain. It’s Lynch diving headfirst into his own brain–Lynch on Lynch, the purest distillation yet of the artist’s warped psyche. It’s like a fever dream that one might have after attending an all-night marathon of his oeuvre: self-referential, built from scraps and fragments of his previous work, twisted and distorted to make something new. It’s the type of David Lynch film that characters in a David Lynch film would watch. It’s a nightmare, a bad trip, an explosion of id on camera.
Am I being too abstract? Perhaps, though tackling this unruly beast of a movie with anything approaching cold, hard logic would be a losing proposition. Allow me to be clear, at least for a moment: a three-hour, avant-garde freak-out, Inland Empire is the most complicated, challenging, and unfathomably experimental film David Lynch has ever made. Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway were mere dry runs to this one; they look like models of classic Hollywood storytelling by comparison. Both a summation and a culmination of the filmmaker’s various artistic obsessions–waking dreams, questions of identity, the destructive nature of Hollywood–Inland Empire feels intrinsically linked to its creator’s canon, yet never tied down to it. Be you an old fan or a new one, a diehard aficionado or a Lynch virgin, it makes little difference: even those intimately attuned to the director’s way-out-there wavelength are likely to be confounded and disturbed by this, his ultimate Meta mind-fuck.
So what’s it about? Many things, really–though Lynch himself would probably have trouble explaining the twists and turns that constitute the film’s scattershot, impenetrable narrative. Roughly 20 minutes of Inland Empire‘s mammoth running time might be described as lucid: these early scenes form the scant semblance of a plot, the rational center of an otherwise delirious fantasia, the eye of the postmodern shit-storm. Our anchor to reality–the Alice of this terrifying Wonderland–is Nikki Grace, a struggling actress fiercely portrayed by frequent Lynch collaborator Laura Dern. Nikki has been cast opposite the brash Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) in a Southern weepy called On High in Blue Tomorrows, a Douglas-Sirk-by-way-of-Tennessee-Williams melodrama. This film-within-a-film is actually a remake of a bleak Polish movie that halted production when its leads were brutally and mysteriously murdered. Before long, life is imitating art, art is imitating life, and Nikki can’t keep the two straight: she falls into an ill-fated affair with her co-star and begins to believe that she is the character she plays… which, of course, is a distinct possibility in a David Lynch film.
Thirty minutes in, and Inland Empire has wasted no time blurring the line between fact and fiction, dreams and waking life. Yet Lynch is just getting warmed up: having established a scarcely tangible reality, he goes to work smashing it to pieces. The floor falls out from under Nikki, and she begins to wander through a fractured-funhouse version of her life, one in which her identity is as malleable as her surroundings. Lynch channel-surfs his heroine, tossing her recklessly from one “program” to another, while a distraught, wide-eyed spectator–a double for Nikki, or perhaps for us–watches the events unfold on a fuzzy TV set. And suddenly, we’re watching not one film, but several: a shadowy noir with Nikki as a battered, tough-talking housewife. A trailer-park farce. A scary/funny, absurdist sitcom starring oversized rabbits. Even the aforementioned bleak Polish movie, as well its “real life” mirror, the murder-mystery of its stars. Lynch just keeps ripping back layers, revealing bizarre new ones underneath, and only Nikki–in one form or another: she’s got a few doppelgangers–remains a constant throughout.
Inland Empire is a messy, unstructured barrage of sights and sounds, a total submersion in the dark waters of Lynch’s perverse imagination. If the film is Nikki’s ordeal, her splintered journey through the looking glass, then it’s also our own: for over two hours, the filmmaker strands the audience in the actress’s private nightmare, denying us the privilege of distance or the advantage of an outside perspective. It’s a jagged, disorienting, and wholly uneven experience–inspired flights of lunacy are often followed by stretches of numbing obliquity. Lynch shot the film over a period of several years on dirt-cheap digital video. Though this decision was certainly an aesthetic one–the rough-hewn, grainy textures and inky black hues suit the material well–it was also a practical choice: what studio, exactly, was going to bankroll this gonzo explosion of self-expression, this demented experiment in form and function? Lynch funded the project himself, and the result is the most uncompromised and self-indulgent work he’s ever produced, a labor-of-love that sometimes borders on utter pretentiousness.
Fortunately, there is a method to Lynch’s madness. Inland Empire is bursting with metaphorical and metaphysical subtext. It’s so stuffed with ideas and motifs–with meaning, both fundamental and tangential–that it would be virtually impossible to dissect the film after only one viewing. Is it an elaborate homage to Lynch’s own filmography, a critical act of self-reflection? Given the multiple references to the auteur’s past work–everything from Eraserhead to his short-form vignettes–that would be a reasonable (if slightly obvious) interpretation. It’s far more compelling to read the picture as a scathing indictment of Hollywood, a cherry bomb lobbed at the proverbial Dream Factory: Nikki, like Naomi Watts’ Betty/Diane in Mulholland Drive, is a casualty of Tinseltown, a defenseless ingénue whose very identity is consumed by a pillaging culture of excess. Guided by a Greek chorus of singing, dancing sexpots, she embarks on a voyage of self-discovery–or is it just a futile battle for autonomy? Nikki keeps swapping personas, slipping with ease into each new “part:” the luminous southern belle! The femme fatale! The whore! All the while, the young, mute spectator watches, entranced and influenced by these various depictions of womanhood, these bastardized representations of femininity. Could Inland Empire be Lynch’s feminist manifesto, his treatise on the role of women in Hollywood?
Maybe, maybe not. The director’s vision is abstract and ambiguous enough to inspire countless interpretive perspectives; you could spend days lost in the corridors and back alleys of Lynch’s spiky ideological terrain. Thankfully, you don’t have to get Inland Empire to actually, you know, get it: turn off the left side of your brain, and the right side will still have a field day. A pastiche of surrealistic and expressionistic imagery, it’s a dark carnival ride, sometimes frustrating but never boring.
And at the core of the thing is Lynch’s first lady, his radiant muse, the fearless Ms. Dern. She goes way out on a limb for the filmmaker, following him to the edge of reason and back, facing down all the horrors and iniquities that he tosses her way. Lynch has her beaten and gouged, spitting up blood on the Walk Of Fame, and he twists her visage into strange, unpleasant new dimensions–I won’t soon forget the blood-curdling spectacle that is Clown Laura Dern. Yet the actress invests this odyssey of suffering with raw feeling, lending real emotional weight to the decidedly unreal proceedings. When a grateful Lynch offers her salvation–blinding white light at the end of the tunnel, followed by a jubilant dance of dénouement–the results are devastatingly beautiful. It’s the symbiotic tension between director and star that validates all of Lynch’s indulgences in this difficult, dazzling work, his strongest since Blue Velvet. Now where the hell can he go from here?

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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