by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. David Lynch, U.S.
Well, it’s official: Inland Empire exists. I still can’t believe my eyes, but those were indeed images from the new David Lynch film flickering across the screen in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, living proof of its existence beyond the three facts I knew about it going in:
a) Inland Empire was shot on digital video.
b) It is, as Lynch described it, about “a woman in trouble.”
c) It stars previous Lynch alums like Laura Dern and Justin Theroux.
And, something I learned from a lucky first witness to Inland Empire only a few days before confirming the film’s existence for myself:
d) It’s Lynch’s strangest and most difficult film—that’s not saying a little—since Eraserhead. And it’s the film of the year.
“d)” not really being a fact, I actually have to amend the above claim: Inland Empire is Lynch’s strangest and most difficult film, period. But it’s not the film of the year.
Does that make Inland Empire a disappointment, following as it does Lynch’s masterpiece, still the gold standard of 21st-century filmmaking, Mulholland Drive? The truth is, this singular three-hour achievement just can’t be evaluated in such terms, mostly because it’s not a Lynch film in the mold of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, or Mulholland Drive. Instead, it’s an experiment—and I don’t mean of the Lars von Trier variety, where the end result is strongly predetermined—having more to do with improvisation, texture, and a complete overthrow of cinematic law. Thus, while Lynch’s recurrent motifs and themes are recognizable in Inland Empire, they’re fragmented, dispersed, and frenetically jumbled in such ways that allow them to take on new shapes and meanings, quite different than just about anything we’ve seen from Lynch, or anyone, before. Let’s put it this way: all those exclamations about the narrative and temporal puzzles of Mulholland Drive now seem just a little laughable in the face of Inland Empire’s complete decimation of convention. Whereas the former made its audience work to understand the logic of flashbacks and/or dream sequences, the structure of the latter is practically Deleuzian in its feverish, subconscious connectors and short circuits, and will no doubt separate those who find Lynch’s work oh-so-delightfully “eccentric” or “weird” from those who are willing to walk with him down that lost highway of endless possibility. So, even if imperfect and often frustratingly aloof, Inland Empire finds Lynch to still be America’s greatest living filmmaker, and one of the very few continually able to genuinely astound, challenge, and shock.
One surprise: Inland Empire doesn’t even pretend to differ much, plotwise, from Mulholland Drive. This time the blonde actress is a Hollywood veteran, Nikki Grace (Dern). Following an extensive prologue involving a rabbit family dressed up as humans in a dark, abstruse sitcom, a conversation between shadowy Polish men in a posh mansion, a crying woman watching it all on television, and a classic Lynch bizarro visit from neighbor Grace Zabriskie (recalling Mulholland Drive’s psychic crone in spouting cryptic, ominous predictions), Nikki wins a role in a new film. Her cocky costar Devon (Theroux) has designs on her, but is warned, both by friends and Nikki’s powerful, threatening husband, not to go there. Inevitably, the film in which they star, a corny melodrama entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows, seduces them toward an affair. Nikki and Devon learn from their director (Jeremy Irons) that Blue Tomorrows is a remake of a Polish film that was never completed, the script “cursed” after the murder of both leads. The mystery and magic of this discovery causes the same sort of identity split that fractured Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive: after Nikki sleeps with Devon, she becomes Sue from the film, or at least someone else. Devon becomes his role, Billy, Nikki’s husband seems to become an abusive husband married to another Dern personage, a redneck housewife looking for revenge.
After that, it’s anybody’s guess as to what’s going on. Poland figures not only in the cursed script but also in a subplot that has the redneck husband joining a team of tough, Eastern European acrobats, and a series of scenes strewn throughout that might have something to do with the thespian murders. A gaggle of Hollywood whores transfer over from various worlds, at one point dancing to “The Locomotion.” Devon’s wife, or Billy’s, ends up with a screwdriver in her abdomen. Horrifying howls blast into the picture without warning. Characters literally disappear mid-scene. Sequences, characters, settings, lines of dialogue, musical cues, pretty much everything slides into everything else, transmogrifying, shattering, integrating, disintegrating. The obvious interpretation of all of this would keep with Mulholland Drive’s thesis that the devious fictions produced by Hollywood—a place where, as a statement early on in Empire makes explicit, “stars become dreams and dreams become stars”—echo or else result from the self-protective fantasies of its citizenry, only to become nightmares of suspect and amorphous identity. Lynch begs for such an interpretation by filling Empire with a plethora self-reflexive tricks: movies-within-movies, realities-within-movies, movies-within-realities.
Three moments stand out: making good on an earlier premonition, Nikki follows a series of letters (“AXXNN”) and a line drawn over a doorway, stepping inside to watch herself from a distance on the unfinished soundstage of Blue Tomorrows, where she and Devon practice a scene; Nikki/Sue’s death on the intersection of Hollywood and Vine (while two homeless women discuss rather mundane topics over her body) is revealed, as a camera enters into the frame, to be nothing but a performance; Nikki/Sue walks into an empty, dark theater where an earlier scene of herself speaking to a mysterious figure (perhaps a hitman), when she stated that she feels as if her life where unfolding in a dark theater, plays out onscreen.
Lynch is impressive in pushing the envelope of illusion-breaking illusion, but a glaring absence can be felt, something wholly opposite of his typical mastery. The problem is that Inland Empire’s overwhelming, almost unheard of experimentation—again, real experimentation—for a larger-budgeted film leaves little room for the uncanny, preternatural blend of human fragility and horror house deconstruction of structural and generic grammar that made Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive the landmarks they are. Imagine the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive minus the shiver-inducing empathy generated when Betty and Rita confront their own illusory nature and doomed love—that’s more or less how Inland Empire plays out over 172 minutes. Granted, Lynch hasn’t lost his ability to instill dread with just one of his signature single-source lit interiors (there are at least three different such set-ups in Inland Empire that bring to mind Dorothy Vallens’s Blue Velvet apartment), but there’s an aloofness to Inland Empire, or else a stubborn refusal to allow the audience’s absorption for more than a few seconds, that frequently forces viewers out of the equation. Add to this the significant portions of Inland Empire, the obscure, unresolved moments, that pile up like so much detritus, and the lasting impression is of metafun and a ton of “clues,” both of which invite multiple screenings, but not a whole lot of visceral or emotional involvement.
This is an entirely new direction for Lynch, and he has stated that he will shoot only in digital video for the foreseeable future, leaving one to imagine the rest of his career spent exploring worlds like Inland Empire rather than looking in the rearview mirror. Because there would be no Inland Empire without digital video. The improvisational feel of the scenes and the one-by-one process of dreaming up and then assembling them were born out of the ease and cost-effectiveness of DV production; the film’s—so awkward to call it that—blurred, stretched, colliding, and superimposed layers and textures could only have been created from the format. If Mulholland Drive consolidated Lynch’s obsessions into his most coherent artistic statement, Inland Empire grounds such consolidation and coherence into fine dust, coarse glitter illuminating the lost highway leading to an audacious new era of image-making. In this case, then, I can willingly sacrifice the lingering “perfection” of that 2001 odyssey for something clearly ahead of its time, imperfectly disturbing our notions of such linear convenience. Lynch has never done anything to make me doubt that he knows what he’s doing.