INLAND EMPIRE first published by Film4, in 2006
Summary: Laura Dern gives several star turns in David Lynch’s latest brain-bending exploration of identity and the Hollywood dream machine..
Review: Before he began the five-year shoot for his feature debut Eraserhead (1977), David Lynch famously invited his small cast and crew to a screening of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BLVD. (1950) to show the kind of mood – toxic nostalgia – that he was after. Now, some three decades later, America’s most celebrated surrealist filmmaker would appear to have come full circle. Not only is INLAND EMPIRE (Lynch insists on the title’s full capitalisation, as in Wilder’s film) unquestionably the director’s most personal and most experimental film since Eraserhead, with a similarly protracted period of production, but it is also, after the dry run of Mulholland Drive (2001), the closest that Lynch has ever come to channeling Wilder’s twilit take on Tinseltown. For INLAND EMPIRE is a twisted tale of falling stars, crimes of passion, netherworld storytellers, and Polish émigrés “looking to go in” (not unlike Wilder himself) – and it is all set in the soul-destroying marketplace of Hollywood “where stars make dreams and dreams make stars.”
A voice announces “Axxon N, the longest running radio play in history”; a Polish-speaking prostitute, her face obscured, tells her client that she does not have the key; a ‘lost girl’ (Karolina Gruszka) weeps in a hotel room as she watches a flickering television screen; three humanoid bunnies exchange enigmatic comments (amidst canned laughter) in what appears to be the set of a 1950s sit-com; two blurry males discuss in Polish their mutual understanding about the possibility of finding “an opening”.
This dream-like sequence of prologues quickly disillusions anyone expecting a straight story from INLAND EMPIRE, while at the same time inducing in the viewer something akin to a hypnotic state that will remain for the next three hours – and beyond. Only with the introduction of protagonist Nikki Grace (the extraordinary Laura Dern, a Lynch regular) does anything even resembling a conventional narrative start to take shape – and yet this too will soon fragment into a maddeningly convoluted mystery that defies easy summary.
Nikki is, or appears to be, a one-time Hollywood starlet, now pinning her hopes for a comeback on an adultery drama entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows, in which she is to star alongside the much younger Devon Berk (Justin Theroux, another Lynch regular) – despite warnings about the violent jealousy of her Polish husband Piotrek (Peter J. Lucas), and rumours that the screenplay is cursed. Nikki and Devon are soon having an affair and confusing themselves with their characters Susan Blue and Billy Side – and the presence of Jeremy Irons as the film’s director Kingsley Stewart would seem to confirm that we are headed into postmodern territory previously made familiar by Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), which had also starred Irons. This, however, is where both Nikki and the viewer begin to get very, very lost, in what would have to qualify as one of the most disorienting headtrips ever committed to film.
It might be an unsettling experience to watch, but INLAND EMPIRE is also a genuine labour of love. Two-and-a-half years in the making and with no studio backing, it is a self-produced, self-distributed epic of oneiric uncanniness. Lynch’s decision to shoot on consumer digicam (the Sony PD-150) gives the film a lo-fi look that may irritate some viewers, but the director’s usual flair for unnerving imagery and eerie settings is still very much in evidence – and in fact the cheap aesthetic, somewhere between home video and behind-the-scenes featurette, seems strangely suited to the material. Lynch’s sound design, mixing ominous industrial roars with ethereal vocals (and the odd song-and-dance number), is impeccable in its power to create unease.
If all David Lynch’s films are ‘Lynchian’ by definition, still this is the apotheosis of that descriptor. For INLAND EMPRE references seemingly every thematic obsession, every visual quirk, and every sound effect that the director has accumulated in over thirty years of filmmaking. Nightmarish visions, voyeurism, a lumberjack, a magician, the mother-whore opposition, darkness both literal and metaphorical, allusions to The Wizard of Oz, short-circuiting light bulbs, a radiator, creepy in-between spaces decorated with red curtains – these are all well-established motifs from his earlier films, with even the deadpan chorus of bunnies coming directly from his 2002 shorts Rabbits.
If all this makes INLAND EMPIRE sound like the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album, rest assured that the director, far from merely repeating himself, takes us much deeper into the secret corridors, alleyways and staircases of a labyrinthine imagination. The double-narrative structure, for instance, with which Lynch so boldly experimented in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, is in this film tripled and quadrupled, making those earlier works seem like mere primers to the dizzying complexities on offer here.
It is never clear whether INLAND EMPIRE is ‘really’ about an aging actress who, in her desperation to get back into the Academy limelight, gets a little lost in her character; or about the haunting of a present production by a past one, as well as by the “Polish folk tale” from which it has been adapted; or about the hallucinatory fantasies of a ‘crack whore’ as she faces death on Hollywood and Vine; or about a mother sent mad with grief at the death of her son, playing out her trauma in the theatre of the mind; or about a cabal of Polish spiritualists, mesmerists and animal wranglers, conspiring to mess with the heads of LA’s denizens; or about the miraculous power of cinema to send its viewers three hours into the future without quite remembering how they got there. One thing is for sure, though: this story of magic, madness and metempsychosis will have you feeling like a rabbit trying to puzzle out what exactly is going on as wilder wolves circle and a big light careers forwards out of the darkness.
INLAND EMPIRE is a film of questions rather than answers and, like a true classic, will leave you wanting to see it again and again. Creepy, funny, haunting, and utterly confounding, it is a dark, dark trip through the a(x)xons and synapses of the imagination, with the sort of sweet ending that can only happen in a movie – or a dream. Yet after he has so studiously deconstructed and reconstructed his own celluloid past (much as Nikki herself does), the real question is what on earth will Lynch do next…
Verdict: David Lynch’s self-produced, self-distributed epic of oneiric uncanniness mesmerises the viewer with its overlapping tales of toxic Tinseltown
© Anton Bitel