Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch.
Starring: Laura Dern (Nikki Grace/Susan Blue), Jeremy Irons (Kingsley Stewart), Justin Theroux (Devon Berk/Billy Side), Harry Dean Stanton (Freddie Howard), Peter J. Lucas (Piotrek Krol), Karolina Gruszka (Lost Girl), Grace Zabriskie (Visitor #1), Diane Ladd (Marilyn Levens), Julia Ormond (Doris Side), Krzysztof Majchrzak (Phantom), William H. Macy (Announcer), Jordan Ladd (Terri), Mary Steenburgen (Visitor #2), Laura Harring (Jane/Herself), Nastassja Kinski (Woman in Yellow Dress on Couch), Naomi Watts (Talking rabbit).
If David Lynch is to be believed (and I don’t see why he shouldn’t be), then Inland Empire may well be his swansong to feature movies. True, in the nine years since he made Inland Empire, he hasn’t just been sitting around doing nothing – there is a host of shorts, videos and other work (some of which we’ll get into in later installments), and he will apparently direct all 18 episodes of the new Twin Peaks series – but it still makes me short of sad that we won’t see another Lynch feature. But if Inland Empire really does remain his last feature, it is a fitting way to leave this world behind – it almost brings us right back to where Lynch started with Eraserhead. Yes, the films are radically different in most ways – but they remain the only two truly independent Lynch films – films he made with no studio behind him, and he could simply do whatever the hell he wanted to (not that a nosy studio ever really prevented Lynch from doing what he wanted, but still). Inland Empire is a mesmerizing, three hour, surreal nightmare of a film. Moreso than any other Lynch film, it defies explanation. It is certainly similar to Mulholland Dr. in many ways – but unlike that film, I’m not sure there is an answer to anything in Inland Empire – and I know it doesn’t much matter to me. It wasn’t designed to be a feature – but some shorts, but the more Lynch shot, the more he wanted to make it into one. Star Laura Dern admits she has no idea what the movie is about – which makes her career best performance even more remarkable (perhaps I should say performances, since she is clearly playing different characters, or at least, different versions of the same character). Inland Empire is not quite like anything Lynch – or anyone else – has ever made before.
The story, such as it is, is about Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a movie star with a rich and powerful husband who gets a role in the movie “On High Blue Skies Tomorrow”, to be directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Her co-star is Hollywood playboy Devon Berk (Justin Theroux, who played the director in Mulholland Drive). His managers tell him to stay away from Nikki – her husband is all powerful and will kill him if he sleeps with her. Then Kingsley, and his right hand man Freddie Howard (Harry Dean Stanton), inform the two stars that the movie their doing is actually a remake of an unfinished Polish film, whose title translates to 47. The movie had to stop production because the two stars were murdered. There was something inside the story that was too powerful for them to handle. The movie within in the movie seems like a Southern melodrama about a married woman, Susan Blue who cheats on her husband with a married father, Billy Side.
But then Lynch twists and fractures the narrative so that Nikki/Susan is somewhere else. In all, Laura Dern plays at least five different versions of the same woman, one as a more middle class woman, whose husband is throwing a barbecue and gets ketchup all over his white shirt, and one where is further down in class and lives in a dingy apartment with her husband, and occasionally with a group of prostitutes, or perhaps just outcasts from Sex and the City (and occasionally stop their sex talks to do choreographed dance numbers to songs like The Locomotion). Finally, there is Dern as a completely down on her luck prostitute telling her violent and sad story to a pudgy, sweating man with glasses, who depending on what review you read is either a psychiatrist or a rabbi – perhaps both, or neither.
What else is in the movie? Well, there’s Julia Ormond as a woman who is being interrogated by the police with a screwdriver stuck in her stomach. Later, she’ll show up as Billy Side’s wife, angry at Dern for sleeping with her husband. There’s Lynch Grace Zabriskie as a mysterious guest to Nikki, the Hollywood stars home, with a strange warning about evil entering the world with the birth of men. There are some Polish people, who seem to haunt the movie, and Nikki. There is the Lost Girl, who is stuck in a hotel room watching the same movie we are and crying. And there is room in which man size rabbits, in full clothing, speak in non-sequitors as a sitcom laugh track plays in the background.
What Lynch is up to in the film is certainly open to debate, and true to form, Lynch has l never really explained it – and almost definitely never will. He enjoys this – saying that he likes listening to the theories of Eraserhead, but he doesn’t think anyone sees it as he does, and only offering a series of cryptic clues in the DVD release of Mulholland Drive to explain that film. Yet, like both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, the film takes place in Hollywood – and continues to look at the seedy underbelly of the industry he was moving away from. Whereas Mulholland Drive is the Hollywood dream turned into a nightmare, Inland Empire is a much darker film – it’s all nightmare – except for a rather hopeful ending.
Lynch shot the movie on low grade digital video, and the effect is initially jarring, until you get on its wavelength. Normally, you could always admire the rich visuals of Lynch’s worlds even if you hated the movies themselves (for example Roger Ebert almost always praised Lynch’s visual tactics, while almost always hating the films themselves), but digital is much harsher then film. Inland Empire is made up of mostly close-ups letting us observe the performances in the utmost detail. And Lynch is not let down by his actors. Everyone in the film plays their role perfectly (which is saying a lot since they apparently never had a completed script, and Lynch would simply direct them for whatever scene they were shooting at the time, not how it fit into the whole movie). Most impressive is Laura Dern, in what one of the great performances in recent years, as she has to negotiate nearly impossible emotional terrain that changes nearly scene for scene. Whether she’s delivering the lackluster dialogue of the movie within the movie (and doing it more justice then it deserves), or pouring out her soul to that strange man with the glasses, Dern is mesmerizing. Without her, this movie probably completely fails, but because she is so convincing in every scene, we give ourselves over to it and follow along.
Inland Empire is obviously for a special kind of audience, and you know whether you’re a member of that audience or not (and probably don’t care what I say about the film, you’d be there anyway). It is for the adventuresome movie lovers who want to be challenged by a film instead of simply being told what to think. Inland Empire ranks among Lynch’s best films – which is what makes the fact that it may be his last film rather sad. He could have entered a fascinating new era of his feature directing career, but has instead decides he’s done with it all. Then again, he also said (more than once), he was done with Twin Peaks – so there’s still hope.