Writing a review of any new David Lynch film is a dodgy prospect, almost as disturbing to contemplate as the film is to watch. In the case of Inland Empire, the task is especially daunting. Any opinion expressed will be too temperate for either camp—this movie, it seems to me, is a love-it-or-leave-it event. Either it makes no sense at all and is really really long, or it’s a masterpiece of an experimental vision.
Unless, of course, you’re eternally equivocal like me and think it’s… interesting.
Inland Empire is like the last half of Mulholland Drive made by someone who’d been re-watching Eraserhead a lot. And surprisingly enough, aside from some absurdities I believe are meant to be funny and/or just weird, it has a more coherent plot than you might expect from that description. The story follows the making of a film, “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” a remake of a Polish film that never got finished due to the murder of its two leads. The current production is also plagued, but this time by altered reality. Characters and actors conflate and overlap; narratives run into each other; sets are indistinguishable from homes. Laura Dern is the film’s through-line, playing several different characters whose exact number is not clear. I have never liked Dern in anything but Citizen Ruth (because what’s not to like about abortion comedy?) but she is amazing in this film. The rest of the cast, likewise, admirably takes on the trial of weaving these tangled threads. And look terrible doing it.
Because this film, in an echo of Eraserhead’s shoestring budget (though without its arresting visual beauty), was filmed in DV on a “midrange,” consumer-model camera. And it looks like it. Blown up to 35mm for theater viewing, every flaw of digital video is obvious. Dark lines appear at edges; faces look harsh and washed-out; everything has that flat, handheld look of really seriously messed up home movies. And while it looks awful, you don’t really notice after a few minutes, and it’s a lovely message for a filmmaker like Lynch to send to the potential filmmakers of the future. Everything looks like it was filmed by some guy who just happened to be on a movie set while the real movie was being filmed. Which is especially odd when you remember that the movie is about movie-making.
As to the experience itself, it has very little in common with any other evening you can get in a conventional theater. It is exhausting, not only due to its 3 hour length but in the sheer nonlinear nightmarish goings-on. People break out into song. Large rabbit furries appear in a (really awful) play. Random Polish people (from that other production) show up and play their scenes. In Polish. Laura Dern looks anguished. A lot. And while there is a certain logic to the plot as a whole, the events themselves are not designed for easy watching. And this makes most people uncomfortable. Still other people see meaning in the experience itself, the sheer inundation of images and feeling. I feel caught between granting too much meaning to it and cynically assuming Lynch means absolutely nothing. In truth, I think it’s somewhere in the middle: the film has an explanation, but it is not possible to fit everything into a coherent tale.
In the end, as far as I’m concerned, Inland Empire just can’t be codified. It’s an unforgettable, uncomfortable experience, and if you like your movies to be cozy and fun, this is not for you. But if you want an adventure, and if you’re willing to sit back and let it come to you and not try too hard to figure it all out, you’ll be rewarded. If, that is, unforgettable, uncomfortable experiences are their own reward. Read more!