Inland Empire (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: David Lynch
Says the poster, "David Lynch's Inland Empire," which tells you all you need to know. Laura Dern, though she stretches herself like silly putty throughout this movie, only gets second billing, and Jeremy Irons and Justin Theroux are barely mentioned. Lynch is the star. And that's the ideal marketing for this film; if you dare pass through those theater doors, you had better know what a Lynch film is, or you're in trouble. (The tagline for the film is, succinctly: "A woman in trouble.")
To summarize the events would be to deceive you into thinking there is a plot. There isn't. This is the most nonlinear, free-floating narrative Lynch has yet devised; most frequently I hear people say, "This is somewhere between Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead." No, this is way past Eraserhead, into the outer reaches of the cosmos. Or, more aptly, in the deepest recesses of innerspace. It seems to me that the title "Inland Empire" actually refers to the endless depths of the unconscious, where the only exploration is to pilot your dreams like a submarine with a dim, fading spotlight. And this is what Inland Empire is like, for it indulgently evokes the landscape of dreams and nightmares, much more intensely than in Lynch's last film, Mulholland Drive.
That film has become something of a modern classic, although it was ultimately born from a discarded TV pilot Lynch helmed (Lynch completely reshot the footage for the film and rejiggered the premise to suit its new constraints). If Mulholland Drive was his breakthrough--when he became confident enough to let go of the reigns of narrative for the first time since his early experimental films--then Inland Empire is the ultimate extension of his craft, which is not to say it's a better film. The critics have turned his way, finally, and he's been recognized as the new Bunuel, working out his own obsessive private symbolism on the big screen without bothering to offer an explanation for every burst of surrealism; and thanks to Twin Peaks, Lynch is also an atypically popular art house experimentalist--a household-name celebrity like Salvador Dali. Regardless, Inland Empire is receiving a very limited theatrical release compared to his previous efforts; Lynch is distributing it himself, and occasionally popping up at screenings to personally introduce it. The truth is that it's his most defiantly inaccessible picture, and the more you know about Lynch--in fact, the more you've immersed yourself in the Cult of Lynch--the better you'll be able to appreciate the film and its familiar iconography. If this is the first Lynch film you ever see, you're more likely to disregard it as self-indulgent nonsense. The truth is that it's not his best film, and it is overly indulgent; but on the other hand, it's one-of-a-kind and invaluable, in its way.
But anyone reading a review will want to know at least some of the events which occur within its sprawling three-hour running time. We know this much: Laura Dern plays an actress. She is visited by a Polish woman who lives next door, asking about a new script for which Dern's auditioning; the film is based upon an old Polish folk tale. The subject will be, insists the creepy neighbor, marriage and murder. The actress receives the role. She meets her co-star (Theroux), who's famous for bedding his leading ladies. She begins to fall for him, though her husband is violently protective. The director (Irons), in a read-through in an empty studio lot, warns the two leads that the film was almost made once before, but the stars were murdered before the footage was completed. This much of the story is clear. The rest is not so clear. As the actress begins to explore the identity of her character, events from the past blur with the present, and the line between the story that's being told and the lives of the players becomes grotesquely indistinct. Is Dern's character Susan Blue or Nikki Grace? (Lynch frequently deals with dual identities.) What is in the locked mock-up of a house on the dark studio set? (Lynch is fond of locked, dark spaces.) Who will be the murderer, and why? (Lynch always delivers a mystery's set-up, even if he doesn't deliver easy answers.) What is the significance of 9:45 and "after midnight" (just about the only two times that are named in the film)? Who is that weird guy and what the hell does he have in his mouth? Why are the prostitutes "doing the locomotion?" What's the deal with the talking rabbits on the TV?
There are more mysteries launched per second in this film than any other I've ever seen. The technique is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it keeps you moving forward, attempting to penetrate the dream-fog which has settled over everything in Lynchland. But on the other hand, the plot is almost too complex. You can pick apart a meaning--that actors sacrifice much to their roles, that they become "whores," that artifice and reality are meaningless distinctions--but what really is to be gained by all this vague detail about Dern's husband's former life as a carny, or how he's "good with animals," or the gang of criminals he may be mixed up in? All of it is too ill-defined. Critics are falling all over themselves declaring that the movie must be watched over and over again before it will reveal its design, but the truth is that the film's just been released, they haven't watched it over and over again, and there's a damn good chance these answers will never come. Which isn't such a bad thing, but know that Lynch improvised the film--shooting scenes to accompany a long monologue he wrote for Dern, which forms the film's centerpiece now--and there are, perhaps, a dozen too many details that really feel like aimless pieces of misdirection. No plot within Inland Empire is going to ultimately matter. What matters is the image--repeated countless times--of Dern going round a dark corner and discovering, in the depths of its murk, another moment in time, and another character, another role to play. It's a fascinating, turning wheel. But I worry that there are too many moments here that head nowhere--not evocative, but simply loose ends.
Compare this to the film I saw last night, Jacques Rivette's superb and underrated The Story of Marie and Julien (2003). The film is almost as long, also hinges on dreams and the supernatural, and has a storyline involving blackmail that is never explained to satisfaction. We should call any unexplained element a "buzzing box," after the one in Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967). The box buzzes. It represents the particular unspecified perversion of the client of a prostitute (Catherine Deneuve). We don't know what's in it. But it's better we don't. In Rivette's film, we never discover the meaning behind the items with which a Madame X is being blackmailed. But we don't need to know. That's fine. David Lynch has perfected the "buzzing box," and found a brilliant use of the idea in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive--both films featuring a sudden shift in reality, when suddenly all of the actors are playing different roles. That's going on in Inland Empire, too, but it's just one of the gazillion buzzing boxes in this film. I adore Mulholland Drive. I think it's one of the best films of the past ten years. But one of the things that makes that film a classic is that no matter how bizarre it gets, the elements always seem to belong. It all seems of a piece. Inland Empire, on the other hand, consists of too many disparate pieces, and although he might label them and group them together using surface signifiers (i.e., recurring numbers, cryptic phrases or symbols), intuitively I sensed they did not necessarily belong together. Or, at least, they required more information to prove that they did. The growing suspicion one has is that the film is running on private associations known only to Lynch, or perhaps to his subconscious--as that's where he seems to write from--but those associations are not made remotely accessible to the viewer.
I'm not saying that the emperor has no clothes. I like the film. I would merely suggest that all those critics stumbling over themselves to declare this another masterpiece simply because they don't understand it need to reevaluate their criteria. Surrealism still has a rhyme and a reason. Too much of Inland Empire feels cobbled together from different ideas and whims of Lynch's, without being sufficiently adhered together. The glue we're provided is numbingly repetitive imagery: Laura Dern looks to her right--either across a room or across the street or through a window--only to see herself looking back. We witness multiple scenes from different points of view. Dern crosses time and space. Screwdrivers and knives are wielded in the same hand, wounding in the same place. A consortium of mysterious Polish men are found to be sitting in the same spots as the bunnies on TV. We see an event revealed to be a performance on a television screen or in a movie theater or a studio set--always we pull back to see either Dern or a mysterious, weeping woman, watching. It's too much of the same idea, over and over and over again--and those elements which do not line up are, almost by contrast, rendered completely incoherent because they simply don't fit into the pattern of this repetitive music.
Still, there are wonders contained in Inland Empire, not the least of which is the effect it leaves upon your consciousness. Lynch is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and should belong in any filmic pantheon for one important gift he's given cinema: the uncanny rendering of the substance (or insubstance) of nightmare onto the canvas of the screen. Try to point to any other filmmaker who can so successfully capture what a dream feels like--maybe Guy Maddin, maybe Luis Bunuel, but neither goes as recklessly far as Lynch. Lynch gets that a dream doesn't always make sense--but it haunts you because it seems like it almost might. I should mention that I watched this film in Madison's aging Orpheum Theatre, with its tall red curtains that stretch to a distant ceiling. I sat in the second row, so that I felt like I was alone, abandoned in the images on the screen. At a critical point in the film, Dern enters an empty theater where she finds a film of herself unspooling, and the theater looked so much like the Orpheum that both my wife and I had the instantaneous urge to look over our shoulders to see if Dern was actually walking down the aisle next to us with that knife clutched in her hand. She wasn't. But after three hours of this kind of thing, you begin to lose your senses.
Critics at the moment might be just a little too eager to overlook Inland Empire's obvious weaknesses, which were not present in Mulholland Drive: among the aforementioned, the intentionally ugly camcorder cinematography made unbearable with the addition of fish-eye lenses; the overwrought, absurd dialogue given to Dern's white-trash alter ego; the apropos of nothing, five-second William H. Macy cameo...and that ridiculous ending-credits musical number, which offers a good explanation for why you'd never want Lynch to direct your music video. But on the whole, I do forgive the film its weaknesses and recognize its strengths, not the least of which is its uniqueness. Certainly I want to see Inland Empire again, if only to piece together some of its mysteries. I just suspect that Mulholland Drive, which has a tighter focus even if it remains ultimately mysterious, will always be more rewarding.