No director works closer to his unconscious than David Lynch, and, stimulated by the use of amateur digital video technology, his latest feature ventures as far inland as this blandly enigmatic filmmaker has ever gone.
A movie about Lynch's obsessions, Inland Empire is largely a meditation on the power of recording: The first image is a shaft of projected light; the second is a close-up of a phonograph needle dropping on a record's groove. Familiar tropes include a movie-within-the-movie and the notion of Hollywood as haunted house. But nothing in Lynch's work is truly familiar, as when a TV sitcom features a cast of humanoid rabbits. For most of Inland Empire, sinister East Europeans are “looking for a way in” — whether to the industry or the narrative or the empire itself. Reality is first breached when a ditsy Polish gypsy traipses into the vintage, disconcertingly empty Hollywood mansion that belongs to actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). Spooking the star with her wolfsbane accent and aggressive prophesies, she casts a spell of weirdness that lasts throughout the movie.
Suddenly it's tomorrow and Nikki has the role she covets, working with an over-eager director (Jeremy Irons) and acting opposite young rapscallion Devon (Justin Theroux) who's been touted by a nasty TV gossip (Dern's mother, Diane Ladd) as the biggest womanizer in Hollywood. An adulterous affair seems over-determined, particularly as that's the premise of On High in Blue Tomorrows, the unlikely title of the movie that Nikki and Devon are making. Script inevitably merges with life. “Hollywood is full of stories,” someone remarks, referring to the rumor that the Blue Tomorrows screenplay is itself haunted. A previous version was abandoned when “they discovered something inside the story … the two leads were murdered.”
Something or someone is lurking in the recesses of the set — and, as Nikki's character fissures, it turns out to be her. (Dern is in nearly every scene and, pondered by Lynch's DV camera, her long, angular face is taffy-pulled by wide-angle close-ups into a mask of anguish.) As if in a dream, Nikki is both spectator and protagonist. At one point she is trapped by a mysterious spotlight and spooks herself; at another she climbs a shabby stairway somewhere in Poland and, suddenly another character altogether, launches into an outrageous, tough-girl confession that might be the world's most preposterous screen test.
Inland Empire is Nikki's world, but she doesn't live in it. She's variously threatened by characters out of On High in Blue Tomorrows — taunted, for example, by a lascivious girl gaggle who break into a choreographed version of the “Locomotion,” thus providing Lynch's obligatory burst of '60s pop. Nikki's mansion devolves into a squalid dump and a scary Pole known as the Phantom appears next door. Blood mixes with ketchup at a backyard barbecue. Nikki plays her big scene at 4 a.m. on the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, staggering across the star-spangled pavement to collapse amid the homeless.
Inland Empire is Lynch's most experimental film since Eraserhead. But, unlike that brilliant debut (or its two masterful successors, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive), it lacks concentration. It's a miasma. Cheap DV technology has opened Lynch's mental floodgates. Inland Empire is suffused with dread of … what? Sex, in Lynch, is a priori nightmarish. But there's a sense here that film itself is evil. Movies are all about editing and acting — which is to say visual lies and verbal ones — and Inland Empire makes sure you think about both.
Lynch's notion of pure cinema is a matter of tawdry scenarios and disconcerting tonal shifts. Everything in Inland Empire is uncanny, unmoored, and out of joint. The major special effect is the creepy merging of spaces or times. Do the characters travel through wormholes from Los Angeles to Lodz and the sad, shabby rooms of the On High in Blue Tomorrows set? Are these memories or alternate worlds? Is Lynch looking for some sort of movie beneath the movie? (His long search for closure may be turgid and unrelenting, but it hardly lacks for conviction.) The heroine's persistent doubling and Lynch's continuous use of “creative geography” reinforce the sense that he assimilated Maya Deren's venerable avant-noir Meshes of the Afternoon at an impressionable age. And like Meshes, Inland Empire has no logic apart from its movie-ness.
It's three hours before Nikki is transfigured (by the “power of love”) and her fearful trip is done. But given its nonexistent narrative rhythms, Inland Empire doesn't feel that long. (In fact, it doesn't feel like anything but itself.) It's an experience. Either you give yourself over to it or you don't. And, if you do, don't miss the end credits.