Inland Empire April 25, 2015
A David Lynch film is a tightrope act of sorts. They’re all a little abstract, a little bit mystical, but remaining is a looming mystery that is never solved; the viewer must be ready to interpret the abstruse puzzle presented to them. In a great Lynch film, a profound characterization can act as a backbone to the many head spinning detours that dawdle in the celluloid. Without one, though, a Lynch film can become intolerable, masturbatory rather than dazzling, a series of puzzle pieces that don’t fit anywhere besides his own mind.
He is perhaps a definitive hit or miss filmmaker. When he hits, his baffling ideas are seductive, lingering in our memory like our very first run-in with Rita Hayworth’s Gilda. But when he misses, we’re presented with a nightmarish landscape that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, doesn’t go anywhere, and doesn’t have much in the way of meaning.
Inland Empire is one of David Lynch’s most unbearable movies. It’s his first film shot completely digitally, done so with a Sony DCR-VX1000 camcorder; the images, in return, are fuzzy and textural. Some, especially Lynch, find this photographic technique to hold more value in terms of enigma and subversion, but I, possibly in the minority, think that this experiment is a downfall. His images are so outrightly peculiar (only he could sell the idea of three people in rabbit suits living in an apartment together in sitcom bliss) that the cheapness of the digital camera makes his once lush pictorial instincts read like an experimental student short. Before, the lavishness of film made diversions into the freakish more of a surprise; here, Lynchian punches no longer hold the shock the once did. This shouldn’t suggest that his cinematic mastery is waning — it’s the fault of the camera, not his.
Supposedly, Inland Empire is about Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a has-been actress who has just received a part in a movie that could revitalize her once strong career. Her co-star is known womanizer Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), her director the respected Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Minutes into the rehearsal process is it revealed that the project is thought to be cursed — it was supposed to be made decades ago, but the actors tragically died during the filmmaking process. Following this revelation, strange things start to occur: Nikki and Devon begin to mimic the lives of the characters they’re playing, Sue Blue and Billy Side, and Nikki, desperate as she is to succeed, begins experiencing situations that can only be described as hallucinatory.
I say “supposedly” when providing the plot summary because Inland Empire revolves around this storyline for only the first act, possibly even less. It starts off intriguingly, with the same sort of luminous ambiguities of Lost Highway, until it descends into a labyrinth of entangled phantasms. For a while, the delusions are evocative (the audacious pairings with experimental music are especially fascinating), but at three hours, Inland Empire eventually keels over and turns into an unappetizing smorgasbord of Lynchian rejects. As the story was never interesting enough to begin with, interpretation is left untouched; we’re either frustrated or stimulated, mostly the former.
The one thing to celebrate in Inland Empire is Laura Dern, in a fearless performance. Her character(s) is hardly defined, but Dern gives us a reason to gaze upon her face with utter enthrallment. She wanders around the maze Lynch places her in the middle of; Dern is so breathtaking that, once in a while, she deceives us into thinking that the material is solid rather than flimsy.
But Inland Empire is flimsy. Lynch wrote the script as filming went on, and it shows. He is a great director, but nothing is worse than taking an audience for granted, especially when that audience has to sit through a film for 180 minutes. C