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Inland Empire
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Another Dazzling And Dumbfounding Dreamscape From David Lynch"
5 stars

After completing production of his debut feature film, the still-bewildering and still-astonishing 1977 masterwork “Eraserhead,” David Lynch must have realized two things–that he had created one of the most unique and bizarre works in the history of American cinema and that if he hoped to continue to make films, at least ones that he could convince those inside the system to finance and distribute for him, he would have to figure out a way of channeling his quirks and obsessions within the parameters of conventional commercial cinema. In the three decades since that debut, his films have often welded familiar genre archetypes (a mystery or biopic here, a soap opera or a road movie there) with a strain of pure surrealism that always threatened to burst forth at any second (and occasionally did, as in the finales of “Fire Walk With Me” and “Mulholland Drive”)) and the result have included a couple of instant masterpieces (“Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive”), a couple of initially undervalued films that look more impressive with each passing year (“Dune,” “Fire Walk With Me” and “Lost Highway”) and even, amazingly enough, the occasional crowd-pleaser or two (“The Elephant Man,” the first season of “Twin Peaks” and “The Straight Story”). And yet, as impressive as those works have been (and of his features, “Wild at Heart” is the only one that I wouldn’t to watch again right this second, even though I would take it over the finest works of most contemporary filmmakers you could name right now), there was always the vague sense that Lynch was holding back to a degree and that if he weren’t yoked to commercial considerations, he would cheerfully come up with something that would make even a mind-bender like “Mulholland Drive” come across as staid and conventional by comparison.

With “Inland Empire,” Lynch has fully taken control of the filmmaking apparatus–he funded the film himself, shot it on the fly over a period of two years using commercial-grade video cameras and is now distributing himself throughout the country–and you can feel that sense of freedom for commercial concerns in virtually every frame. The result is a film as audacious and hair-raising as any ever attempted by a well-known American filmmaker and while it may not be Lynch’s finest, it may well go down in the books as his most quintessential work in the way that it brings together the fearlessness and invention of “Eraserhead” with the consummate skill of his later efforts. And yet, Lynch’s willingness to put himself on the line this way seems to have engendered a surprising amount of resentment from some critics who have either dismissed “Inland Empire” as pure self-indulgence or simply chosen to ignore it altogether. This is kind of shocking to me because whether one loves or loathes “Inland Empire” (and believe me, there is no such thing as a middle ground on this one), it is a film so radical in form and function that to simply dismiss it out of hand does a disservice not only to Lynch and his work but to the whole concept of cinema as a living, breathing art form that is worth grappling with instead of just passively accepting.

To be fair, hearing the particulars of “Inland Empire” might be enough to scare most people off for the relatively safe confines of “Stomp the Yard” or “A Night at the Museum.” Yes, the film tells a story that is all but impenetrable (the plot synopsis contained in the press material consists entirely of the single phrase “A woman in trouble”) for nearly three hours. Yes, it has been shot in Los Angeles and Poland and veers back and forth between the two seemingly at random. Yes, it has been shot entirely on digital video but, unlike the film-like look achieved by the likes of “Apocalypto,” the results are of a decidedly low-res nature that almost seems to be decomposing before your very eyes. Yes, it even contains a few sequences in which we see clips from what appears to be a deliberately dour sitcom (though one where the laugh track kicks in at the oddest times) populated by people in rabbit suits with the voices of “Mulholland Drive” stars Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey. I guess when confronted with something containing these elements, I can see why some might run for the hills or the likes of “The Hitcher” for solace. However, Lynch is not just trying to be weird and abrasive for the sake of being weird and abrasive–Lynch clearly has a specific vision that he wants to share and these are the tools that he needs to utilize to share it with us. (Okay, maybe the bunnies–which come from footage that Lynch shot for his website–are a bit gratuitous but having seen them, I can no longer imagine the film without them.)

For starters, there is some glimmer of a consistent storyline running through the film–just enough to serve as a tantalizing hook for viewers while giving them something with which to hang on. Laura Dern stars as Nikki Grace, an actress who is up for the lead role of Sue, a dissatisfied Southern belle in a film entitled “On High In Blue Tomorrows,” a Southern Gothic melodrama that promises to be her comeback role. She gets the part and finds herself cast opposite Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), a hunky actor with a well-known penchant for bedding his leading ladies–a habit he is strenuously warned not to continue with Nikki as she is married to a man who is as insanely jealous as he is incredibly powerful in the industry. After a brief bit of weirdness during a script read-through, the film’s director, Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons), drops a bombshell on his two stars: although they were told that “On High In Blue Tomorrows” was an original screenplay, there was a previous attempt to film the story, based on an ancient Gypsy folk tale about an extramarital affair, that was tragically derailed after the two stars, who began an off-screen affair, were found murdered under mysterious circumstances. Despite this, filming commences and so does a clandestine affair between Nikki and Devon.

Of course, once Lynch introduces this tantalizing plot conceit–one that you could easily see being spun out into a slick commercial potboiler–he essentially abandons it once the production begins and Nikki finds herself so consumed by her role that her real life and reel life begin to blend into each other. At various times and without any hint or warning, we are either watching Nikki, Nikki playing Sue or Sue herself, who has become just as real in our eyes as any of the other characters on the screen. At other times, it appears that we are watching parallel versions of Nikki in Poland, where she appears to be living in yet another version of “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” and on the streets of Hollywood where she runs with a gang of young women who may be hookers, past lovers of Devon’s or the souls of others who have come to Hollywood with stars in their eyes only to meet with heartache and despair. (No matter who they might be, they do a mean version of “Do the Locomotion.” ) As the film veers back and forth between its various planes of existence, characters collide and collapse into one another, plotlines converge and fragment and several people wind up either planting screwdrivers in someone’s side or having a screwdriver planted in their own sides. Things become so bewildering that we in the audience are no longer sure of exactly what we are seeing even as it unfolds before our eyes–at one point, we see a major character dying in a protracted and painful manner only to discover that it is a scene from a movie but by this point, the line has been so effectively erased that we are still unsure even after the director calls “Cut.” And yet, despite all the pain and weirdness that we have been witness to, the film somehow manages to end on a high note–an exuberant song-and-dance set to Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man”–that feels perfectly at home with the rest of the material.

While I can recount the events that occur in “Inland Empire,” I cannot, despite having seen the film twice now, even begin to explain what each bit means and how each one fits into another. I can’t decide whether Lynch has given us too many puzzle pieces or two few but the result is the same–a narrative that is so deliberately murky and puzzling that I presume that only Lynch himself could possibly explain every element on display. (Not that this will stop people from trying–this is the kind of movie that will be inspiring film school dissertations for decades to come.) The key to pulling it all together, I think, is to simply avoid looking at it from a narrative standpoint. Instead, regard it as you might regard a dream, a concept that will not seem unfamiliar to Lynch devotees.. In a dream, such factors as time, space, identity and meaning can collapse in an instant and no one seems to mind and even when things get truly strange, we can still usually figure out what is going on within the context of our particular dreamscape. If you regard “Inland Empire” simply as a dream of Lynch’s that he somehow managed to port to video, it will be much easier to grasp in the long run. (Another thing it has in common with a dream is the way in which time ceases to have much meaning–even though the film comes in at just under three hours, it never feels that long at any given point, though I suspect that dissenters may feel otherwise.) As I said before, I don’t claim to understand much of the film–and I am someone who was able to offer a fully functioning explanation of “Mulholland Drive” five minutes after seeing it for the first time–but I don’t consider that a problem. In fact, were I given the opportunity to ask Lynch to explain any aspect of the film, I would probably only ask him to explain the presence of Nastassja Kinski, my all-time favorite actress, in a throwaway bit at the very end along the lines of George Clooney in “The Thin Red Line” or John Wayne in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

As for the look of the film, the deliberately grainy and grungy style brought upon by the video cameras used is admittedly off-putting at first, especially since Lynch’s previous films have given us some of the most extraordinary visuals ever committed to celluloid. From a practical standpoint, Lynch’s decision to move to video is a sound one–it lowers the costs and allows him the freedom to shoot faster without having to wait around to reset lights (one of the funniest moments in the film involves the time-consuming process of setting lights on a movie set). However, it also works from an aesthetic standpoint as well because the fragmented imagery, which at times seems to be disintegrating before our eyes, is a perfect visual metaphor for Nikki’s crumbling psyche–with everything degraded along the same way, we can no longer distinguish between what is real and what is hallucination. Besides, Lynch seems invigorated by his new toy–both the advantages and limitations–and you can feel his excitement as he goes through the possibilities made possible by his new toy. (Although many have suggested that “Inland Empire” is sort of a remix of some of the ideas and conceits put forward in “Mulholland Drive,” this camera-based experimentation put me more in the mind of the mind-blowing short film that he contributed to the omnibus “Lumiere & Company” in which he conjured entire worlds and mound of hallucinatory imagery using only a 100-year-old camera capable of only one unbroken 52-second take.) And while I hope that Lynch doesn’t permanently retire from using 35mm film, many of the images he captures here on DV are as striking as any that he has put on conventional celluloid in the past.

However, the one element that ties all of the disparate pieces of “Inland Empire” together into an awe-inspiring whole instead of just a collection of fascinating individual moments is the career performance contributed by Laura Dern, who previously collaborated with Lynch on “Blue Velvet,” “Wild at Heart” and the art project “Industrial Symphony # 1.” Even those who dislike the rest of the film will have to admit that her work is extraordinary in the way that she always seems remarkably focused and consistent no matter what the scene calls for. Considering the fact that she is on screen for virtually every scene of the film while playing any number of characters (or different versions of the same character) and going through every possible emotion, her performance is the acting equivalent of a marathon and the fact that she didn’t even receive an Oscar nomination for her efforts (despite Lynch’s decidedly strange campaign tactic of sitting on L.A. streetcorners with a live cow) only stands as further proof of just how pointless those awards have become in recent years. (Among the vast number of supporting players, the most memorable work comes from the always-reliable Harry Dean Stanton, who is simply hilarious as Irons’s spare-changing assistant–his mere recollection of a poor cup of tea alone is worth the price of admission.)

“Inland Empire” is not a movie for everyone and even fans of Lynch’s previous works may find themselves at sea here due to the lack of the silly humor and genuine eroticism that attracted people to “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive.” Hell, even I was a little flummoxed with it the first time I encountered it (which should explain why it didn’t appear on my 2006 10 Best List, an omission I now deeply regret) because it was frankly too much to try to absorb in one sitting. Returning to it a second time–and repeat viewings are almost mandatory here–it truly clicked somehow and what once seemed to be just a daringly strange experiment now played as a full and deep cinematic experience. Will you have the same reaction or will you find yourself throwing up your hands in complete confusion early on before stomping out of the theater. Here’s a test: If you have read up to this point without being professionally or socially obligated to do so and it still sounds interesting to you, you may wind up finding it as fascinating as I did. Just make sure you catch an early show because you will be piecing it together for hours–if not days–after seeing it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15510&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/26/07 01:22:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 San Francisco Independent Film Festival For more in the 2007 San Francisco Independent Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/20/17 Dave The most disturbing and upsetting of Lynch's films, an unsettling surreal masterpiece. 5 stars
3/18/16 Charles Tatum A boring mess 1 stars
6/15/15 stanley welles a fertile and overwhelming work of art 4 stars
5/12/13 Langano Love Lynch but I couldn't wrap my head around this one. 2 stars
9/10/12 Bennett A surrealist dream-plot caves in on its own dark poem and explodes into multiple universes. 5 stars
7/24/10 Yves master of film's most brilliant work of art, transcendent to the top! 5 stars
6/02/10 User Name Some will find Inland to be deep and seductive; others will find it pretentious and boring. 3 stars
5/26/10 Brady Amazing film. 5 stars
11/18/09 Artemis B Gone Let's all take a trip down the rabbit hole together on Mr Lynch's field trip! 5 stars
1/06/09 FrankNFurter Outrageously bizarre feast for the eyes.Like a dream tatooed on celluloid.Worth a look! 5 stars
2/05/08 Butt Lynch's insanity not withstanding, Laura Dern's performance makes this worth a look 4 stars
9/30/07 Indrid Cold Possibly his most uncompromising yet; highly disturbing, completely baffling. 4 stars
9/03/07 Jay K The crown jewel in the Lynch library. His previous works were just excercises. 5 stars
8/27/07 Adrian brilliant piece of cinema 5 stars
5/22/07 tanja insanely wonderful, an unsolveable riddle 4 stars
3/12/07 Heiko One of the most intense cinema experiences ever - slap in the face of mainstream cinema 5 stars
2/18/07 dmitry Lynch's best...saw it twice in two days 5 stars
2/17/07 Ole Man Bourbon Really entertaining for about an hour, then starts to drag. Already been done by DL, too. 3 stars
2/16/07 sully Beautiful & strange...could be his best 5 stars
2/09/07 Ivica The first Lynch I have found boring. There are too many brief scenes that could be left out 3 stars
1/28/07 Jim the Movie Freak best film of 2006 or 2007 depending on where you live 5 stars
12/30/06 mr.mike liked it - but as i have said i worship at his alter 4 stars
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  06-Dec-2006 (R)

  N/A (18)


Directed by
  David Lynch

Written by
  David Lynch

  Laura Dern
  Jeremy Irons
  Justin Theroux
  Harry Dean Stanton
  Grace Zabriskie
  Diane Ladd

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