Phil on Film Index
Monday, February 12, 2007
Review - INLAND EMPIRE
“I don’t know what happened” Laura Dern somewhere in the second half of INLAND EMPIRE, “it’s kinda laid a mind-fuck on me”; and most of the viewers who subject themselves to David Lynch’s latest film will know exactly how she feels. INLAND EMPIRE - the director prefers the title to be spelled in capitals - is Lynch’s first offering since his magnificent Mulholland Drive, and it’s the most challenging and experimental picture the auteur has produced since his debut Eraserhead, thirty years ago. It will probably divide people more than any other Lynch film; some will hail it as a work of genius, an avant-garde masterpiece, while others will hail it as a self-indulgent catastrophe. Most, I think, will pitch their opinions somewhere in the middle ground between those viewpoints.
But whatever you think of INLAND EMPIRE, there’s no disputing the fact that this is one of the most difficult and uncompromising films David Lynch has ever made. The director has for decades stretched the limits of traditional storytelling, and here he blows any sense of narrative coherence or logic to smithereens, plunging viewers into a full-on three-hour nightmare. It will undoubtedly be too strong a brew for some viewers, but after two viewings of INLAND EMPIRE, I can’t get it out of my head.
So what is INLAND EMPIRE all about anyway? An attempt to lay out this film’s plot may be a futile exercise, but on a basic level it’s about an actress named Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) whose flagging career might be set for a boost with a ludicrously titled movie called On High in Blue Tomorrows. The film opens with Nikki awaiting her agent’s call, and receiving a strange visitor (a vivid Grace Zabriskie cameo) who asks cryptic questions, speaks in riddles and tells Nikki that her film will feature a “brutal fucking murder”, despite the actress’s denials. On High in Blue Tomorrows is a southern romance which is being directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) and co-stars notorious womaniser Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), but there’s a dark secret behind this seemingly straightforward picture.
Just before cameras start to roll, Kingsley tells his actors that the film they’re working on is in fact a remake of an unfinished Polish film which was abandoned after both of its leads were murdered; and after this revelation INLAND EMPIRE begins to go down some very strange avenues. The lines between Nikki’s life and the film she’s shooting begin to blur, and on top of that they are mixed in with scenes from the Polish movie which met such a tragic end. Is that not enough for you? There’s also a bunch of prostitutes who spend their days lounging around a flat when they’re not spontaneously bursting into song, and Julia Ormond plays a woman who is adamant she’s going to stab somebody with a screwdriver - like the one which is currently sticking out of her stomach. Another young woman sits in a room weeping uncontrollably while staring at a TV screen, a group of travelling circus performers show up, and let’s not forgot about the six-foot rabbits in human clothes who appear to be starring in their own sitcom. INLAND EMPIRE is a movie within a movie within a.... well, you get the idea.
After the glories of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive - the greatest American film of this young century - INLAND EMPIRE is inevitably something of a disappointment. At three hours the film is overlong, too much of it feels like material recycled from Lynch’s earlier films, and the picture occasionally threatens to slip into self-parody. INLAND EMPIRE’s narrative is a shapeless mess which unravels with wild abandon before the various strands overlap and devour each other - we see scenes repeated at different points, or perhaps replayed from a different perspective. This meandering approach leaves the film feeling a little baggy and repetitive, with the final hour in particular struggling to maintain much momentum, and Lynch makes some errors in his pacing of the film allowing a number of scenes to run on beyond their natural length. One sequence towards the end of the film exemplifies this problem perfectly; a badly injured woman collapses to the floor between two vagrants, who carry on with their inane conversation while she lies prone between them. This sight is funny at first, but it soon drags into tedium, and such longueurs pop up too frequently in INLAND EMPIRE.
And yet, for all its flaws, INLAND EMPIRE has somehow managed to lodge itself firmly in my brain, staying with me while so many more refined and coherent films have drifted into obscurity. There’s something about David Lynch’s films that gets under my skin in a way few filmmakers can manage. He’s a master of atmosphere, and INLAND EMPIRE is dripping in that uniquely Lynchian sense of dread; that creeping feeling of terror which seems to grow out of the most innocuous situations. All of the director’s standard tropes are here - flickering lights, red rooms, a portentous soundtrack - and they have lost none of their potency. For most of INLAND EMPIRE I was enthralled by what I was watching - at its best, the film exerts an almost hypnotic power - and on a scene-by-scene basis, it contains as many brilliant moments as I’ve seen in any film this year. One inexplicably chilling scene sees Dern’s character wander into a room full of prostitutes, who shine torches in her face while making oblique comments, and the shooting of another character late in the film provides us with a truly nightmarish image. Lynch also punctuates the action with terrific musical moments: an impromptu rendition of The Locomotion, an inspired use of Beck’s Black Tambourine, and the end credits - set to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman - are simply fabulous. Visually, the film will be a test for some viewers. Lynch’s decision to shoot on low-tech Digital Video means the film lacks the glossy, dreamlike quality of the sumptuous Mulholland Drive, but it works for the picture in a different way. The harsh flatness of the DV image is jarring at first, particularly during scenes set in daylight, but as the film progresses it seems to accentuate the darkness being explored; giving an even eerier edge to the film’s endless murky corners. It might not be pretty, but it’s brutally effective.
Even if INLAND EMPIRE isn’t the handsomest film around, it’s impossible to tear your eyes away while Laura Dern is onscreen. This is the performance of a lifetime; a multifaceted, stunningly complex, emotionally naked piece of acting which towers over anything produced by this year’s crop of Oscar contenders. Dern plays a wide variety of characters here - a Hollywood actress, a housewife, a battered prostitute - and she gives an astonishing performance in every role. She has a monologue late in the film, where she sits in a room and slowly describes the abuse she has suffered in a thick southern drawl, and she gives the speech such resonance it’s simply breathtaking to witness. There are outstanding performances right through INLAND EMPIRE - Justin Theroux’s smooth lothario is brilliantly played, Jeremy Irons makes the most out of a thin role, Harry Dean Stanton is hilarious - but Dern is the glue which holds this film together. It’s not the kind of performance they hand out Academy Awards for, but it’s a performance for the ages.
INLAND EMPIRE is pure, undiluted Lynch; and you can either resist the weirdness or simply surrender yourself to it completely. I’ve now seen the film twice, and I found it a much more satisfying experience second time around, when I gave up looking for some logical answer to the film’s conundrums and simply allowed myself to be swept along by the director. INLAND EMPIRE is massively flawed, but the more I think about it the more I like it; for better or for worse, this is a unique cinematic experience and I can’t wait to see it again. This is the work of an artist who is constantly exploring the boundaries of cinema, and his experiments here have thrown up sights and sounds which few other filmmakers would even dream of. Nobody in the world makes films like David Lynch, and it remains a pleasure to be baffled by him.