BY NEIL FAUERSO
For the last 20-odd years, David Lynch has engaged in a thrilling tightrope walk between commercial accessibility and the exotic, sensual, and surreal recesses of his creativity. Sometimes, as with the dreamily beautiful Julee Cruise album he wrote and produced, Twin Peaks, or Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s work has an alchemic, mystical charge—fusing pop, psychology, and myth into a darkly enthralling, unforgettable whole. Then, there’s his other films, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, and especially his latest, Inland Empire, that joyfully plunge into the uncharted, opaque waters of Lynch’s mind. From a certain perspective, Inland Empire is the most honest and revealing film Lynch has made since his first, the revolutionary Eraserhead. Eschewing most sign-posts of a linear narrative (although there is a lot more “story” than most people have claimed), his obsessions of dual personalities, portals, premonitions, and an overriding and permanent sense of evil are given free reign in a three-hour digital video epic. Inland Empire is a trying, difficult film and you either respond to its cracked logic, arresting use of texture and light, and stunning lead performance by Laura Dern, or you find it a self-indulgent, mind-numbing mess. There’s no in-between.
The film is easy enough to follow, at first. Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, a fading star given a comeback role in a mysterious period piece with the hot stud of the moment (Justin Theroux). It quickly becomes apparent that movie is cursed by an ancient Polish folk tale, and it’s there that Inland Empire goes down the rabbit hole. Nikki splits into alternate downtrodden Susan Blue, multiple murders occurs, an evil Polish circus seems behind some of the carnage, a group of hookers stops the film to dance to the Locomotion—oh, I forgot about the rabbit sitcom that serves as the portal between all the worlds.
If you feel lost with this brief recap, do not go see this movie. What I described was the fragments I deigned from the film. Inland Empire is arguably the most experimental film to gain mainstream press and distribution since, well, as long as I’ve had a working definition of weird.
But caveats aside, if you let yourself go to Lynch’s midnight black dream planet, Inland Empire is an absolutely singular experience. Working with a consumer-grade digital camera, Lynch revolutionizes the entire philosophy and process of digital filmmaking. Where most filmmakers use DV to mimic film with varying degrees of success depending on the cost of the cameras, Lynch uses it to create an entire different media, effectively playing with digital film as if it were, to borrow Brian Eno’s words, organs of light. Inland Empire is tactile and supple, as much art installation as film.
For all of the shenanigans, the film is grounded by the volcanic Laura Dern. At once fragile, kind, hard, blackly humorous, Dern’s performance is multilayered and devastating. For over 20 years she has been the great unsung actress of her generation and Inland Empire is another crowning achievement.
Most reading this review are aware of Lynch’s devotion to and outspoken enthusiasm for Transcendental Meditation. For those who think his public endorsement of TM will change his aesthetic and subject matter, think again. Lynch has spoken around the country and at length in his new book about the effects of meditation on his work, and I far as I can glean, it boils down to this: TM allows him to unlock his creativity and vision as efficiently and dynamically as possible. Lynch once said that making movies was a way for him to dream in the dark. I suppose TM allows him to always dream in the dark, even when it’s light.
Inland Empire joins Lost Highway and Eraserhead as Lynch’s most disturbing films. I understand a lot of people have trouble reconciling his deep spirituality with the subject matter of his films. For me, where watching Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet as a child remain incredibly impressive and powerful experiences, Lynch has and always will be the most vital and impassioned artist I’ve encountered because all of his work makes me believe in beauty, evil, the immense grandeur of the melancholic pop song, the cosmic gravitas of the American landscape, and the genre picture; and that all these things are connected, and their connections are a code whose solution is somehow provable and illogic at the same time. A