The New York Times review of David Lynch’s new movie is an overblown, florid affair, but it does get one thing unmistakably right. In the little bit at the end where they list why kids shouldn’t see the film (partial female nudity, bloody violence), they also cite the film’s sense of “ubiquitous menace.” That’s pretty much right on. Inland Empire is three hours of ubiquitous menace...
For this movie, shot entirely on consumer grade video, Lynch took the dreamier parts of Eraserhead, all the Black Lodge sequences from Twin Peaks, and the scary second half of Mulholland Drive and then cranked them up to ten. Next he removed almost any anchoring vestiges of plot, place, time, or reason.
There’s a bare bones set-up involving an actress (played by Laura Dern, who should win an Oscar for this but never will) who has been cast in what she soon learns is a remake of a cursed Polish film based on some ancient folk tale. The two leads of the original, unmade version were murdered. Her co-star in the remake is played by Justin Theroux, her director by Jeremy Irons, and his right hand man by Harry Dean Stanton. Getting all this? It doesn’t really matter, since we’re only really with these guys for 1/100th of the movie’s running time. The majority of this film is given up to Dern and Lynch - who were close collaborators, more than just director and star.
So the movie inevitably fractures when the film-within-a-film becomes the real film, or Dern becomes her character’s character, or her character’s character becomes her, or she suffers a psychotic rift, or the universe turns inside out. Whatever it is that occurs, the end result is that we’re plunged into the most (possibly the only) accurate cinematic depiction of a really bad nightmare ever made. It’s harsh. Some people are going to say that Inland Empire drifts, that it’s convoluted. It isn’t. It seems that Lynch had a very clear structure in mind and that all the pieces fit perfectly for him. You can feel a rhythm to this movie if you can get past the fact that it’s buried much deeper than what you’re used to. You’ll have to also get past the fact that much of Inland Empire is really, really scary. The overwhelming dread of classic Lynch is here in full force. Lots of flickering electric lights, tracking shots through creepy empty houses where god-knows-what is around the corner, and masterfully manipulated sound in which a buzz of static can be the most pants-shittingly terrifying you’ve ever heard.
What happens in Inland Empire? I don’t know. Laura Dern walks through a door in Hollywood but then it opens in Poland, and it’s not Dern anymore, or rather it is her but she’s a different person, and then there’s this whore who is watching what’s happening to Dern on a TV in a dark hotel room, and then there’s this recurring sitcom peopled by humans with enormous rabbit heads (complete with a laugh track), then there’s this weird clique of more whores who pop in and out (at one point doing a synchronized dance to “The Locomotion”), then there’s a barbecue with a troupe of travelling Eastern European circus folk, then Dern is literally crawling on her hands and knees down Hollywood Blvd, then this monstrous creature with a face that looks like it was painted on with cheap make-up pops up, etc etc etc. That may sound like a muddle, but believe me; it worked so well and was so scary that I got goose bumps just recalling it while typing up that litany of moments.
There’s no real resolution. There are no good answers at the end. There is another great dance sequence during the credits though, this one set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” Inland Empire is not movie-going like we’re used to. It’s a meditative, unpleasant, beautiful, and confusing endurance test. You should see it at least once.
PS: The only inarguable misstep in the whole thing is using some stupid Beck song really prominently on the soundtrack. Yuck.