David Lynch is one suave motherfucker. He lives life and makes movies on his own terms and he certainly knows what he likes. One of these things is coffee. He says he drinks about 15 cups of it a day and is now selling his own brand, the “David Lynch Signature Cup”. At a minute shy of three hours, “INLAND EMPIRE” is one movie where you could really use a couple cups of coffee to help you make it across the finish line. That’s not a criticism, just reality. “INLAND EMPIRE” is one crazy late night roller coaster ride through Lynchland, the kind of movie you might half dream between an all night marathon of noir and slasher films, your heart pumping with caffeine.
Any attempt to write a conventional review for this movie is absurd. Not because it is “plotless” or “incomprehensible” or the other thousand patronizing adjectives critics normally apply to Lynch’s films. I think I know exactly what it’s about. I’m just not sure it’s what you will think it’s about. With Lynch there are often several plots competing for interest, all of which are interesting and none of which will ever be resolved through conventional narrative. Like Henry Miller, who once imagined a “House of Fiction” with different but related stories in each room, Lynch wants us to fall into a series of narrative rabbit holes leading to labyrinths full of sinister secrets and malevolent minotaurs.
But Lynch’s films are not mere dime store allegories or mixed metaphors. These aren’t puzzle films where a singular solution exists between the frames, like a “Memento” or “The Usual Suspects”. Lynch wouldn’t steep to so low a goal. There isn’t meant to be a single solution: His films are what they are. Without making him sound like a museum piece, Lynch makes films that convert narrative prose into poetry. This is actually a straightforward idea, not some kind of navel gazing. Instead of the very definitive details of prose, Lynch lets things hang loose, evoking a sense of dread in a scene without letting us know precisely the nature of the dread. That’s our job to fill in.
In standard storytelling, narrative is the vehicle for themes to play out on a subtextual level. This is how audiences have been conditioned to understand motion pictures. But in Lynch’s work, he strips away the pretense of narrative to allow audiences a more direct experience with the themes and subconscious truths within. He makes the subtext into text, and for Lynch, the thematic text is always the same: that of the innocent disillusioned and in danger of being corrupted.
Much of his newest film falls into the category of “the same, but different”. Your Mileage May Vary. If you hate David Lynch, this will be the cinematic equivalent of having your teeth pulled out by pliers, one by one. If you are a fan, then these three hours will be an undiluted trip right into Lynch’s dream museum. He makes no attempt to mix it with more generic elements as he did on the “Twin Peaks” TV series or even in “Mulholland Drive”. This is David Lynch straight up, right out of the damn bottle. There are no dwarves present, but the red curtains are everywhere, along with shifting realities, movies within movies, strange song and dance numbers, women putting on makeup, and producer/star Laura Dern, a kind of Lynch-Pin-Up herself.
Criticism is one thing, interpretation is another. Lynch is famous for his annoyance at any attempt to interpret, answering such questions with answers like, “Milk comes from Cows.” His plot description for “INLAND EMPIRE” is “a woman in trouble.” That’s it. I think I can do a little better. “INLAND EMPIRE” is the capitalized tale of an actress named Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) who gets a big part in a film called “On High in Blue Tomorrows”. It’s being directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) and co-stars Devon Burke (Justin Theroux), a star with a reputation as a lothario.
Nikki is married to a sinister looking Eastern European husband who is said to be very possessive. He just might be involved with a group of Polish circus folk who are running a white slavery ring. Maybe. In any case, during a rehearsal, Nikki and Devon learn of the urban legend behind the movie they are making. Apparently, it’s really a remake of a movie that was never finished. Never finished because the two lead actors of that version were murdered. There is a suggestion as well that there is some kind of curse in the script itself, a story about an illicit affair that leads to murder. Soon, Devon and Nikki also have an affair and the line separating their fictional characters and reality comes crashing down.
Now, having written that, the movie I saw had almost nothing to do with it. There’s an interesting mystery thriller in that weird tale, but Lynch suggests this plot and then lets it fade away into something quite different. Something that is so intangible that it must be seen to be truly understood. This is what disturbs audiences unwilling to surrender to the movie. What happens when narrative just falls away? What’s under that? The narrative was a secure floor for us to stand on and when that’s pulled away, we are left to free-fall. This is a very uncomfortable feeling, and the closest way I can describe Lynch’s techniques. No one likes being out of control, and when you watch a film where literally anything can happen, the movie suddenly feels dangerous.
“INLAND EMPIRE” must’ve been a monster to edit. Almost four years of shooting, a large cast, a sprawling story, and hours of footage to decide upon. It’s impressive how well constructed it is. The disintegrating narrative works here more than normal partly because Lynch doesn’t push it hard to begin with. He opens the film up with a series of abstract scenes to get us to understand that the flow and nature of the film will be loose and inexplicable. Then, he lays in the narrative lightly with the most conventional scenes involving the movie within the movie being made. When the story falls apart again, it’s merely falling back into its original form.
As always with Lynch, the acting is dazzling. It seems as though Laura Dern drops all self-control and gives herself up to the role and the movie. She actually seems lost in her own world. In fact, her performance is almost beyond criticism since it’s so tied into the fabric of the film itself. She, in many ways, is “INLAND EMPIRE”; she is the whole point of the movie, the way Naomi Watts was the center of “Mulholland Drive”. This is Justin Theroux’s second film for Lynch, and I cannot imagine a better leading man since Lynch’s split with Kyle Maclachlan. Theroux’s sly and mischievous persona is wasted in films like “Charlie’s Angels 2” and “Miami Vice”, but with Lynch he is given the opportunity to shine.
Now, I’ve always thought it was amazing how Lynch got these wonderful performances, since his cast must spend much of the time massively confused as to who or what they are and why they are doing whatever they are doing. But on the other hand, this lack of context might also be tremendously freeing for an actor. One of Lynch’s skills is his uncanny ability in casting the right odd face in the smallest of roles. In many cases, these often unknown players find their way into our memories days later with a strange line reading or a very disturbing smile.
Harry Dean Stanton, a well known actor who fits the above description perfectly, has several incredible scenes in the film, including a strange monologue about his “damn landlord” that goes from the insane and incomprehensible to a sudden request to borrow money, as though that were the point of his absurd story. As he pockets the cash, he says flatly, “I used to be able to hold my own end up. Now I’m reduced to this shameful and embarrassing behavior.”
The rest of the cast is peppered with a gallery of surprising cameos from William H. Macy, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Ladd, Grace Zabriskie, Laura Harring, and hey, remember Julia Ormond? She’s in the movie too, playing two characters as well. One is a mysterious women being interrogated by the police while she bleeds to death from a screwdriver stuck in her stomach. The other is Doris Side, the wife of Billy Side, the wealthy Southern character played by Devon in “On High in Blue Tomorrows”. The scene where Ormond slaps the shit out of Dern is a high camp classic.
“INLAND EMPIRE” is a film that no one makes anymore, at least not in America. The truly auteurist art film is really a relic of the past, of the late 1960s. To see something so free and without the infantile desire to beg for the audience’s love is amazing. The film exists on its own terms, for its own reasons. Like the classic films of Fellini, Godard, and Antonioni, “INLAND EMPIRE” requires the audience to bring something of themselves to it. It is a dialogue between the audience and the art.
If you’ve seen the film, I’ll just say one thing: It’s quite possible that the movie is really about a Polish prostitute trying to escape a slave ring run by someone called “The Phantom” and return home to her husband and son. But this can be easily contradicted as well. The movie is really an incredible experience in Rorschach filmmaking. Like an abstract painting, what you see in the movie is more a reflection of who you are than what the film is really about. That’s why films like “INLAND EMPIRE” can be watched over and over again, year after year. As you mature and change, so do the films. They never completely give up their secrets, mostly because those secrets are really your own.
David Lynch (director) / David Lynch (screenplay)
CAST: Laura Dern …. Nikki Grace/Susan Blue
Jeremy Irons …. Kingsley Stewart
Justin Theroux …. Devon Berk/Billy Side
Harry Dean Stanton …. Freddie Howard
Peter J. Lucas …. Piotrek Krol
Karolina Gruszka …. Lost Girl
Jan Hencz …. Janek (as Jan Hench)
Krzysztof Majchrzak …. Phantom