Lynch goes epic for some shot-on-video strangeness
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by David Lynch
Cast: Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons
Over his long career as a cult filmmaker, David Lynch has done some incredibly intriguing films (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr.) and some incredibly inaccessible films (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). Admittedly, the line separating these two is a razor-thin one. Aside from a couple brief diversions into “mainstream” cinema (1980’s The Elephant Man, 1999’s The Straight Story), Lynch’s films have all been hallucinogenic film noir nightmares filled with freakshow symbolism, nonlinear storytelling and a hazy aura of decayed decadence. Lynch’s new effort, Inland Empire, certainly follows that trend--although I’m still trying to figure out whether it’s of the intriguing or inaccessible variety. Both, I suspect.
Fans and haters alike seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what Lynch’s films are really about, and Inland Empire will be no exception. What do these films mean? What’s in the box in Mulholland Dr.? What’s with the numbers under the fingernails in Twin Peaks? Why so many red curtains? The key, I think, in absorbing Lynch’s work is to free yourself from such concerns. Lynch’s images, no matter how iconic, don’t tend to stand for specific things. Much like the obscuro lyricism of Beck (who, in a nice bit of synergy, contributes his first track to a Lynch film with Inland Empire), the frequently surreal juxtapositions are simply there for mood. No one asks Beck what the hell “I’ve got a devil’s haircut in my mind” means. To Lynch, sometimes a dancing dwarf is just a dancing dwarf. Why is it there? Because it’s freakin’ weird, man.
Inland Empire,, the director’s first new feature in five years, certainly falls into the “freakin’ weird” category. The film is one of Lynch’s most personal efforts, in that he shot it all himself using a mid-grade digital video camera, drafting the occasional movie star pal to spout lines and pretty much inventing the script on the spot. Two-and-a-half years in the making and 172 minutes in length, Inland Empire is nothing if not self-indulgent--mostly because no additional amount of footage is going to shed any more light on the shadowy puzzlebox of a plot. And yet, as daunting as a three-hour, self-distributed vanity project by David Lynch sounds, Inland Empire is a mesmerizing bit of madness.
Here’s what I was able to glean of the plot: Lynch fave Laura Dern (Wild at Heart) stars as Nikki Grace, a once-successful actress who has just landed a role in a new film titled On High on Blue Tomorrows. The film costars hot young womanizer Devon Berk (Justin Theroux, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) and is being directed by a highbrow Brit named Kingsley (Jeremy Irons). The plot of this film-within-a-film seems to revolve around a poor Southern woman named Susan Blue (Dern) involved in an adulterous relationship with a high society gent named Billy Side (Theroux). It also turns out that the film in question may or may not be cursed. Possibly by gypsies. I’m not sure on that exactly.
As rehearsals for On High On Blue Tomorrows progress, Nikki seems to be getting more and more absorbed in her character. Will she, like her character, have an adulterous affair? Lines blur, identities are confused and eventually it’s hard to tell if our heroine is Nikki dreaming she’s Susan or Susan dreaming she’s Nikki. Much like Lynch’s arguable masterwork Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire deals with an actress free-floating between two identities. Unlike Mulholland Dr., there’s also a bunch of creepy Polish circus folk and a gang of prostitutes doing “The Locomotion.” Did I mention the TV “sitcom” (complete with inappropriate laughtrack) that drops in occasionally, depicting a trio of people with giant rabbit heads (voiced by Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey). I’m gonna go back out on that limb and say the rabbits don’t actually mean anything in this context. But they sure are weird.
Harry Dean Stanton, Grace Zabriskie, Diane Ladd, Julia Ormond, Nastassja Kinski, Mary Steenburgen and William H. Macy all drop by for curious cameos, but all eyes are on Dern, who gives an arresting, occasionally savage, central performance. It’s to her credit that the made-up-on-the-spot dialogue and freeform plot end up with any sort of coherence. The filmmaker’s new fascination with DV gives the movie a much less polished look than his previous work, but imparts a creepy “X-Files”-meets-snuff-film vibe. It’s dark, it’s weird, it’s abstract as all get-out. Of course, if you’ve never been a fan of Lynch, Inland Empire isn’t the film to convert you. Fans, however, will happily OD on this Lynchian overload.
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