Inland Empire -- Review

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)


I feel like I'm coming late to the party here, but Inland Empire finally opened in Toronto last weekend, and the lovely Royal Cinema had a sizable audience for a late showing of the film in all its mid-grade DV glory. As a further perquisite, the theatre was serving Mr. Lynch's own brand of java to chemically augment the experience.

After experiencing Inland Empire (and that is the correct word) and struggling to think about how to actually write about it, one conclusion bubbled up to the surface. The films of David Lynch, darn near all of them, could get by entirely on mood alone. That is not to say that there are not many things worthy of parsing and mulling in his cinema, quite the contrary in fact (especially so with this one). For nearly 3 hours, dread and creeping uneasiness are sustained effortlessly, only punctuated on occasion with moments of absurdity or self-knowing humour. To call Inland Empire the best film of the year is not a stretch in the least. It oozes with primordial cinema matter, comments bitingly on Hollywood and is also a multi-nested loop of films-within-films. For those that obsess on all things Tinseltown, this film is (to borrow a Twin Peaks concept) the Black Lodge version (complete with red curtains).

The movie within a movie is not a terribly original concept. It is, however, more than a little refreshing to see the conceit taken to a dazzlingly new plateau. The identity Rubick's Cube, started with Lost Highway, and further coupled with the sinister traps and pitfalls of the Hollywood dream factory in Mulholland Dr. are taken further down the rabbit hole.

Those familiar with past David Lynch films will immediately be buoyed along by an amalgamation/extension of some of the elements and themes of his previous work into Inland Empire. Contrary to expectations (admittedly from reading far too many reviews over the months prior my own first viewing) it was surprising that the dense tangle of confusion does indeed feel like it could be assembled into order; perhaps even more so than Mulholland Drive and definitely more so than The Lost Highway. Not that one has to do the narrative re-assembly to enjoy the pleasures on offer. The dense wall of sound underscoring often cryptic dialogue-matter and the amplification of each individual moment to its own ambiguous significance is rewarding for those willing to play along. I've always scoffed a little when people make comparisons between David Lynch and Guy Maddin, but comparing both directors recent (and very personal) work -- Inland Empire and Brand Upon The Brain! -- the comparison finally makes sense to me (at this instance anyway). The word uncompromising springs to mind.

The obvious complexity of Inland Empire is that it is four (maybe even five or six) stories swirled into one. Nikki Grace, played by Laura Dern, is a star, presumably in decline, offered the lead part in an old-time melodrama by an optimistic and generous director (Jeremy Irons at his most scruffy) with the proclamation that this will be her great comeback. We soon learn that this film, like many in Hollywood these days, is a remake of a foreign film. However the original Polish film ("47") ended production when the two lead actors were murdered. Their murder does not stop the polish cast from entering the picture however and chunks of the Polish version are embedded as a concurrent story. The polish actress from the original film may possibly be acting as a Inland Empire's framing story: Inland Empire opens on a woman watching things happen on a TV (a delightful cameo from Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie as a polish gypsy channeling Robert Blake's mystery man from Lost Highway is to be cherished). On High in Blue Tomorrows, the film currently being produced often intrudes into reel life. Nikki Grace's struggle to find here character Sarah Blue is successful to the point where she more or less becomes her, mentally struggles with her, and finally vomits her right out of her system in the presence of the prostitutes (some of them notably Grace's actress friends from earlier in the film) and the destitute right on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine. (As an aside, I'd love to know whose star receives the blood vomit). It strikes me a little that Inland Empire has a few things in common with Steven Soderbergh's criminally undervalued Full Frontal in spirit and a tad in execution (both use film-within-film-…) structures. That is, filmmakers that have been through the system making films about being abused by the system. If Full Frontal is a fair bit more coherent and by comparison sunnier, it may be because Soderbergh has found the balance of indie projects with studio projects, while Lynch has gone further and further from the mainstream with his recent work. Again, this is potentially rewarding for those who follow him.

Further attack on both Hollywood and the celebrity star system is achieved with close-ups (as in “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up”). The DV look combined with extreme close ups do not paint a flattering portrait of anyone, but further augment dread. Laura Dern is the recipient of many of these and the effect is one of underscoring her as a bonafide movie star by satirizing the way a star is born and also catered to -- most especially in silver screen cinema (“where stars make dreams and dreams make stars”). A more modern jab involves a gossip talk show hosted by Dianne Ladd (Dern's real life mom. I'm sure that isn't an accident.) And Harry Dean Stanton shows up in a scene or two to poke a bit of fun at the role of the producer. David Lynch himself ‘shows up' offscreen as a near deaf crew-member, a nod to Agent Gordon Cole, but notable for his character unconsciously thwarting the intentions of the filmmaker within the film.

At some point a character inquires “why instigate the need to suffer?” The cumulative effect of Inland Empire is that suffering is compelling on screen as much as a kiss or a bang (of which the film has little). Further dollops of tension dispelling meta include Dern issuing a line which also sums up the film and much of a film career, “'s kinda laid a mind-fuck on me” she confesses to a private eye or a fortune teller or a shrink or a combination of all of the above. Audiences born and bred on hand-holding narratives if they accidentally happen upon this film are likely going be suffering indeed. Acting as the most inept Greek Chorus in the history of Greek Choruses are the bunny-people from David Lynch's website movies ("Rabbits"). Offering little to the overall thrust of the story (if it is not an oxymoron to use that phrase with this film), they add to the strangeness and underscore how easily the film sustains its tone, even in the face of the absurd. Those having trouble with the film will likely remember the bunnies over nearly everything else. Perhaps a shame, as they feel lobbed into the film more than organically infused.

In the end, Inland Empire does what great cinema should do. It talks to you without talking at you. Even if yesterday is tomorrow and tomorrow is yesterday and characters overlap in and out of the film within the film and the whole thing navel gazes in the way films so often are made about making films -- if there is a case for narcissism being a good thing, then David Lynch has made it quite convincingly.

(On a final technical note, the DV cinematography contrary to popular opinion, is fantastic here. What they are able to get out of 'non-cinema' digital video cameras is nothing short of remarkable. That the film-making style is in tune with the subject matter of the film is even better (note the film within the film is being shot on 35mm) Using equipment that was not 'meant' to be blown up for the big screen, and then creating a feeling that seeing Inland Empire on the big screen is the ONLY way to see the film is an accomplishment in itself.)

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