Monday 24 September 2007

Inland Empire (2006)

Monday 24 September 2007
Writer & Director: David Lynch

Cast: Laura Dern (Nikki Grace/Susan Blue), Justin Theroux (Devon Berk/Billy Side), Jeremy Irons (Kingsley Stewart), Karolina Gruszka (Lost Girl), Jan Hencz (Janek), Krzysztof Majchrzak (Phantom), Grace Zabriskie (Visitor #1), Ian Abercrombie (Henry The Butler), Karen Baird (Servant), Bellina Logan (Linda), Amanda Foreman (Tracy), Peter J. Lucas (Piotrek Król), Harry Dean Stanton (Freddie Howard), Cameron Daddo (Devon Berk's Manager) & Jerry Stahl (Devon Berk's Agent)

An actress's perception of reality becomes increasingly distorted when she falls in love with her co-star, whilst remaking a cursed Polish film...

As a lifelong fan of David Lynch, the prospect of another film is both salivating and daunting. Lynch's films have become increasingly surreal and abstract since Lost Highway, moving further away from conventional narratives that tethered Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks to some semblence of reality. His earlier work looks sedate compared to INLAND EMPIRE.

Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, a talented actress who agrees to co-star alongside Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) in "On High In Blue Tomorrows", a remake being directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). The Polish original was unfinished and allegedly cursed, which is the only explanation we're given for Dern's nightmarish descent into a reality that blurrs with movie fiction...

Unfortunately, despite my best intentions, I found INLAND EMPIRE quite inaccessible and frequently maddening. Lynch's fuzzy dream-logic isn't as pronounced as usual, meaning I was constantly left bemused, confused, and gasping for something tangible to bring focus. Well, as focused as a Lynch movie will allow...

INLAND EMPIRE has a lot in common with Lynch's previous film, Mulholland Dr., given its blonde heroine and showbiz backdrop. It's also a meditation on themes Lynch has been chewing on for a decade -- becoming a riff on former glories and the unofficial conclusion of a "trilogy" alongside Highway and Drive.

When rabbit-headed humans appear from Lynch's now-defunct internet short Rabbits, it's clear the auteur is having trouble dreaming up anything original. INLAND EMPIRE is Lynch's own Greatest Hits; only with less plot, little cohesion, a rambling story and a ridiculous 179-minute runtime.

That it remains watchable is mainly because of a vague hope Lynch will pull his baffling plots together in the third act. He doesn't -- perhaps because INLAND EMPIRE was filmed without a script, with the story improvised scene-by-scene from his imagination. It remains true that Lynch is a master of weirdness, and there's plenty of crazy scenes to be savoured, but without a sense of strong direction it's baffling, not beguiling.

Of course, nobody watches Lynch movies for a crystal clear understanding of what was going on! Much of the fun comes from post-film discussion, debate and argument. The difference between INLAND EMPIRE and something like Mulholland Dr. is there are less buoys to grab onto when the sea-of-subconscious style threatens to drown you.

The entire cast are ominous and spooky, just as you'd expect; speaking in hushed tones, foreign languages, using quirky grammar and making lyrical statements that keep you glued to their performances.

Laura Dern is the only person who has a proper "character" to work with, and she gives a terrific performance as Nikki, slowly fracturing as the film twists ever more insanely. It's even more remarkable given the fact Dern wasn't working from a completed script! Jeremy Irons is also good fun as a histrionic British director, while Justin Theroux and Harry Dean Stanton look suitably enigmatic.

I'd love to proclaim INLAND EMPIRE a visionary masterpiece, but I can't lie to myself. Speaking as a Lynch devotee, I just don't think there's anything in the story to latch onto. After 90 minutes trying to get a handle on events, you begin to grow frustrated. Then, when the climax fails to provide any semblence of "resolution", I was left severely disappointed.

Usually I can't wait to dissect Lynch films with friends, and scour the internet for critical opinions and "answers", but after watching INLAND EMPIRE... a malaise just took hold. A trawl of the internet has unearthed some interesting opinions and given a slight perspective on the film's ambitions, but not enough to change my opinion.

INLAND EMPIRE can resemble a self-parody at times, but it's beautifully acted and well-filmed -- despite the decision to shoot on digital tape rendering many scenes grim, dirty smudges. Wisely, Lynch uses plenty of fleshy close-ups to help alleviate the muddines, but I hope he just uses hi-def cameras next time!

If you're not in tune with Lynch's twisted psyche, avoid this like the plague -- well, until you've tackled his earlier, slightly more accessible work. But if you are a diehard fan of Lynch's frightening insanity, there are delights lurking in the shadows of INLAND EMPIRE's social commentary and meta-movie madness.

David Lynch has covered this ground before, to less obscure and dramatically-rewarding effect, and while it's true cinema would be a boring place without Lynch inviting us down his rabbit holes... it's time he started digging some new tunnels.

Studio Canal
179 minutes