About twenty minutes into David Lynch's latest film, Inland Empire viewers wonder whether they've lost their minds or if Lynch has lost his. And for most of the movie's 179 minute running time, America's most surreal visionary keeps the audience guessing.
The good news for movie lovers in general, and Lynch enthusiasts in particular, is that Lynch has finally unveiled his latest project. Similar to his two previous films, Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), he has evolved from conventional linear storylines, preferring to spin tales where characters slip in and out of time and space, as if they are bouncing between actual reality and one born from their imagination.
Fortunately Lynch fans are a rare breed of cinefile and to paraphrase the late great Hunter S. Thompson, it just can't get weird enough for them.
So when a room with rabbit people appears about three scenes into Inland Empire, it's an acid test for viewers. If you won't be satisfied unless there's an explanation of who the rabbit people are, where this mysterious Lynchian room exists and why they're spouting non-sequiter soap opera dialogue, it's probably time for you to run to Blockbuster and rent a Will Ferrell comedy.
The main story of Inland Empire centers on an actress, Nikki Grace, played by Lynch favorite Laura Dern. Nikki is hired for a film, which she later learns is a remake. The first time the film was produced, director (Jeremy Irons) explains to Dern and her co-star Devon (Justin Theroux), the two leads were murdered.
As filming progresses, and Nikki's dangerously jealous husband warns Devon of the potential consequences his wife's infidelity would provoke, she begins to live the story as Sue - the character she is playing in the film. Is it the powerful topical nature of the film assimilating itself into her life - a classic tale of 'art imitating life', or vice-versa? This is what viewers are left to ponder.
Moreover, she sometimes teleports to Poland, where another part of the story takes place from time to time, which is the point of origin for the original script and version of the film Dern is now shooting a remake of.
Lynch has often worked with the themes of sexuality, sexual jealousy and the violence that it provokes. Lynch's films are regularly described as dream worlds and dreams have played a major role in both his films and his cult TV creation Twin Peaks.
In "Inland Empire" Lynch returns to these themes, this time working exclusively with digital video rather than film. Lynch is credited with the movie's "cinematography" as well as editing. In the second "disk" that accompanies the Rhino DVD release (the movie had almost no theatrical release) Lynch discusses his love of the new digital technology that allows him to work very spontaneously with a minimal crew.
Lynch also praises the digital editing software that allows him to edit by himself. This also allowed him to produce Inland Empire over three years largely with his own funding, shooting in Poland as well as Los Angeles.
In the interviews he also explains how he began shooting in Poland with just a fragment of an idea. Each morning he would wake up, decide what the story was that day and then shoot it. His actors, at the end of production, admitted they weren't really sure what the story was about.
The hard-boiled master Raymond Chandler once said that he wrote murder mysteries that were more concerned with prose style than with "who done it". He wanted to write stories that people would want to read even if the last ten pages were missing.
Lynch's latest offering is a variation on that theme. The first time I watched it I was confused, horrified and uncertain whether Lynch might have descended so far into his imagination that he had left his story and his audience behind. Without divulging too much plot, I will simply say that the movie has a satisfying ending, albeit a Lynchian one, complete with a one legged woman and a man sawing a log.
It's also a film that I find myself popping into the DVD player just to watch random scenes for their strange beauty and, yes, weirdness.
It's not certain whether you will find "Inland Empire" at your local video store, although it is available through Netflix. I found my copy unexpectedly while browsing movies at Wal-Mart. The double disk offers more than an hour of extra story that Lynch couldn't fit into "Inland Empire", a lengthy interview with Lynch, a cooking lesson from the man, and a beautiful short "Ballerina" which explores his enthusiasm for digital video.
16th November, 2023