Is David Lynch a genius or simply a freak provocateur? Throughout his career, he has tested the patience of his audience with forays into the bizarre and the achingly banal, demanding that we peer beneath surfaces and (usually) richly rewarding those of us with the patience to play his game and the receptivity to discern and interpret his clues. His willful obscurity has spawned a devoted cult, and legions of the faithful pore over his movies, memorize every interview, and rearrange the deliberately nonsensical dialogue of his short films hoping to find hidden meanings, convinced that Lynch holds some dark secret about human existence, or perhaps the recipe for a soufflé that never falls, even if you let the oven door slam. There is, of course, a flip side: the folks who find Lynch pretentious, repetitive, and concerned with images and themes more for their shock value than for any more complex meaning they might hold. They see no merit in digging through the red herrings to get at Lynch’s true intent, whatever it may be — it can, in any case, only ever be speculative, since he’s famously mum on the subject. With Lynch’s latest project, INLAND EMPIRE (yes, he prefers the all-caps), both sides of the argument will have ample fodder: It is at once his most complexly evocative and most thoroughly impenetrable — not to say self-indulgent — feature since Eraserhead, if not of his entire career. Those who found Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr. difficult to parse are really screwed with this one.
INLAND EMPIRE is 172 minutes of exhausting, patience-shredding, yet continually intriguing filmmaking, a work that will divide fans and critics and probably lead to a few isolated instances of marital discord. It has a linear narrative, of sorts, only in the first of its nearly three hours; after that we are treated to a long (so long) series of elliptical scenes of questionable purpose and debatable interest. It opens with a few abstracted images of common objects, then moves on to a kinky sexual assignation (between a couple whose faces are inexplicably blurred) in what appears to be a Polish hotel room, then to a sitcom parody featuring a trio of rabbit people who make terse, non-sequitur statements while a laugh track responds on cue, though nothing funny has been said. (This last is a variation on Lynch’s series of Rabbits short films.) This is followed by 45 minutes or an hour (our sense of time becomes skewed) of relatively straightforward narrative about recognizably human characters who are then plunged for nearly two hours into a disjointed, hallucinatory montage of scenes that jump back and forth between Poland, Southern California, and someplace inside Lynch’s head, with several different sets of characters introduced and some those characters alternating between different roles and different realities. Having seen the movie only once, I remain optimistic that there is indeed some point being made here, some plot (actually at least three of them) being explored, but I’m damned if I can say exactly what it is.
This much I know for sure: In the movie’s linear story, Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, an actress who hopes to give her idling career a much-needed jumpstart by playing the female lead in a deep-fried melodrama called On High in Blue Tomorrows, starring the popular Devin Berk (Justin Theroux). Set in the early-20th-century South, the film features their characters, Susan Blue and Billy Side, in an adulterous affair that threatens both their marriages and their lives. Their characters’ situation is echoed in reality, as Devin is a notorious pussyhound and Nikki, though ostensibly happily married, is vulnerable to his charms. As the sexual tension between them grows and Nikki’s husband becomes increasingly suspicious, Nikki begins to lose her connection to reality, or perhaps to slide between realities, increasingly identifying with her character, often unsure whether she is Susan or Nikki or just where she is either geographically or temporally. When she finds herself pulled backward through time into earlier events in her own life, she begins a nightmare journey that takes her to all the aforementioned places and a few others besides, and we in the audience can only observe as she passes through sequences that make no sense to her and less to us.
With INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch for the first time began shooting without a finished script, writing new scenes continually throughout shooting, with no more than a vague sense of how they might connect. He shot the movie on digital video — another first — allowing him to shoot very long takes and to work continuously, spontaneously, improvising and capturing images as they occurred to him. Watching it, we get the sense that perhaps this is the most unmediated glimpse we’ve yet gotten into Lynch’s psyche, with certain ideas and images recurring incessantly and intermingling at random. Throughout Nikki’s journey, there are many of the familiar Lynchian tropes, including mesmerizingly bizarre imagery; dated popular music used for both allusive and absurdist purposes; intentionally stiff or overblown acting; the dark side of Hollywood glamour; a lurid, perverse sexuality; and a brunette woman who serves as a sort of double for the blonde Nikki. (This relationship is central, and I have my own, half-formed theory about exactly what it is and how it relates to the movie’s other events, but I think it’s best to let other viewers work out their own.) Much of this will be catnip to Lynch’s diehard fans, but the movie keeps us at such a distance that it’s difficult to become invested in any of it. We can’t connect to anything that’s happening because we never fully understand what is happening or how it relates to anything else. Still, thinking back over it all, I can’t help wanting to see it again — all three hours — to try with fresh eyes to see how the pieces fit, even though I only intermittently enjoyed it the first time. And that, I suppose, is evidence of a certain kind of genius.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
INLAND EMPIRE / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | December 11, 2006 | Comments ()