I'm not sure that it's actually possible to review David Lynch's Inland Empire in any traditional way. Anyone who has seen either Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Dr. (2001) understands that Lynch is operating on different levels of experience and story-telling than perhaps any other living director and knows that his stories, which are often deeply involved with issues of identity and sexuality and the psychological turmoils that often accompany both, are esoteric, arcane and yet resonate deeply on an unconscious level. Inland Empire continues Lynch's unique style of exploration into these themes. Yet while it is elegant, startling and beautiful to behold, it is so spectacularly bizarre, so impenetrable and it's length is so utterly taxing that it will baffle even the hardiest of cinephiles. By comparison, Inland Empire makes Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. seem like nearly conventional narratives. Shot entirely on consumer-level, hand-held DV cameras and filmed in a surrealistic almost home-video style, Inland Empire is Lynch's most experimental film since his debut film Eraserhead (1977). All of this means that I can't really see anyone enjoying this film other than an already established Lynch fan (which, I should state for the record, I am) or a open-minded connoisseur of the avant-garde and experimental. For those that do brave these murky waters, though, Lynch provides an experience that is utterly unique and rather unforgettable.
The plot of Inland Empire, as far as there is one, revolves around the character (or characters) played by Laura Dern, who starred for David Lynch in both Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990). Dern plays Nikki Grace, a reasonably famous actress struggling to stay recognized is youth-obsessed Hollywood. Already, Lynch seems to be teasing us with meta concerns, as Nikki appears to possibly resemble Laura Dern herself. Nikki is told by a strange visitor (Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie) that she (Nikki) is about to star in a new movie, something even Nikki does not know yet. The visitor is of course correct and Nikki excitedly takes the part. As production of the movie begins, though, Kingsley Stewart, the film's director (Jeremy Irons) tells her and her co-star (Jeremy Theroux) that the movie may in fact be cursed and that it is actually a remake of a film that was never released. Cryptically, Stewart tells them that the previous production had "discovered something inside the story." From here, Inland Empire very rapidly discards all notions of coherence and becomes a series of increasing distressing and beautiful abstract images which seem to revolve around Laura Dern's multiple characters. For instance, the character of Nikki Grace seems to slowly lose her identity to Susan Blue, the character Nikki is playing in the movie. If this sounds like a simple case of "meta awareness" or what have you, don't be fooled. While the movie does play with such notions and raise these questions (is this a movie-within-a-movie situation, a dream-within-a-dream, or are we perhaps watching a movie about the movie we are actually watching, like Adaptation) it does so only partially, only enough to suggest the possibility. Whatever is happening in Inland Empire is rather more complicated than just this, though, and involves, among other things, an unidentified woman, Polish gangsters in another era and a surreal sitcom about talking rabbits.
The logic of Inland Empire is nearly inscrutable, at least according to the traditional conventions of film structure and narrative. It is Lynchian logic. It is the logic of dreams and nightmares, in which every character can be the same character (not only metaphorically but literally) and in which places, events, repeated words and, in the case of a film, shots and angles, are pregnant with arcane and yet tautly emotional meaning. In this kaleidoscopic Lynchian dream, the narrative is fractured; it is unclear whether or not the many events and "things that happen" are independent of each other, parallel, overlapping, simultaneous or perhaps altogether hallucinatory. And yet, while it is "fractured," it is entirely unified in its own way according to the madness of its method. The disparate elements form an emotional tapestry that, if it does not make sense, at least loudly resonates on a visceral level. Lynch himself is very cryptic about the movie and when asked what is it about, which is perhaps the wrong question to ask about this film, Lynch has typically responded that it is "about a woman in trouble, and it's a mystery, and that's all I want to say about it." Perhaps a more helpful hermeneutical hint, though, is this. When touring with the movie, Lynch apparently often began screenings by first quoting a passage from the Aitareya Upanishad. The passage is, "We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe." If Inland Empire is a dream, though, whose dream is it? Is it Nikki's or Susan's? Lynch's? Or is it ours, the audiences? Lynch plays with all of these possibilities, I think, but deliberately and a little frustratingly refuses to give us an answer.
I'm really not sure what else to say about the movie. I could comment on the actors' performances, which are all remarkable, especially Laura Dern's (her performance is made even more remarkable since, as she freely admits, she had no idea what the film was about when they were making it), but almost inevitably, and this is not to say anything against the actors or their abilities, the performances in a Lynch movie often become only another technical feature bringing about Lynch's vision. As I scramble for a way to close this review, I think that the final thing I should say is this: Inland Empire is definitely not for the average moviegoer. It is not even for the average art house cinephile. It sounds pretentious, and perhaps it is the height film snobbery to say it, but Inland Empire is a work of pure abstract art and will be enjoyed only by a few adventurous, and slightly confused, souls. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, all its impenetrability, it possesses a compelling grandeur that is quite remarkable. I don't know what Inland Empire is or what it is about, but I feel like it's important and I know that I want to experience it again.
experto crede: a strong, but very qualified, recommendation.