Inland Empire (Absurda, R)

film_inland_smDespite its wild excess, Inland Empire, comes together in the end, and it's rapturous.

 

 

 

 

 

By now, any moderate film fan over the age of 18 should probably have formed some opinion on the work of David Lynch. He's one of America's prized filmmakers, even if his films don't usually make a lot of money outside of France, and holds a strong fan base. I tend to approach Lynch with a bit more caution than your average twentysomething, especially with Inland Empire, his three-hour epic about (sort of) an actress (Laura Dern) in trouble. With Inland Empire, he has probably the most artistic control he's ever had since Eraserhead, and with this control comes my prudence. After Mulholland Drive, one his most commercially and critically successful films, Lynch has been experimenting with the digital format, creating numerous shorts, all of which can be found on his website and some of which on a self-produced DVD. Without the constraints of finances and with his respectability, the DV format has finally allowed Lynch to make a boundless motion picture, for better or for worse.

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Inland Empire opens dauntingly, with a Polish prostitute, face blurred, meeting with a trick for the first time. There's a woman sobbing while watching a very Lynchian sitcom where the three characters have the heads of rabbits, voiced by Laura Harring, Naomi Watts, and Scott Coffey (an extension of Lynch's digital short Rabbits). And then we enter the so-called narrative. Grace Zabriskie (best known in Lynch terms as the grieving mother of Laura Palmer) stumbles to the door Nikki Grace (Dern) to introduce herself to her new neighbor. Zabriskie is the eerily clairvoyant onlooker, similar to the Louise character Mulholland Drive. To any Lynch fan, her purpose is important and understood. She serves as the voice of strange things to come, however cryptic, startling our heroine. Nikki asks her to leave, but not before Zabriskie has made perfectly clear to Nikki that something's awry about her next film role. The director (Jeremy Irons) later informs Nikki and her leading man (Justin Theroux) that the script is possibly cursed and that the former actors were found murdered and the film was never completed. The "narrative" itself doesn't go a whole lot further from that point, as Lynch then turns the film on its head as Nikki (or more specifically Laura Dern) becomes lost in, maybe, the Inland Empire.

At nearly three hours, Lynch never manages to make Inland Empire boring. It's a head-scratcher for sure, but it's never laboring in length. Instead, it becomes tediously tangled, cutting between Laura Dern presumably playing the role in the script, a different woman with a screwdriver, Polish hookers, the rabbit sitcom, large-breasted girls dancing to "The Locomotion," and a lot of shots of dread-inducing hallways. At this stage in his career, Lynch demands and expects your trust, and audiences likely give it to him. However, Inland Empire is his most demanding and most frustrating. At some point in the second hour, Lynch lost me; into how many ghastly hallways can Laura Dern open a door? Without someone to stop Lynch, there is no limit; without this limit, Inland Empire can become more than a little wearisome to the audience.

The visuals of Inland Empire also add to this uneasiness. In theme, it's certainly a David Lynch film, but visually, the digital format does not lend to the beauty of color and images that we've become used to. The consumer-level quality of images, in addition to the sometimes-forced weirdness of the film, leaves you guessing as to whether or not you're watching someone do their best Lynch than seeing a film he's created on his own.

What does hold Inland Empire together is Dern, who serves as producer of the film as well in her third film with Lynch. Unlike Lynch's lack of restraint, Dern's is absolutely transcendent. Other than Dennis Hopper's brilliant performance in Blue Velvet, Lynch has always excelled in not only his female characters, but his actresses. Lynch has directed some of the most amazing performances from actresses in the past 20 years, from Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet to Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. Though she was lovely in Wild at Heart, Dern is given center stage in Inland Empire, the impermeable glue that keeps the film from falling apart. There's such a raw intensity in Dern's performance that we probably haven't seen since Watts auditioned for the sleazy film in Mulholland.

Thankfully, Inland Empire, despite its wild excess, comes together in the end, and it's rapturous. Even if you're still weary about certain elements, there's a real payoff in the final 20 or so minutes of the film. The payoff serves as a reminder of why people like Lynch and was unnerving to this reviewer, who was ready to dismiss Lynch altogether with Inland Empire. Equipped with regulars like Zabriskie, Harring, Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton, and Diane Ladd, Inland Empire is (as stated before, for better or worse) the ultimate culmination of his previous works, minus any dancing midgets, but maybe it'll keep the Lynch fans from still pining for that extra hour of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. | Joe Bowman

 

Inland Empire will screen at the Winifred-Moore Auditorium on the campus of Webster University at5 and 8:30 p.m. on the evenings of March 2 and 3, as well as at 7 p.m. on March 4, 6, and 8. Visit http://www.webster.edu/filmseries for more information.

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