#9 in my definitive ranking of David Lynch’s films.
This is the ultimate David Lynch movie. Born of a series of experimental short films he made with consumer grade digital cameras, this is a series of images looking for a story. Thankfully Lynch did find a story to hang it all off of, but at three hours I think it ends up meandering around with his experiments for too long at different stretches. Overall, I would call this a good film, a terrifying descent into an identity crisis, but there end up being large blocks that feel out of place instead of essential to the story.
It’s about an actress, Nikki Grace, who wins the role in the remake of a Polish film that was never finished after the Polish original’s two stars were murdered. While living in a loveless marriage to a Polish man, she gets close to her costar, Devon Berk, and the borders between her real life and the role she’s playing blur. She plays scenes with Devon, and the performance is so convincing that she has trouble coming back to reality afterwards. Devon seduces her (or does he?), and she even breaks into laughter during the filming of a scene because what they’re saying sounds so much like their script, implying that she thought she was just having an intimate conversation with Devon.
The break between Nikki’s two realities grows until she enters what can only really be described as a fever dream for the rest of the bulk of the film. This takes over about an hour in and doesn’t really let up until the end. Up until this point, the film has been coherent and singular in focus, but once Nikki loses her grip, there’s nothing for the audience to really grasp onto anymore except what we had scene. Nikki ceases to be Nikki and she becomes a series of personalities in different places and different times.
There’s her in a small house hanging out with a group of prostitutes who, at one point, break into dance to “The Locomotion” before suddenly disappearing from frame. There’s her with her husband in a run down little house where they’re trying to have a little backdoor get together with some friends that gets overrun by some travelling performers who take her husband away to join them. She shoes up in a nightclub, ascending the back stairs, and goes into a long monologue of the abuse she’s faced throughout her life. Through all of this there is no bother to hold the audience’s hand about where “reality” is and where “unreality” is. This is a deep dive into a woman’s psyche as she struggles to find herself while dealing with a failing marriage, an unsuccessful affair, and the acting role of a lifetime.
It only begins to clear up late in the film when the film within the film calls cut for the last night. Nikki slowly gets up from the set of Hollywood Boulevard where her character died, and she seems an empty vessel. Throughout the film, from the opening in fact, the action of the film has been watched by a woman alone in a hotel room. As Nikki is gathering herself, she appears to this woman and embraces her before disappearing. This ends up feeling like the most obvious Lynch has been in his career with Nikki’s performance being an extension to reach the audience. I’m not the biggest fan of this meta moment. It’s just too on the nose.
In terms of all the little pieces that form the surrealist and abstract experience, I can’t provide a serious cinematic critique because of how David Lynch builds his films. He insists on “feel think” to guide the audience, but as I watch certain elements like the Rabbits stuff (a flatly filmed set with three humans in large rabbit costumes who move very slowly, say things very slowly, and occasionally have a laugh track in an obvious attempt at a satirical take on sitcoms) I can’t figure out what they’re adding other than an increasing sense of disorientation. I suppose that’s something, but it ends up feeling so far removed from Nikki’s experience that I don’t really know what to do with it. Because the movie was so cheap to produce, I imagine Lynch had the freedom to make Inland Empire whatever he wanted without much concern for commercial prospects, so this is probably the one instance of Lynch working in his ideal environment with nearly infinite time and able to deliver as much as he wanted. He didn’t even get all of that on Twin Peaks: The Return. So, in that way, this really is the purest Lynch movie since Eraserhead, and probably the purest Lynch movie he ever made.
As I watched this, for the second time mind you, I was fascinated as it progressed through all three hours but never really involved emotionally. It’s an interesting look into Lynch’s imagination and this character’s emotional state, but I never really felt it myself. Laura Dern, though, gives an incredible performance through her many iterations of Nikki’s psyche, the most impressive is probably her scenes in the upper room of the night club where she details her horrible life. The rest of the cast is there to support her with Justin Theroux being suave and a bit creepy, Jeremy Irons as the director as big and easily frustrated, and a wonderful little performance from Harry Dean Stanton as Irons’ assistance who keeps bumming cash off of the movie’s cast and crew.
Visually, though, this movie is kind of ugly. Filmed with consumer grade early 00s digital cameras while using available light for at least 80% of the shots, the movie is blocky and dim. However, I feel like any independent filmmaker must watch this movie because even though Lynch was using terrible equipment with few frills, he still managed to make a movie that doesn’t look much like a movie still feel like a real movie. The editing, sound design, and performances are what you would expect from a Hollywood production. It would be like finding a novel written in crayon only to discover that it actually reads like a novel.
Inland Empire is almost an accident of a film, pieced together from smaller elements that was forced into a singular form through David Lynch’s imagination. It’s not the tightest or most focused work he’s done, but there’s no denying that it’s pure Lynch. I feel more admiration for it than actual affection, but that admiration is certainly there.