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With: Laura Dern, Grace Zabriski, Ian Abercrombie, Karolina Gruszka, Krzysztof Majchrzak, Jan Hencz, Karen Baird, Bellina Logan, Peter J. Lucas, Amanda Foreman, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton, Cameron Daddo, Jerry Stahl, Sara Glaser, Neil Dickson, Dianne Ladd, Jeremy Alter, William H. Macy, Jason Weinberg, Duncan K. Fraser, Julia Ormond, Kristen Kerr, Jordan Ladd, Terryn Westbrook, Kat Turner, Erik Crary, Stanley Kamel, Marek Zydowicz, Mary Steenburgen, Leon Niemczyk, Carolina Cerisola, Terry Crews, Nae Yukki, Tracy Ashton, Masuimi Max, Dominique Vandenberg, Keith Kjarval, Scott Coffey, Nastassja Kinski, Laura Elena Harring, Naomi Watts
Written by: David Lynch
Directed by: David Lynch
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 180
Date: 09/05/2006

Inland Empire (2006)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hollywood Blending

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Lynch's first film in five years, since Mulholland Drive (2001), apparently received nervous shrugs from distributors, and so Lynch has opted to distribute it himself. Inland Empire opened in Los Angeles and New York in December of 2006, qualifying it for Academy and ten-best list consideration, but it was not screened anywhere else, so I was unable to include it on my 2006 list. (I saw it midway through January.) It's a three-hour, non-linear film shot on grungy video; it can be difficult and overwhelming to sit through, and it's certainly not easy for PR departments to sell. But it's the best new movie I've seen in over a year, since Terrence Malick's The New World.

For the first hour, Inland Empire plays on narrative expectations as we get the semblance of a story. Out of work movie actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern, also in Lynch's Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart) lands a role in a new romantic drama called On High in Blue Tomorrows, directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Her co-star, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), is notorious for seducing his female co-stars and before long he can't resist putting the moves on her. Worse, it turns out that the film has a gypsy curse on it, and that a previous production -- never completed -- was shut down after the stars died. As with the characters in Lynch's previous films, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, Nikki begins losing track of her identity, merging it with that of her character. Lynch even manages to blur the film itself so that we're never precisely sure if Nikki is acting a scene in her film, or if she's being herself.

In one particularly effective, Hitchcockian scene, the director, his two stars and a kind of producer character, Freddie Howard (Harry Dean Stanton), meet on the sound stage to go over the script. They hear a noise from behind the set, and Devon goes to investigate, poking around the curtains and scrims, but finding nothing. Later in the film, Nikki enters a mysterious door and finds herself backstage, back in time during that moment, the originator of the noise. Other films might continue in that time-flipping strain, but at that point Nikki launches into a continuous nightmare, lasting roughly the final two-thirds of the film, in which she appears in new identities in new situations (married to different men) and tries to adapt. Few of the situations make any sense in realistic terms, and all have an unpredictable dreamlike quality. (Lynch, along with Orson Welles and Luis Bunuel, is one of the only directors able to effectively capture the elusive fabric and peculiar logic of dreams and nightmares.)

Again, like Mulholland Drive, Lynch seems to have crafted most of Inland Empire as a kind of puzzle to be interpreted. It would be ludicrous of me to attempt to solve the puzzle (especially after only one viewing), but there are a few items I noticed. The very first image in the film is an explosive eruption of light, which immediately reminded me of a film projector bulb bursting. This may be Lynch's way of saying farewell to film and hello to video. Also, intermittently throughout the film, he cuts to a woman watching television in a hotel room, and so the grainy video quality may be an attempt to capture that, the feel of looking at a pathetic, worn-out, small, lonely TV screen (as opposed to a giant, crystal-clear flat-screen plasma number). The woman in the hotel room watches lots of things, but mainly she watches a very odd sitcom about people with rabbit heads. The camera never moves, the lighting is headache-inducing and the laugh track comes in at the oddest times. (Mama rabbit says, "there were no calls today," and the audience roars.) At other times the woman appears to be watching something about Polish gangsters and sometimes she appears to be watching Nikki go through her tribulations.

One thing that remains constant here is Lynch's singular sound design, as in the machine-like humming that he invented for Eraserhead (1977) and continues to use very effectively. He's also a master of volumes and pitches, and can make you jump out of your seat with a sudden, perfectly timed screech. In one shocking, disconnected scene, Nikki comes lurking out of the shadows in the distance, walking along a stage while in a spotlight. She continues to tiptoe, looking at the camera, coming closer. As she gets closer and closer, she picks up speed, finally charging into the camera, her face frozen in a gruesome grin, and shrieking a horrible, horrible shriek. My skin's crawling just thinking about it.

In the past, Lynch has randomly inserted bits of weirdness into his films that never seem to amount to anything (the "chicken walk" in Blue Velvet, for example), but in Inland Empire, every odd line or image comes around again, as if in a full circle. At one point a character mentions getting confused about the time: it could be 9:45 p.m. or after midnight. Those two times come up again at various points in the film. (This could also be another clue: that the entire film is taking place within the space of a few minutes in Nikki's living room.) A reference to people "being good with animals" also returns again and again.

Lynch also messes around with the idea of endings. The film comes to what seems like a good, happy ending at some point past the two-hour mark, but it goes on. And when it finally ends for good, it ends with a bang and a kind of musical number, by Nina Simone, full of guest stars (if you look fast, you can spot Nastassja Kinski and Laura Elena Harring, the latter from Mulholland Drive). Actually, many familiar faces turn up over the course of the film. William H. Macy literally appears in one single shot, as an enthusiastic announcer. Mary Steenburgen, Terry Crews, Diane Ladd, Grace Zabriskie, Julia Ormond and the voice of Naomi Watts turn up as well, and you might not even recognize them.

I'm not claiming that I understood the film completely; many scenes flew right over my head, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy watching them. The final assessment is that, like Blue Velvet's suburbia, Hollywood has all kinds of ugly, squirmy things teeming under its surface. But unlike Blue Velvet's simpler, good-and-evil template, Inland Empire allows for beautiful, funny, terrible and peculiar things to blend together, in a great, messy tapestry that forces viewers to find their own connection, rather than being handed one.

Perhaps the most amazing thing of all is the performance by Laura Dern. More than once, characters in Inland Empire mention "Oscar" in reference to her character's performance, and in real life Lynch has made headlines campaigning for an Oscar nomination for his lead actress, sitting on Hollywood boulevard with a rented cow. And though the campaign failed, this year's five nominees (as good as some of them were) should have the grace to step aside and hand the statue to Dern. Unlike any other performer this year (or any other year) she literally goes through hell and back for her craft.

If Eraserhead was Lynch's breakthrough film for the 20th century, then surely Inland Empire goes a long way toward defining the 21st century and its many lost highways to come.

The 2007 DVD, distributed by Rhino, is a spectacular two-disc set that easily ranks among the year's best. It begins with Lynch's usual television calibration tutorial before launching into a gorgeous transfer of the film. I was worried that it would go with the direct digital video master (as with the DVD of Abbas Kiarostai's Ten), but it looks more like a professional film than a home video. It features three audio mixes. The second disc comes with a tasty batch of extras: 75 minutes of outtakes (called "More Things That Happened"), a short film Ballerina, a long sit-down interview with Lynch on the making of the film, a featurette in which Lynch teaches us how to cook quinoa with broccoli, stills, trailers, and one more very intriguing featurette that features the dark side of Lynch while working on the set (he barks at assistants and scolds actors). Don't miss this.

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