Where do I begin with Inland Empire, David Lynch’s last feature film? Well, for one, it is a difficult film to watch in the sense that it is incredibly cryptic; probably Lynch’s most cryptic feature film to date. In saying that, it is also not his best but it is definitely worth a watch.
Let’s start with the basic plot. The set up of this film is that Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is set to star in a leading role in a new Hollywood production, where she plays a woman named Susan, in an affair with a man named Billy, played by Devon (Justin Theroux). Devon is warned by Nikki’s husband not to try and have an affair with Nikki. This is all within the first hour or so in the film and even with Lynch’s characteristically idiosyncratic way of presenting dialogue, this early part of the film is actually quite straightforward.
Where it starts getting weird is when the film within a film is being made: a person appearing but who isn’t actually there, sudden realisation that the line between reality of the film and film within a film are being blurred and a bizzare, dreamlike structure. The film cuts back and forth between different rooms and Nikki’s experiences, which are at times surreal and confusing. Like dreams can be, the relationship and structure from room to room are quite illogical in the eclectic difference; being able to cut to Polish streets, to a typical LA home, to gritty industrial looking apartments that are reminiscent of Eraserhead or the prison in Silent Hill 2. There are red velvet curtains and not-quite-chevron floors that made me for a moment think this film had some connection to Twin Peaks but when I didn’t hear anyone speak backwards, that theory was thrown out the window. There is also a room with anthropomorphic rabbits that seem to be in the world’s strangest sitcom, given the laugh track. Sequences in the film loop back around and into each other, creating a narrative structure that is non linear and very non traditional. As far as the structure is concerned, it reminds me very much of Lynch’s previous film Mulholland Drive as well as the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five.
So, without spoiling it too much, here is what I think might have happened in the film: after starting filming and then going through that strange alleyway, Nikki’s experience of reality and film became increasingly blurred, possibly even that there became multiple permutations of the same person that was at times able to remember and experience pieces of the different permutations. Space and time become disrupted, considering the unclear chronology of events that unfold. The identity of Nikki too through this surreal, dreamlike experience becomes fractured and disjointed. At least that is my basic interpretation and mapping of events throughout the film without spoiling too much.
One of the most distinctive features of the film, aside from Lynch’s characteristic use of a low, rumbling ambient soundscape that generates constant unease and full music tracks that punctuate the emotion of a given sequence, is the camera used. For this film, Lynch used a consumer grade digital camera that I believe was 480p and so the film has this unusual aesthetic that is subversive and discomforting, since this is not how we are used to watching feature films but instead home movies or television during the time of this film’s production. Or watching student films. With that, it of course appears dated on this technical level, but if you watch a 1080p version it looks fine most of the time due to the camera being rather steady. This was something I paid especially close attention to considering the original Blair Witch Project does look kind of shit on 1080p screens, even with an HD stream.
The performances as a whole in this film, especially Laura Dern’s are quite excellent, although she’s not quite a good a screamer as Sheryl Lee. Dern convincingly conveys the confusion of Nikki’s experience and the different personalities she seems to embody throughout, showing off a tremendous amount of range as well as subtlety.
Inland Empire clocks in at a three hour run time. It is a film filled with tremendous performances and the dreamlike and nightmarish surrealism Lynch often has deployed throughout his works in imaginative ways. Considering this run time, it can feel a bit slow, but the length is necessary since if it was too much shorter, there would be even less time to process what the hell is going on. It requires patience from the viewer and as I have said, it is Lynch’s most cryptic and difficult feature film to date, an enigma wrapped up in a mystery. But don’t let that deter you since it is still surrealist excellence that should be appreciated by any Lynch fan, even if, like me, it’s not quite your favourite.