Cult Cinema: David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE

Andrew reviews what seems to be the final feature film of David Lynch.

David Lynch's foray from the mainstream back into obscurity ended briefly with his 2001 failed TV pilot turned theatrical masterpiece Mulholland Drive.  Paving the yellow brick road for Naomi Watts' career and bringing Lynch back into cultural consciousness with debatably his most critically revered film to date, the small town American surrealist master received the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival and his first Oscar nomination since 1987's Blue Velvet.  

Please don't tell me we're having soup for dinner.

Lynch's satirical takedown of Hollywood with particular emphasis on the dream experience of the film's troubled leading actress trying to make it in a cutthroat industry was both semi-autobiographical for the cult director and as much of a celebration of the cinematic form as a condemnation of the very industry responsible for so many of our favorite flickering dreams.  Not long after David Lynch formed, a membership paid website where short videos, internet film series, daily weather reports read by Lynch himself, exclusive DVD and CD releases, a wealth of memorabilia and his very own brand of coffee were available for a price.  

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A number of internet based shorts emerged from the website including an animated series called Dumbland, a live action series involving adults dressed in bunny costumes called Rabbits and a number of potential web series such as the abandoned Axxon N. which never came to fruition.  Pretty much all of the internet videos were shot on 480i DV digital video, resulting in a capable but otherwise low resolution image suited for downloadable video playback.  Eventually the website was redesigned to fit Lynch's newfound interest in recording music with much of the online based content including teasers for the unreleased Axxon N. webseries taken down.  Once you take into account the trajectory the auteur's website went on as it approached revision and a change in focus, a modicum of logic can be applied to trying to comprehend what seems to be the final feature film of David Lynch, Inland Empire.  Utilizing the same 480i DV aesthetic for what turned out to be a 2 1/2 year experimental exercise in improvisation and maybe even navel gazing, Inland Empire opens with the words Axxon N. playing over a vitagraph and minutes later, portions of Rabbits appear onscreen.  Later still is a scene of the film's troubled leading actress/doppleganger, Laura Dern, walking into an alleyway up to a door that reads Axxon N. with the identical teaser image formerly offered on the website.  Pretty clearly Inland Empire, pure cinema or purely incoherent ego stroking, is an attempt to jam all of those various little ideas which cropped up on his website into one giant three hour epic.

Largely shot by Lynch himself and made up on the spot each day with script notes handed to actors on napkins as the first do-it-yourself production in Lynch's career since Eraserhead, the first 100% digital theatrical feature in Lynch's career as it turns out is his most singularly divisive.  Visually it looks Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers although some nighttime scenes of Lynch's trademark blue hues beset by bright red curtains looked beautiful when the low resolution material was transferred to and projected on 35mm for it's initial run.  The film itself, which seems to be about everything Mulholland Drive was about concerning the experience of working in Hollywood or an exploration of the night life of Poland, is almost entirely impenetrable.  Where Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive left you with tangible breadcrumbs to deduce the dream logic playing before us, Inland Empire has so many rabbit holes, red herrings, possibilities and ideas flowing about all at once that even die hard Lynch fans will likely come away feeling for the first time their hands have closed on air.  In a way, Inland Empire is somewhat like Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's short film Un Chien Andalou stretched out to three hours, with many sequences and their relation to the rest of the movie feeling as though they exist unto themselves without a rational explanation of any kind provided to help viewers deal with them.  While Bunuel and Dali's work was unmistakably politically charged, Lynch's final film doesn't seem as interested in communicating with an audience as it is in letting viewers get lost in an abyss of consciousness.

What does shine through is the central performance by leading actress and co-producer Laura Dern as the film's titular 'woman in trouble'.  It's an extraordinary, compelling, terrifying performance played with fanged conviction and fearlessness.  The fact that Dern did not know what the film was about before, during, and after making it yet still allowed herself to be completely in Lynch's control and give such a powerhouse performance is astonishing in and of itself.  Back for more are Lynch regulars Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton, Grace Zabriskie and Diane Ladd.  The most high profile addition to the cast involves Jeremy Irons as film director Kingsley Stewart, who may in fact be a bit of projection of Lynch's own high regard for himself as a director.  Also scattered throughout are a startling amount of cameos, some funnier than others, including but not limited to William H. Macy, Mary Steenburgen, Julie Ormond and Terry Crews (yup, Old Spice's Terry Crews cameos in Inland Empire).  Also strong is of course Lynch's 5.1 Dolby Digital sound design which immerses the listener into a thickly atmospheric netherworld of sound, ranging from ambient, industrial and of course jazz.  Those familiar with Stanley Kubrick's The Shining will pick up on the key use of Kryzysztof Penderecki's terrifying avant-garde strings from De Natura Sonoris (used in the scene with the two little girls in the hallway).  Last but not least is a musical number lip synced to Nina Simone's Sinner Man.

At the end of this review, I've said a lot about Lynch's last theatrical feature but like the film itself feel as though I've told you nothing.  Lynch fans who are used to getting an answer of some kind or feeling as though they're being led towards one, whichever the case, are simply not going to get it this time around.  The film is simply so labyrinthine with so many obscure references to unrealized web projects, Lynch's own obsessions and remnants from his other own movies trickling through like disembodied ghosts, most viewers are likely going to emerge from Inland Empire feeling a sense of unrewarded bewilderment.  Not to mention the lush and sparkling polished 35mm vistas from his earlier works are tossed out in favor of a blurry, aliasing and pixelation laden smear, a factor that is all but completely alienating to Lynch disciples.  As a sonic experience, a summation of Lynch's career as a swan song, and as a journey deep within what you take away from the audiovisual head trip, Inland Empire is the one Lynch film that has the capacity to alienate fans of his work even as a new season of Twin Peaks looms on the horizon.  Difficult to recommend yet still a trip worth taking, I'd say Inland Empire is Lynch's long and hard gaze into the mirror as he admires the contours of his own reflection.  As such, it is also scarier, more fascinating and more compulsively rewatchable than most like minded surrealist horror films that dare to elude an audience member's grasp.  


- Andrew Kotwicki