Inland Empire

(France/Poland/USA - 2006)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Karolina Gruszka, Jeremy Irons, Julia Ormond, Harry Dean Stanton
Genre: Mystery/Drama/Experimental Film
Director: David Lynch
Screenplay: David Lynch
Cinematography: David Lynch
Composer: David Lynch

“There was this man I once knew. I’m trying to tell you so’s you’ll understand how it went. The thing is, I don’t know what was before or after. I don’t know what happened first, and it’s kinda layed a mindfuck on me.” - Laura Dern as whore

The best way to approach David Lynch’s recent work is to view it as what it is, art. Lynch isn’t simply a movie director, he presents and exhibits of his paintings, photography, drawings, music, and stage designs. He used to draw a weekly comic, and still builds furniture. To understand what he’s trying to accomplish in his films, it helps to know he also does installation art, which incorporates all forms of media to alter our perception of a particular space.

I certainly believe there is an explanation to all of Lynch’s films. Furthermore, I guarantee he could tell you why he made a certain decision, why puts something in a film or shades it in a certain way, but he never will because his understanding isn’t important as you coming to your own. Lynch isn’t looking at any of his art as something that should have a single or precise meaning, it’s all subjective. Some people will dislike his films because they don’t fit into their narrow idea of what a movie is, but we should allow the artist to expand our parameters rather than trying to fit him into what we know about art. If we fail to do so, we miss the quality, originality, uniqueness, and/or beauty of the work because we are too busy trying to see it as a square peg so we can confidently slide it into the square whole.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of a bad director is someone who tries to discourage the audience from participating in their work. The signs include pounding home their intended meaning through repetitive speechy/preachy dialogue, blantantly obvious visual cues/symbolism, and a blaring emotion dictating score. Granted it’s not always the director, often the studio insists on making everything (and everyone) generic because it’s easiest to sell. Good filmmakers such as David Lynch instead encourage the audience to interact with their work by allowing you to consider, contemplate, and interpret the material. Lynch engages the audience on a number of levels, most notably emotional and instinctual, as a way to incite the audience to react in their own manner.

Lynch has no idea what you’ll bring to the film, how could he know your history, experiences, hopes, dreams, wishes, and desires? Most segments in his recent films will bring something to mind that’s unique to you. At once point the whores in Inland Empire do a song and dance to Little Eva’s "The Loco-Motion". The song reminds my father of his record collection. He had the 45 single, which he recalls had a blue label and the last half inch or so of plastic before the center hole was thinner than the typical 45, so he could pick it out with his eyes closed from the feel of it. The most tolerable version by Grand Funk Railroad is getting closer to my birth year, but I didn’t start seriously listening to music until 1988, so the version I’m most used to be tortured by is certainly Kylie Minogue’s. Hearing the song made me think of my friend Ramon, who normally had good taste in entertainment, but for whatever reason loved watching Australian dope operas, particularly reruns of the ones with Kylie and Dannii Minogue. At a different time, in a different mood, the song might bring something else to the mind of one or both of us. Memory is tricky beast. If a simple song can bring such disparate nonsense to one’s head, imagine a free association film where nothing is spelled out, thus leaving the audience to decide what information to take as literal, representative, and symbolic.

Aside from The Straight Story, the recent David Lynch films are great viewing experiences because rather than simply recount the details as the hacks do, he circles around the key events, advancing and recoiling, darting in and pulling out. They are a series of sensual, disorientating abstractions that attempt to provide each individual in the audience with a contemplative experience, to make the audience undergo the same feelings, emotions, and sensations as the characters instead of just passively observing them. A normal film would show a stabbing in real time either focusing on the excessive gore or the “realistic” shock and anger type of reactions, with some generic scary music and a scream from the victim, who follows with their theatrical death scene. It conveys the fact well enough, but the emotion is hollow. I’m not terrified, disturbed, or depressed. It just sits on the screen, failing to move me in any manner. David Lynch cuts the sound from the actors, slowing everything down and using his disturbing frequency noise manipulation. He does show the actors faces, but rather than a “realistic” performance it’s the kind of tortured grimacing you might see in a silent film because he wants to instill a disturbed feeling the audience.

Although expressionist techniques are part of Lynch’s vast bag of tricks, which includes vibrant colors, whirling strobe lights, awkward camera angles, all kinds of lighting and filter effects, jolting transitions, associative montage, and disorientating surrealist flourishes, their purpose is very different from actual expressionism. Lynch uses techniques as stimulus, attempting to evoke something in the audience rather bringing to some feeling inside the character to the surface. He does do that, but he goes much farther, transferring it by instilling it in the audience.

While Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive are all murder mysteries, what makes them so notable is not the solution, but rather the manner in which he conveys his information to the audience. His narrative style allows every scene to be a discovery. It may not bring you closer to the truth, whatever that is, on the first or even 10th viewing, but the film seems somehow channeled to your brain. You are excited because something new has entered, but frustrated because Lynch has tunneled deeper, twisting and contorting your gray matter as much as he frees it.

Inland Empire is better than Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive because it’s more about the experience than the mystery. It’s by far Lynch’s most experimental work since Eraserhead. More than the techniques, what makes Inland Empire so successful is Lynch is in no hurry. Lynch decided to self distribute because he didn’t want any clueless distributors sicking Cropsy on his masterpiece. Although the DVD includes a film worth of extras, there is certainly material that could still be cut. However, doing so would force the focus onto the mystery aspects, making it more commercial but reducing it to a (not so) simple puzzle. The fact Lynch isn’t that tight in Inland Empire not only allows him to have more fun, including scenes that amuse him but aren’t crucial to anyone’s understanding of the film such as a comical one where Hollywood movie director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) gives the simplest light adjusting orders to a clueless assistant who doesn’t know down from up. One of Lynch’s goals is to make films difficult, and by including such impertinent scenes, mixed with his contradictions and red herrings, it’s not as easy to distinguish the essential details as it has been in the past.

“There is a vast network, right? An ocean of possibilities. I like dogs. I used to raise rabbits. I've always loved animals. Their nature. How they think. I have seen dogs reason their way out of problems. Watched them think through the trickiest situations.” - Freddie Howard (Harry Dean Stanton)

One great think about David Lynch is everyone sees a different film. Lynch himself once admitted he had to quit watching Eraserhead after the 17th viewing because it was really getting to him that he saw a different film each time. That said, as Laura Dern’s whore says (in her case about men), “They don’t change, they reveal. In time, they reveal what they really are.”

The best way to approach Inland Empire might be best to simply absorb the film on the first viewing. You aren’t likely to fully grasp the meaning even with the most concerted effort, but regardless the intense, meditative, compelling, and highly provocative journey is more important than the destination. Let the film wash over you like a cool wave on a warm summer day. Allow the undertow to pull you into the vast abyss. Don’t wait for David Hasselhoff to rescue you, as he might be loaded with the wrong type of spirit.

The first words are Lost Highway are, “Dick Laurent is dead.” In Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Lynch tells tales of jealousy that have led to the murder of a key character before the film actually starts. However, as at least one character plays multiple roles, this dead character is played by one of the stars of the film, with the films utilizing dreams and recollections to eventually finding it’s way back to the point when they were alive. These are subconscious films that exist somewhere in the deepest darkest depths of the memory.

Inland Empire is a continuation of what Lynch did in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. In Lost Highway he dealt with jealousy leading to murder from the male perspective, but with Mulholand Drive he began transitioning to the female perspective and added in the aspiring actress theme. Mulholland Drive is the most pleasant piece of the three because Lynch gives a great deal of time to Naomi Watts dream of being the aspiring actress before switching to reality. Laura Dern's character is a somewhat established version of what Watts wishes she was, but Lynch focuses far more on the bad side of Hollywood placing the emphasis on the doomed affair of Dern's character rather than the expected success of her film and work as in Mulholland Drive (which also featured doomed love). Hence Inland Empire's tagline is “A Woman in Trouble.” rather than Mulholland Drive's “A Love Story In The City Of Dreams.” The trickies part of these films, but Inland Empire more than the others, is Lynch denies the initial information that would ground the viewer. The others seem to have a point that unlocks the key to what is taking place in the mind and what is taking place in "reality", while Inland Empire has similar transitions but as stark as they are it seems that dream world, nightmare world, real world, and perhaps afterlife are more rights of passage.

I don’t believe any of Laura Dern’s characters are real or have ever existed, they are simply Lost Girl’s (Karolina Gruszka) mental incarnations. Lost Girl, a young Polish woman who is stuck in a room crying as she views a movie within a movie starring Laura Dern and a sitmock featuring humans in rabbit suits with the world’s most ridiculous and inappropriate laugh track, is the real character. Perhaps she’s stuck in a dream as in the first 2/3 of Mulholland Drive before Watts is awoke by the neighbor, but I think Lynch's explanation on the French DVD of Lost Highway is more telling. In his cell, Bill Pullman attempts to create an alternate reality for himself that's largely opposite from his real life character as a means to escape reality, but in the end he's unable to maintain the illusion and this world comes crushing down on him as well. Apparently Pullman screaming in the car represents him being electricuted. I think the entire film is in Lost Girl's head. She's either about to die with the room she in representing her confinement or already dead with the room representing purgatory, hence the motif of the debt that needs to be paid. Lost Girl is a short time hooker, so it’s possible the film is her seeing the future by going through all the possibilities in order to make a decision to embrace or reject whoring, but that seems to go against what Lynch did in Lost Highway in Mulholland Drive, but if that were the case the majority of the film probably wouldn’t be set well in the past and there wouldn't be so much focus on murder. In any case, she seems stuck at the point where she could have changed her life if she could have seen the future as the mysterious Visitor #1 (Grace Zabriskie) hints when she visits Laura Dern in her mansion at the outset.

I don’t feel Inland Empire is all that non-linear, but rather it unfolds as Lost Girl burrows through the depths of her mind to uncover the truth. She seems to suffer from a shock induced amnesia, which is certainly possible given the traumas that will be revealed. The TV is simply a prop, a way for Lynch to examine not only the viewers interaction with the material, but also to criticize Hollywood by linking it to prostitution of all kinds. Continuing the actress theme of Mulholland Drive, Lost Girl dreamed of being a movie star, but only managed to imitate the bad aspects of Hollywood.

The first hour can be thought of as the Hollywood dream (similar to Naomi Watts dream of being a star actress in Mulholland Drive), the good part of Lost Girl’s affair, or as the way things could have been if her rich man had dumped his wife for her. Set in the world of the rich and famous, Dern is Nikki Grace, a famous actress who is married to a jealous, possessive, remarkably rich Polish man. While making a period piece about a tragic affair that’s a remake based on a Polish folk tale – thus a combination of fact, fiction, and imagination – Nikki and notorious womanizer costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) falling in love is inevitable. Everyone else sees it before they do, and Devon is warned there will be serious repercussions, but that’s life in Hollywood where everyone betrays one another and it’s front gossip rag news.

Inland Empire turns nightmare in the second hour. Set in the middle class, Dern lives in Blue Velvet style suburbs. Now portraying Susan Blue, her character in the movie Nikki Grace is starring in, she’s married to an extremely ordinary and unremarkable man who manages to squirt half the bottle of ketchup onto his shirt. However, she works for a rich man Billy Side (Theroux’s movie character), who is married to Doris (Julia Ormond). Theroux once again seduces Dern, but this time Lost Girl remembers more. They are discovered by both spouses with Sue spilling the beans when she’s shocked to still see Doris at Billy’s home, presumably because Sue believes she killed Doris (the guilt of murder contributing to Lost Girl’s block).

The Sue and Billy story interweaves with a separate but magically equal story recast in Lost Girl’s home country Poland. The Polish girl’s jealous husband knows she must be having an affair when she gets pregnant despite the fact that he’s infertile. The jealous husband kills her lover, and she believes she kills the jealous wife with a screwdriver. Her husband abandons her after roughing her up, which resulted in a miscarriage.

The Polish segment is shot on location with soft focus yielding to the usual dingy, grainy look of the digital equipment Lynch is now working with, lending a sense of realism that helps hint at the Hollywood scenes being the dressed up fantasy version of the story. Following the anti-Hollywood theme and seeing it as a darker take on the actress theme in Mulholland Drive, my friend thinks the Polish Girl may have journeyed to Hollywood to pursue her acting dreams only to wind up a whore. However, though Lynch shot the non Poland scenes in and about Hollywood, they are all rendered in the kind of illusory manner a person who has only seen Hollywood through their movies would envision.

In the third hour, Dern is an unnamed battered whore who talks to man she was told could help her. He’s either a prop to allow Dern to give voice to her way of seeing certain events or a kind of gatekeeper. In any case, one reason Inland Empire is so good is Dern gives a tour de force performance that blows away anything in Lynch’s filmography. Dern is particularly mesmerizing in these talking scenes, giving a clinic on how to swear for jolting emphasis. Even though Dern inserts an F bomb into every thought, it never loses its effect. If that cocksucker Ian McShane was half as good, Deadwood would still be on the air.

Lynch has always loved Madonna vs. whore scenarios, but it’s more fun to explore the complex within one woman who suffers more mental damage from it than physical. The third hour also has Dern supporting herself by being a lowly vulgar hooker on the streets of Hollywood. Rejects the actions that brought her to this point, she believes she deserves to be killed by the woman she wronged. By discovering her misdeeds and regretting them, Lost Girl is able to accept her own death (and Lynch will undoubtedly once again be criticized for being hypocritical for trafficking in the material he condemns).

The movie within a movie ends with Sue’s death, which likely represents the worldly end of Lost Girl but also brings new life to the sunnier Nikki character. Nikki proceeds to kill The Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak), who is probably more a representation of who or whatever has a hold on Lost Girl than a “real character” (such as her pimp), thus letting the sitmock rabbits out of the box so to speak. Lost Girl is also released from her room, transferred to the TV where Dern, now representing her salvation, seals it with a tender kiss that breaths life back into Lost Girl. Dern vanishes, as having removed the block and cleared the way for Lost Girl’s escape she’s no longer needed. Lost Girl is reunited with her husband and would be child, now middle school age, which means she’s in heaven unless it’s just her dream. Dern does resurface, no longer scared or befuddled by Visitor #1 as she now understands the meaning behind the guests opening words. I may be wrong about some of this, but what’s important is Lynch has succeeded in stimulating my imagination and providing me with a good time.



*Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *