If you're a fan of David Lynch, you're going to like "INLAND EMPIRE" (the director prefers screaming-loud caps). It's got all of his trademarks, including a modular non-linear patchwork plot, surreal, dreamlike sequences, a Horror/Thriller-inspired sound design, extreme wide-angle close-ups, blurred sequences, and an image vocabulary that includes fire, smoke, single light sources, dark rooms, spot color, clocks, and flickering electric impulses that suggest the mind's ability to inhabit multiple planes simultaneously.
Like "Mulholland Drive" it offers a succession of images that only begin to make sense over time--in this case, three hours that, for the most part, keep you on the edge of your seats. One of our readers wrote in a message board thread that you're either going to love or hate this film. That's probably true, insomuch as people who aren't fans of non-linear narratives and surrealism may indeed reject it as silly nonsense, while Lynch fans will see it as the culmination of years of experimenting with non-traditional, non-commercial filmmaking. But I also think it's possible to appreciate what Lynch is trying to do and gauge how successfully he's done it, especially if you consider that art is always a compromise between self-expression and communication. Go too far in one direction and you risk becoming so esoteric that it only makes sense and matters to you, the creator. Go too far the other, and you're no longer writing for yourself, you're pandering to public tastes. Lynch, of course, has always pushed it in the direction of self-expression, so much so that his films begin to take on recognizable "Lynchian" characteristics.
"Inland Empire" begins with a succession of striking (and strikingly confusing) vignettes. We begin with black-and-white blurred faces and such questions as "Where am I?" and move on to color, music, a woman crying on the edge of her bed watching TV, upon which is playing an apparent sitcom starring rabbits-as-humans. There are voiceovers, more canned laughter, and lines that pop out like paint splotches on a multi-media work--things like "What time is it?" And the pacing? It's all Lynch, meaning slow at times, then frantic, then intermediate, but shifting a lot, as is the narrative and style of filming. For the most part, that style can be described as deliberate, self-conscious, and yes, at times heavy-handed. Heart-thumping music, wide-angle close-ups, and long takes add tension to sequences that normally might not seem so nail-biting, while every shot is imbued with ominous significance--even if it's only a character sitting there trying to process information, as the audience is.
She bunny: "I have a secret."
Woman watching TV: (tears)
She bunny: "There have been no calls today."
Couch potato bunny: "I hear someone"
She bunny: (laughter)
All of which is intended to confuse and confound, to titillate the senses while also (hopefully) provoking an intense interest in trying to figure out the latest of Lynch's "puzzle" films. And our message board reader is right insomuch as not everyone will be willing to play Lynch's three-hour game, while still others won't find it enjoyable. But "Inland Empire" is actually more straightforward than "Mulholland Drive," which confused right up until the very end, and then STILL confused if you thought about it too much.
But there's still plenty here to puzzle over: jealous husbands, murderers, Polish prostitutes, Polish gangsters, a circus, actors devolving into their characters, and, of course, those confounded rabbits.
Laura Dern stars as actress Nikki Grace, who has signed on to do a film directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Cast opposite her is a Hollywood lothario with a reputation for bedding all of his co-stars. From the first moment that situation is introduced, you pretty much know that something's going to happen between the married actress and Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), just as from the minute we learn that the screenplay isn't original, but rather a remake of a supposedly cursed production that stopped after the stars were mysteriously murdered, we know that the whole Polish gypsy curse thing is going to have some sort of impact on the narrative. Same too with the introduction of extensive scenes between Susan Blue (Dern's character) and Billy Side (Theroux's character). Once that crossover potential is established, we look for increased "interfacing," and we get it. So in a sense, "Inland Empire" isn't nearly as confusing as some of Lynch's films, nor is it as bizarre as others. But it's pretty classic in its use of techniques and tropes that Lynch has gravitated toward, and a great study in cultivating mood, atmosphere, and tension through style.
The famous Lynch style is parodied in outrageous fashion on one of the bonus features, "Quinoa." In this segment, Lynch shows his audience how to make a favorite recipe using the grain Quinoa and broccoli. But he's the anti-Rachel Ray. If this were a normal how-to cooking segment, you'd actually see the ingredients and the final product. But before Emeril could say "BAM!" Lynch launches into his trademark stylistics. The recipe bonus feature is shot in black-and-white, with the lighting so extremely dark that at one point all we can see is a candle and the fiery tip of Lynch's cigarette. There are quick cuts, a sometimes shaky hand-held camera, shadows, and that "bum-ba-bum-ba-bum" thumping soundtrack in the background that has the same effect as the heart beneath the floorboards in Edgar Allan Poe's short story. At one point, Lynch leaves the dark kitchen for a darker other room (too dark to tell which) and says "I'm going to tell the story of going from Athens, Greece, back up to Paris." Sly fellow. In this fun bonus feature, Lynch both gives us the "recipe" for a typical Lynch film: add all of the ingredients-- including a story within a story, and plenty of seeming digressions--and you've got it! But it's all done so tongue-in-cheek that the director is clearly having some fun with his own highly cultivated style of working.
Critics and fans are going to praise "Inland Empire" as the director's piece de resistance, but I'd have to say that while there's a lot going on, there are moments when the elements that Lynch includes fail to evoke the kind of effect that he clearly intended. Some of the character monologues go on too long, for example, and we feel some of the tension that had built up slowly start to dissipate . . . and at a time when that kind of release seems counter-intuitive to the plot structure. "Inland Empire" also incorporates elements that we've seen before, and so the shock value is considerably diminished. The "Waiting for Godot" style rabbits in human clothing on a sitcom set? Surreal, yes, but there are plenty of instances in film, literature, and art where animals have been used this way. The device feels tired. So is the background laugh track to add sinister irony. Even over-the-top TV shows like "The Wild Wild West" used that, and nearly 30 years ago. And do we really need 179 minutes for this all to simmer so that the final stew is delectably palpable? Frankly, I don't think so. I think the three-and-a-half hours betrays a little self-indulgence on the director's part. I wouldn't have thought that anything had been cut, if it weren't for the 16 deleted scenes provided on a second disc. The point is, it's a real marathon, and the stars (particularly Dern) do a really good job of holding up under all those long, emotional takes.
Some of this was shot with a hand-held video camera, and so it has a rough look to it. This is deliberate, but it's still picture-quality we're talking about, and the quality is overall pretty rough. Dim light, slightly out-of-focus lenses, and intense close-ups with spot color may be good for creating and sustaining tension, but they're hell on visual clarity. So don't expect to be wowed by a pristine picture. "Inland Empire" looks as rough and raw as we humans do on the inside, which, of course, is the point. Viewers have a choice of full screen or 16x9 widescreen.
The default is English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with additional English options in Dolby Digital 5.1 near-field monitor playback and Dolby Digital 5.1 far-field monitor playback. I tinkered with the sound a bit, and found the differences--at least on my system, and to my ears--to be slight. It all pertains to your sense of the sound source, whether it seems to fill the room or feels farther away--which is consistent with Lynch's habit of putting visual distance between the viewer and some characters.
There's one whole disc of bonus features in this two-disc set--211 minutes worth. In addition to "Quinoa," which is one of the best bonus features around, Lynch appears on camera to answer a series of off-camera questions about 19 different topics. The most revealing tidbit of information comes when Lynch, who is constant nervous energy with a lit cigarette and fluttery fingers, talks about how the idea for "Inland Empire" occurred to him when he was dragged to the 40 Deuce club by Dennis Hopper. The music, and the whole experience inspired him. Other subjects covered include those rabbits (which he loves), early scenes, Opus Studio, Hollywood's rules, the cast, "true experience," loudness, and music.
There are, as I said, 16 deleted scenes and two extended ones, including "Ballerina." Two of the scenes are quite long, and quite good. Lynch pops up again in three segments showing him at work behind the scenes. What's interesting here is that the clips almost contradict the interview segment in which he talks about how much "fun" they all had. Lynch comes across as petulantly exacting, and in-your-face direct--as when he says to one of the Polish actors, "Have you been taking drugs while you've been working here? Quit the drugs and we'll start you on meditation."
Ultimately, my reaction to Lynch's latest is that it brought together all of those elements we've come to expect in a Lynch film, and the cumulative effect was successful most of the time. Surreal? Yes. Fantastic? Yes. But it's unnecessarily long, there are moments when the tension escapes like a slow leak in a tire, and there are too many devices we've seen so often that they now seem tired.