A Woman In Trouble: David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE
Laura Dern stumbles into a darkened movie theater to find the very film she's starring in projected on the screen. She's baffled, much like we are, at her current situation. David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE was released with the tagline “A Woman In Trouble,” and it's rare that a simple sentence on a poster describes a picture so well. In a tour-de-force performance, Laura Dern constantly amazes at every twist and turn in Lynch's supposed final film, playing Nikki Grace, an actress attached to a cursed Hollywood production.
This is a dual role for Dern as she plays both Nikki and her film within the film's character Susan Blue with equal skill. Approached by an acclaimed director, played with swarmy charm by Jeremy Irons, she's hooked up with another shining Hollywood light in the form of Devon Berk played by Justin Theroux (Mulholland Dr., The Leftovers). Irons reveals that the film they're working on is a semi-remake based upon an unfinished Polish production that was plagued by murder. Both leads are married, with families of their own, but there's a clear attraction between the two, as noted publicly by a precocious TV host played by Dern’s real life mother Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart). There's a great interplay between the two actors both on and off set that eventually leads to them breaking their vows of matrimony, leading to an apparent psychotic break by Dern. Now unable to differentiate between reality and fantasy, she slips back and forth between herself and the character she's playing. And this being a David Lynch endeavor, the audience never truly knows which incarnation of Dern we're seeing at any given moment.
What follows is both one of Lynch's most impenetrable but also best moments behind the camera. There's no hand holding here, but that certainly works the film's benefit. You're given time to fully digest what's going on, given its three hour runtime, which is only a bonus when it comes to a beast like INLAND EMPIRE. The audience is constantly wondering if we're in reality or the film within the film, which when given much thought is pure folly. Lynch invites you into this world with very little pretense, much like the rest of his work. He drops you right in the middle of these characters’ lives and it's up to you, the viewer, to make your own assumptions. Personally, I view it as a take on Sunset Boulevard, Nikki Grace is slowly turned into an even more unhinged and lost version of Norma Desmond, but a one that's slightly less aware of what's going on. Whereas you got a sense in the Billy Wilder picture that Desmond really knew what she was doing, Grace is more lost than Desmond ever was, slipping in and out of reality and even consciousness.
Reality and consciousness have been recurring themes over the course of Lynch's career and he really swings for the fences here. While the action is taking place we are periodically taken into the lives of a family of rabbits in a sitcom. Yes, you read that right, Lynch tries his hand at situational comedy, and the results are exactly what one would expect. Acting as a sort of Greek Chorus, these rabbits, complete with an out of place laugh track, are used to great effect when Dern's character makes an important phone call halfway through the film after being banished to what can only be described as another realm of existence. She dials and the film cuts to the rabbits answering the phone to thundering laughter by the studio audience. It's one of a few jarring scenes, especially when taken in context with the rest of the second act which includes a dance sequence set to The Locomotion and numerous flashes to Poland where the original film was made. It's a trip to say the least, only heightened by Lynch's decision to shoot the entire endeavor on digital video.
By this time in his career, Lynch had grown tired of using actual film to compose his pictures and made the switch to digital, much like a few of his peers. However unlike his contemporary Michael Mann, whose digital palette is rich and cinematic, Lynch has a flat style here that at first can seem downright ugly. Shot using a Sony DSR digital camcorder, Lynch no longer had to wait for his cameras to be reloaded with film, allowing him to shoot for longer periods of time and really get the performances he was going for. It's an inspired choice and one that works for this kind of film. We're plopped into the middle of these characters’ lives and the visual style almost replicates that of a home movie, one that we've found but aren't supposed to watch. This adds to the nightmarish quality that runs throughout INLAND EMPIRE and it's one of the few movies that I'm not sure would actually work had it been shot on actual film, as the tricks he pulls are inherent to the format.
With a three hour runtime, INLAND EMPIRE may seem like a daunting task, but this is Lynch unhinged and the time simply flies by thanks to the enormous amount of information on display. This is a picture that's beholden to its lead actress and fans of her work aren't likely to be disappointed in the least, this really is a crowning achievement for the veteran actress. Dern was the movie’s main source of praise during its original release and the stature of that performance has only grown over the years. Although a bizarre Best Actress Oscar campaign involving Lynch and a dairy cow didn't gain much traction with the Academy, the award would've been secondary as there's no question Dern has never been better. It's a performance for the ages and one that will be studied for decades to come.
Like most Lynch films, INLAND EMPIRE is a crazy descent into madness and the unsavory underworld of Hollywood. With Twin Peaks on the horizon, and the rumored connections between that show and EMPIRE, now is a great time for audiences to revisit the picture, or see it for the first time. A cross between Sunset Boulevard and the nightmare world of Lynch's own Lost Highway, it's an experience that's well worth your time, no matter how much you end up understanding.