A week after it opened at a downtown arthouse theater in New York, Inland Empire, David Lynch's maddeningly difficult three-hour opus, is still selling out the house at nearly every show—a testament both to the loyalty of Lynch's cult and to the heartening notion that real art cinema, the kind that refuses to suck up to its audience with anything so prosaic as a story, is not dead yet. (Though the self-distributed film will be shown theatrically only in very limited release, the film is expected to be out on DVD next summer.)
Inland Empire is inland, all right—it travels so deep into its creator's brain that the rest of us poor saps are stranded there without a map, like the kids in The Blair Witch Project. But Lynch's brain is a fascinating place to get lost in, full of red velvet curtains, vague foreboding, Polish prostitutes, and giant bunnies (more on those later).
Though this is more of a video installation than a feature film, I'll dive into the wreck and try to come back with a plotline. A 40ish actress named Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is married to an absurdly wealthy man—their house looks like the Hermitage Museum, all gilt trimmings and Easter-egg colors. It's hinted that Nikki's career is in decline, so she's over the moon when she's cast as the lead in a strange melodrama called On High in Blue Tomorrows, opposite Devon Berk (Justin Theroux, who played a similar showbiz cad in Lynch's Mulholland Drive).
At the first read-through with their director (Jeremy Irons, who goes virtually unused in a small role), Devon and Nikki learn that Blue Tomorrows is a remake of a foreign film whose two lead actors were murdered before it could ever be finished. Nikki begins an ill-advised affair with Devon, only to find that their identities are slipping and shifting between past and present, fiction and reality. While having sex, they seem to change into the characters they're playing, and things just get weirder from there.
Great spooky setup, right? But here's some of the imagery that I've had to ignore to summarize even that much of the story: A glowering gang of Eastern Europeans identified as clowns from a "Baltic circus" show up at a Southern hamburger cookout. Characters burn holes in silk slips with cigarettes and peer through them into another dimension. A homeless Asian girl delivers a spaced-out monologue about her best friend's pet monkey while someone bleeds to death next to her in the street. A roomful of hookers do a line dance to "The Locomotion." And in an ongoing subplot—perhaps better described as a recurring set of images—a family of rabbits, played by actors in brown bunny suits, sit stiffly in a room, waiting for something or someone that never arrives.
The bunny story, which takes place mainly inside a TV screen watched by a weeping Polish woman, seems to be, among other things, a sendup of American sitcoms. As the mother rabbit (voiced by Naomi Watts) utters banal non sequiturs, a laugh track roars beneath her. The look and feel of the bunny world is haunting, funny, and evocative (paying members of Lynch's Web site can get the idea by watching eight short videos titled "Rabbits"). But what exactly is it evoking?
David Lynch is unparalleled at capturing his dreams on camera. It's what he was born to do. No one else can film an empty room in an ordinary house and somehow create a mood of almost sickening tension, a dread that's palpable in the very furniture (here, a peculiarly evil-seeming lamp). Mulholland Drive, Lynch's last feature film, used this gift to great effect, telling a story that, midway through the movie, suddenly turned inside out like a reversible puppet. I didn't venerate Mulholland Drive the way some critics (and many of my cinephile friends) did, but it has passages of unforgettable beauty, and five years after it came out, it's inspired more passionate conversation than any film I can remember.
But Inland Empire (which, like Mulholland Drive, centers around a blond actress with a shifting identity) consists of little more than the creation and re-creation of that Lynch mood, over and over again, in short bursts of enigmatic creepiness that last about five minutes each. The effect, after an hour or two, begins to resemble a very anxiety-fraught session of watching music videos on MTV. Whoa, wasn't it freaky when Laura Dern's face morphed onto that guy's head? Wait, what's she doing on a snowy street in Poland in a tank top? Hold the phone, the bunnies are back!
For some hard-core Lynch-heads, this formless play of moods and images may sound like heaven. But like the glum rabbit family, I couldn't stop waiting for something else to emerge from the shadows. Not necessarily meaning or a comprehensible story; Lynch's recent films have been all about breaking down conventional film narrative, and I'm down with that. But there's narrative fragmentation, and then there are unsorted heaps of debris. Inland Empire is like a pile of shards from many different movies, some of them fascinating. But shards—even glittering ones—aren't enough to constitute a finished work of art.
Ultimately, Inland Empire left me angry at David Lynch, but it was the kind of intimate anger you feel when disappointed by someone you love. If you can tolerate its lack of narrative cohesion, Lynch's film will continue to reward you with visual and auditory surprises right up till the end. Laura Dern is the ideal Lynchian muse; her lissome blond beauty suggests an all-American innocence, but her mobile, clownlike features can quickly distort into a mask of rage, horror, or pain. She also, God help her, seems to understand what Lynch is up to. That makes two of them.