Logic Problem: Laura Dern looks for a plot in Inland Empire.
Logic Problem: Laura Dern looks for a plot in Inland Empire.

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David Lynch is the writer, director, editor, and co-producer of Inland Empire, as well as its ideal viewer: No one else will ever understand this oblique epic as he does. He also takes credit for “sound design,” which is significant. The movie’s soundtrack is as neatly organized as its images—shot with a consumer-grade DV camera—are scruffy and chaotic. Indeed, as the opening montage moves from sheer abstraction to a craggy image of a needle tracking a phonograph record’s grooves, a voice suggests the primacy of sound, introducing “the longest-running radio play in history.”

There are many elements in Inland Empire that seem to come from the past, as filtered through Lynch’s surrealist noir consciousness, but the three-hour movie can’t be explained as a radio play or anything else so simple. Most of the time, it’s a film about filmmaking, much like the director’s previous effort, the much prettier (and modestly more coherent) Mulholland Dr. But there’s so much else: snippets of an absurdist sitcom starring humanoid rabbits; a troupe of hookers line-dancing to “The Loco-motion”; a series of screwdriver-in-the-gut stabbings; chilly street scenes of Lodz, Poland; and a lengthy soliloquy about going to Pomona, delivered by a young Japanese-accented homeless woman (Letters From Iwo Jima’s Nae Yuki) on Hollywood Boulevard. As one character says of the proceedings, “It’s kinda laid a mindfuck on me.”

The central story, or stories, involves a woman played by Laura Dern, a veteran of Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. When first introduced, she’s Nikki Grace, an actress whose faltering career could be revived by a new role. The movie is called On High in Blue Tomorrows, and before Nikki even has the part, a mysterious Polish woman (Grace Zabriskie, another Lynch regular) arrives unexpectedly at the actress’s absurdly vast home to announce that the film portends “bloody fucking murder.”

At a run-through with co-star Devon Berk (Mulholland Dr.’s Justin Theroux), the director (Jeremy Irons) forebodingly reveals that the film is based on a Polish gypsy folk tale and was attempted once before, only to be canceled when its stars were slain. If Nikki and Devon’s deaths aren’t a foregone conclusion, there’s no doubt that they will gradually merge with their roles, Susan and Billy, two Deep South–accented dimwits who begin an adulterous affair. When that happens, the character of Nikki’s ominous husband—who just happens to have connections to Polish gangsters—will also split in two to take a place in both narratives.

Inland Empire started as a 14-page monologue for the stalwart Dern, shot in a single 70-minute take. (That’s something that can be done with video but not film.) Lynch then built the film around this cut-up centerpiece, adding scenes that apparently have nothing to do with Nikki/Susan but always returning to her. Although their characters at first seem to be central, Irons and Theroux have surprisingly small parts, and there are even tinier bits for Julia Ormond, Harry Dean Stanton, Natassja Kinski, Mary Steenburgen, William H. Macy, Diane Ladd (Dern’s mom), and Mulholland Dr.’s Laura Harring and Naomi Watts. (The latter supplies the voice of one of the man-bunnies.) The movie may be Lynch’s private indulgence, but it’s Nikki/Susan’s trip—and her mindfuck.

That’s a major reason why Inland Empire is so alienating. With the exceptions of the unfathomable Eraserhead—arguably the director’s most fully realized film—and almost-conventional The Elephant Man and Dune, Lynch’s movies introduce innocents to corruption, a process that provides the viewer with a surrogate traveler into the darkness. The aspiring actress played by Watts in Mulholland Dr.—fresh off the bus from Deep River, Ontario—takes the same journey as we do. There’s no such entry point for Lynch’s new film, which starts somewhere in the distance and only gets more remote as its spooky non sequiturs pile up. The movie’s title is a reference to the region east of Los Angeles, but the story isn’t set there or anyplace else of tangible reality. The locations are unrecognizable, either physically or emotionally, until the film finally arrives at Hollywood and Vine, an intersection Lynch may consider darkly symbolic but just seems a cliché.

If there’s a logic here, it must be in the score’s buzzing, thumping, and occasional eruptions of vintage rock and soul. Rather than commission music by longtime collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch relies heavily on Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose skittering strings evoke insects, fire, and anxiety—and might have sent the filmmaker in the direction of Lodz. Inland Empire is an excursion through David Lynch’s unconscious, but it’s also a romp through his record collection. If the latter isn’t the more profound trip, it’s certainly the more interesting.