When the theater went dark after Inland Empire, my first thought was, “Oh shit, I have to write a review of that, don’t I?”
My friend who saw it with me immediately pointed and laughed at me and my predicament of having to make enough sense out of it to fake my way through a few paragraphs. Another friend who had seen it said it was “essentially a three-hour experimental film.” And I’d seen at least one critic refer to it as more of a video installation than an actual film-film.
I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but on the David Lynch Scale of Totally Fucked Up Shit, with The Straight Story being a 1 and Mulholland Dr a 10, Inland Empire is an easy 25. The lack of a cohesive story or a less random narrative can be frustrating because there is a fairly solid framing sequence (actually, two or three framing sequences around one another, like a series of parentheses), and enough of a story that at times it seems like all the clues are there to figure out if you spend enough time with the film (as in Mulholland Dr).
But at other times it just seems like Lynch is throwing in random craziness because he thinks it’s funny. For example, the film’s joyous end-credits sequence involves a capuchin monkey and a lumberjack sawing on a log while dancers lip synch a Nina Simone song around him.
By the time the first dance sequence occurred–”The Locomotion,” performed in a motel room–I’d completely given up, and thought half-seriously about just posting my notes, as they’d make about as much sense as any attempt at a straightforward synopsis: “Record player looks awesome…music is full of menace…scary…rabbit show…Different language…the fuck?… Beautiful…Wait, what?…Red curtains of Twin Peaks…Dance #.” And so on for a couple of pages.
But I’ll take a swing at it.
There’s a young, Polish woman who is a whore, maybe, and whose son might have died or gone missing something.
Laura Dern, whom we all know is an actress in real life, plays an actress in the film named Nikki Grace, who plays a character in a film-within-the-film named Susan. The film-within-the-film is based on a Polish folktale, and was long ago being adapted into a film, but the production was apparently cursed, and the two leads murdered.
Nikki first finds out she got the role–or will get the role–when a strange Polish woman visits her house and has an extremely awkward conversation with her, speaking in riddles that prompt Dern’s Grace to respond, confused, “I’m sorry…what is that?” She thus perfectly sums up the point of the film (She’ll do so again later as Susan, when she says “It’s kind of laid a mindfuck on me.”)
The woman points Grace to a vision of the future, and from there things get progressively weirder, with Dern/Grace/Susan seemingly accessing different levels of reality (films, dreams, television shows) at different times (she exists simultaneously in two places in some scenes, watching herself from afar). There’s no real delineation between when she’s a particular character, and what’s real, what’s the film’s reality and what’s the film’s film’s reality, and there are several levels of perspective from which we could be watching, as we watch a woman watch it on a hotel television set, or watch Dern watch scenes through a hole in a piece of silk she’s magically created to see things.
Also involved are a menacingly protective husband, a Greek chorus of super-hot young sometimes-prostitutes, a frightening sitcom where the characters are people in rabbit suits and the laugh track is totally random, folk magic, gypsy/carnies with legends of disappearing hypnotist ‘The Phantom,’ a cocky womanizing actor played by Jason Therouex, a strange assistant director played by Harry Dean Stanton and a couple of street people who take little notice when women stabbed with screwdrivers die next to them. Every time I thought I was about to fall into a hypnotized stupor, a sudden pop song appeared to inject some energy into the narrative.
There are a couple of extremely scary moments, a couple of extremely funny moments and a couple of flat out exhilarating scenes, all embedded into a maze of Lynch’s obsessions and flights of fancy. Watching Inland Empire is a little like dreaming, only with a better soundtrack and fewer appearances by my former high school classmates. Whether you’ve the patience to spend almost three hours of your waking life watching Lynch’s dreams is more a matter of personal taste than Lynch’s filmmaking ability; for me, there are few others I’d so readily forgive for, as Susan put it, kind of laying a mindfuck on me.