September 13, 2007
“A woman in trouble.” That is David Lynch’s concise synopsis for his latest film, Inland Empire (2006), but it could easily describe any one of his female protagonists, from Lula traveling along the weird, yellow brick road in Wild at Heart (1990) to doomed prom queen Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), or the amnesiac car accident survivor and her aspiring actress friend in Mulholland Drive (2001). In some respects, Inland Empire continues many of the themes explored in Mulholland Drive with the avant garde sensibilities of Lynch’s feature film debut, Eraserhead (1977).
Nikki Grace (Dern) is an actress currently working on a new film called On High in Blue Tomorrows with her co-star Devon Berk (Theroux) and her director Kingsley Stewart (Irons). During rehearsals, Stewart reveals to them that the film they are doing is a remake of one that was never finished because the two leads were murdered. Trouble arises when Nikki begins an affair with Devon despite warnings from her husband to stay away. Lynch depicts Nikki and Devon’s sweaty, sexual liaison in a darkened room with a blue filter, their faces captured in close-up for ominous effect. Pretty soon, the film that they are working on bleeds into “real life” and quite possibly the original, troubled production.
It’s great to see Laura Dern working with Lynch again after all these years – they haven’t made a film together since Wild at Heart. For a couple of films it seemed as if she was going to become his muse and one certainly gets that impression on Wild at Heart. Her performance in Inland Empire is another career highlight as she conveys a wide range of emotions and is put through the Lynch emotional wringer. Dern digs deep within herself and pulls out a gutsy performance as one of Lynch’s tormented female protagonists who lead a dual life. She has the courage to put herself out there as her character(s) lose their grip on reality, going from good-looking actress to grungy homeless person.
As is the norm with Lynch films, people utter cryptic phrases that only become clear later on or, upon subsequent viewings, or sometimes they never do. He still knows how to create a tangible atmosphere of dread, especially with the interior of homes – think of the Beaumont home in Blue Velvet (1986), the Madison home in Lost Highway (1997) and now the house that Nikki and Devon stay in while making their movie in Inland Empire. Like the other movies cited above, characters wander down darkened hallways creating tense scenes that put you on edge.
There is a very minimal score to cut the tension. There is silence punctuated only by ambient noise. Lynch creates an intangible soundscape that is not quite music and not quite sound effects, but an unsettling merger of both and this creates a feeling of unease right from the beginning. There are several scenes that show why Lynch is still the master of densely textured soundscapes that envelope you and draw you into the worlds he creates.
There’s also the requisite song and dance number that Lynch loves to do in many of his films – Dean Stockwell lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet, Nicolas Cage crooning “Love Me” in Wild at Heart and Rebekah Del Rio’s stirring rendition of “Crying” in Mulholland Drive. In Inland Empire we have a gaggle of women dancing to “Loco-Motion” by Little Eva that gives the film a real jolt of fun and vitality.
The world of Inland Empire is one to get lost in rather than to understand completely. You really have to surrender yourself to the abstract narrative. Lynch is an intuitive filmmaker and this film feels like a collection of ideas rooted in dreams. There are a lot of interesting ideas but the film is also maddeningly frustrating to try and decipher. As a result, Inland Empire is open to many repeated viewings in an effort to figure out what the hell it’s all about – if anything at all. Lynch’s film is a cinematic endurance test and anyone looking for narrative coherence should look elsewhere. You have been warned.
There is a seven-minute slide show of production stills and behind-the-scenes photographs.
“Quinoa” features Lynch showing us how to make this meal that he enjoys for dinner. While not quite the master chef that Robert Rodriguez or Christopher Walken are, Lynch knows his way around the kitchen and makes this a fun extra to watch.
“More Things That Happened” is an impressive collection of extra scenes totaling one hour and 14 minutes, almost another film entirely! Some of it features Nikki at home with her husband while other scenes include the other many denizens of Inland Empire.
“Ballerina” is a short film featuring a ballerina in a red dress performing to eerie, atmospheric Lynchian music.
Also included are three trailers for the film.
“Stories” is a 41-minute collection of Lynch telling filming anecdotes, including his enthusiastic reminisces about shooing the “Rabbits” sitcom within the film with Laura Harring and Naomi Watts. He talks about the benefits of shooting parts of the film in warehouses and his love of digital editing because it gives him greater control over his film. There are also his musings on how ideas sometime come from music and using meditation to “fish” for ideas.
Finally, there is “Lynch 2,” behind-the-scenes footage done in a fly-on-the-wall style. We see Lynch taking crew members to task for wasting valuable time, dictating a passage of the script and planning out shots for a scene. This is a fascinating look at Lynch’s working methods with the best bits being the auteur working with Laura Dern and coaching Harry Dean Stanton on a scene.