Behind the wheel with the master of surreal
BY JASON BLAIR
INLAND EMPIRE: Written and directed by David Lynch. Cinematography, Odd-Geir Saether. Starring Laura Dern, Justin Theroux and Jeremy Irons. Studio Canal, 2007. R. 172 minutes.
What's true of the 1960s can be said of a David Lynch film — if you remember it, you weren't there — and that isn't always a good thing for filmgoers. A Lynch film is an experience. You don't sit back and relax into the familiar; you plunge ahead into a rich surrealistic fantasy. Cars are often present, sociopaths are a given and little people, blonde women and telephones predominate. Recently, his films have tended to fracture at key moments, like glass that's been heated too quickly, and Lynch's ability to recover from the narrative split is directly related to the success of his films. It's as if he enjoys digging philosophical holes just to see if he can climb out.
|Nikki (Laura Dern) may see a bunny|
His last two features illustrate the mixed results of the Lynch approach. (I'm not counting The Straight Story, a true story he filmed for Disney.) Lost Highway lets go of the wheel early on, amounting to a bizarre, even disdainful take on split identities and emotional abuse. It remains, for all but the most ardent Lynch fans, a wandering and unwatchable film. Its successor, Mulholland Drive, is no less complicated in terms of structure, but it never strays too far from its storyline, making it easier to follow and therefore appreciate. I still can't tell you, after the diner scene in Mulholland, what's behind the restaurant dumpster, but when Lynch is this composed and upbeat — dare I say tender? — I'll gladly suffer his little detours through the grotesque.
A film shouldn't be something we subject ourselves to for insight or self-improvement. We have therapists and gyms for that. To my mind, a director should challenge me without being self-consciously difficult, and I've sometimes felt Lynch has a tendency toward the latter. His new film INLAND EMPIRE, boldly uppercased, is the offspring of both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, putting it a good distance away from Blue Velvet but not necessarily beyond your curiosity. If accessibility is a quality you value in your films, you probably shouldn't bother with INLAND EMPIRE. Then again, you probably weren't a Lynch fan to begin with.
Although it feels like diving into water for the first time, I'll quit stalling and attempt a plot summary. In INLAND EMPIRE, actors Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) are starring in a film that turns out, en media res, to be a remake of a Polish movie which was in turn based on a Balkan folktale. The Polish movie was never finished, we find out, due to a significant scheduling conflict: The lead actors were murdered before the film was complete. The parallels between the two productions are unsavory, creating a cursed environment in which Nikki — depending on your interpretation — begins to lose her mind. For almost an hour of INLAND EMPIRE, Nikki is "trapped" within the film's sound stage, not to mention her frontal cortex, during which time an inner rupture takes place, producing no less than the following developments: a sleepover with several prostitutes; a sitcom of upright bunnies, complete with laugh track; and a long sojourn in Poland, either actually or metaphorically.
There you are. All three hours of it. If I tried to diagram it, it would resemble a bowl of spaghetti.
After a smart, effective first third, what to make of the nonsense in the middle? Once INLAND EMPIRE falters, the rhythm and mood are more than inconsistent: they're destroyed until it's arguably too late, at which point the film tries to double back on itself and hook you all over again. It's a mess, if an ambitious one, and no one deserves more credit for holding things together than Laura Dern. The consistency of her performance across at least three roles is, considering the material, superhuman. But I have to fault her for one thing: allowing Lynch to start shooting INLAND EMPIRE without a script. Rarely have I been so certain that a little forethought could have improved a film so much.
INLAND EMPIRE opens Friday, March 23 at the Bijou