David Lynch’s latest creation, “Inland Empire” (2006) could not have been made by any other director. It is easily his most iconic work. It’s his hardest to explain.
The story, in as much as it matters, is about Nikki Grace, a married actress who gets a part in an upcoming movie called “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” an event predicted by her creepy, mysterious neighbor. The script, actually a remake of a Polish story, appears to be cursed and previous attempts at adaptation culminated in murders. As production gets under way, co-star Devon pursues an affair with Nikki despite multiple warning about her jealous husband. It isn’t long before the actress is enmeshed in a surreal fantasy world that mixes elements of her life, the movie, the events surrounding the Polish film and her imagination. Also there is a rabbit sitcom.
A little background on the film: David Lynch shot entirely on digital, improvising the script as he went along around a general idea in his head. No linear causality seems possible in decoding the film and, unlike “Mulholland Dr,” as yet no key or explanation can satisfactorily make the plot coherent. At three hours in length, critics are split between decrying it as a self-indulgent mess or an avant-garde masterpiece.
I think that as a narrative experiment, “Inland Empire” is an innovative and worthwhile experience. Looking for straight-forward answers seems to cause quite a bit of frustration but enjoying the questions, ambiguities and puzzles presented can be both enjoyable and artistically mesmerizing. Lynch clearly has a knack for creating movies that appear to fold back into themselves with endless hints, implications and connections that generate a half-genuine/half-artificial profundity. I view his latest plunge into borderline non-narrative strangeness as the next evolution of his work, and yet I have to admit that I prefer the more cohesive enigmas of “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Dr.”
In terms of script, the dialogue is vintage Lynch all the way, for better or for worse. He has some of his most pretentious moments, predominantly when he falls into the pattern of having characters pose uninflected non-sequitur questions at each other. However, a few scenes stand out as memorable high points in his career including a hilarious exchange in which Harry Dean Stanton begs for money and an infinitely disturbing conversation about whether you can catch a bus to Pomona.
On a technical level, the switch to digital has been a sore issue for most viewers. While I’m glad that David Lynch is so excited about the freedom and ease it offers (he has returned to feature films and vowed to make only digital movies from now on), I can’t help but agree with the general critical reaction that his visuals are disappointing.
Particularly unpleasant are the frequent extreme close-ups which show up as distorted and aggressive, shouting “IS THIS NOT CREEPY!” when the message could be conveyed in a more subtly, under-your-skin manner. One is reminded too vividly of the forced claustrophobic horror of “Blair Witch Project.” Presumably this heavy use of close-ups was necessitated due to the lack of resolution and shallow focus on medium-long DV shots which makes facial expressions and nuances difficult to distinguish.
I’m torn about the use of lighting in the film. Some shots are quite thoughtfully arranged, with interesting uses of harsh lighting from behind or off to the side. A grey darkness prevails through most of the film giving some images just enough definition so that outlines can be felt but not enough to resolve our curiosity and fear. However, too many scenes are so grainy and muddy that color contrast is all but lost and Lynch’s compositions suffer as a result.
The set design is not particularly inspired either, with minimalism seemingly used to mask the grainy loss of detail. Too many shots on too few sets creates a feeling of repetition and stagnation, dampening our excitement and fascination. Though it provides good contrast for the bizarre events and dialogue, the mundane nature of the sets (bare apartments, bare hotel rooms, drab streets, empty studio warehouses, empty theaters, etc) feels dry when they could have been used to develop a keener visual style.
On the upside, compliments must go the fairly savvy use of speed and digital manipulation which often marks some of the eeriest moments. At one point a leering image of the phantom trumps even the creature living behind the dumpster in “Mulholland Dr.”
Happily, the aural qualities of “Inland Empire” are truly brilliant, a rival to his debut “Eraserhead.” Clearly, tons of effort has been poured into his ambient sound and room noise experimentation creating a chilling atmosphere and nerve-wracking mood that usually makes up for the lack of visual punch.
One final issue that needs to be brought up is the self-referential tone which feels out of place and unnecessary. The postmodern hipster aesthetic is simply not Lynch’s style, so why does he feel the need to constantly remind us of his own work: “Rabbits,” his internet series, the plot, characters and themes of “Mulholland Dr,” Twin Peaks’ lumber motif, his regular cast members, etc. Leaving the theater I initially was feeling self-congratulatory about catching so many nods, but I checked myself after further consideration. What was the point? It served no purpose within the film. Is he pandering to his niche audience? Is he trapped within a narcissistic bubble of his own themes, obsessions and oeuvre and unable to generate wholly new ideas? The trend is disturbing and I hope it doesn’t continue in his later films.
Walrus Rating: 7.5
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A friend of mine that saw this gave it a ? out of 4 stars. And if there's something freakier than that thing behind the dumpster in Mullholland Dr., I'm not sure I can see this movie. That thing made me jump out of my seat.
It is approximately twice as freaky on the Klehkman-Gouimont Adjusted Freakiness scale. Its also one of the best reasons to see the film.
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