When I opened a package to discover that I had been sent David Lynch's "Inland Empire" to review, a rush of excitement and anxiousness came over me. Apart from my delight at not having to spend money on one of my most highly anticipated releases, the real pleasure came from the anticipation of going on a trip. You see, when David Lynch makes a movie, he does more than just tell a story through visuals. He opens our eyes to a world beyond the ordinary, to places that can only exist in the recesses of our dreams. When we sit down in front of a Lynch movie, we step outside of our own world and delve into places we quite possibly never wanted to visit, but once we are there we cannot bring ourselves to leave. His movies actively engage our senses in ways that few others do, and whether we enjoy them or despise them, there is no denying the power that they hold over us for a few hours.
Like Lynch's "Mulholland Dr.," "Inland Empire" is set in Hollywood and, at least partially, revolves around the making of movie. Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is the star. Early in the film, she is visited by a rather odd woman (Grace Zabriskie) who insists that there will be a murder in the new movie, despite Nikki's attesting to the contrary. Later, the director (Jeremy Irons) reveals that the movie is actually a remake of a Polish film that was never finished because the lead actors were murdered under mysterious circumstances. The reputation of Nikki's co-star, Devon Burk (Justin Theroux), as a lothario and her husband's blatant jealousy seem to point toward a potential motive for murder. However, Lynch does not let the movie (or the audience) get off this easy.
Things quickly get curiouser and curiouser as Nikki's experiences begin to parallel those of her character, Susan Blue, a woman who is involved in an extramarital affair. As Nikki and Devon film their scenes, the line between reality and fiction becomes radically blurred until neither the characters nor the viewer are able to tell the difference. From this point on, all traces of reality cease to exist (not that there was ever much to begin with) as Laura Dern passes from one nightmarish situation to the next. I use Laura Dern's name here because, indeed, we are constantly aware that we are seeing an actress playing a part. This is not a criticism of Dern's performance, which is staggering. Over the course of the film, she takes on various personas and attitudes, and whether she is playing different characters or multiple facets of the same character is not clear. We see her as a sophisticated actress, a bored housewife, a battered rube, and a prostitute. It is the ultimate melding of actor and character.
The tagline for the film is "A Woman in Trouble." We do, in fact, see a woman in trouble. Who this woman is and what kind of trouble she is in are never fully explained, nor are they necessarily important. In his typical fashion, Lynch populates the film with dozens of unusual and seemingly disconnected characters. There is a woman who claims that she has been hypnotized to kill someone with a screwdriver. There is a group of prostitutes who engage in a surprising musical number. There is a family of talking rabbits (!) who apparently exist in some kind of fractured sitcom. The film aggressively defies real logic and takes on a dream logic where identities melt away, time moves in different directions, and one event transitions seamlessly into another with no connection. It is challenging but simultaneously exhilarating as we travel through this never-waking nightmare. In every scenario, there is the constant threat of some imminent danger that manifests itself only in shadow or ambient sound.
Taking full advantage of the digital revolution, David Lynch opted to shoot the film entirely on a DV camera. This provided him with a freedom to interact with his subjects more intimately than ever before. Shot over two years, the movie compiles what began as a series of short experiments with Dern and other actors before Lynch decided to turn it into a feature. At almost three hours, it can be a trying experience even for Lynch's most ardent admirers. It builds on the structure of his past films and takes it to new levels of artistry and ambition. Still, it remains so typical of the director's style, with familiar faces and ideas, that it is impossible to take your eyes off of it. In addition to Dern and Theroux, several of Lynch's frequent collaborators, including Diane Ladd, Harry Dean Stanton, and a few other surprises, make brief appearances. In one film, Lynch manages to leap both forward and backward, not unlike his dream structure.
So what does all of this mean? In the past, Lynch has been accused of toying with his audience by deliberately making his films puzzling. And you know what? He does. What is so intrinsically wrong with that? Rather than offering any real insight into the director, these criticisms say more about the people watching the films and their need to have everything fall into place. Searching for concrete answers in a David Lynch film is ultimately an exercise in futility. I honestly do not believe that Lynch takes his films nearly as seriously as many of his critics (or his fans) do. By deconstructing his movies to get at some kind of overriding meaning, they miss the point entirely. Lynch is not a director who makes statements. He creates atmosphere and mood, delves into the subconscious, and stimulates our darkest desires. His films offer viewers the opportunity to immerse themselves in unique and bizarre experiences without following conventional storytelling. Rather than simply show us something, he seeks to get under our skin and plunge us into his twisted imagination where the beautiful commingles with the repulsive and dreams are the only reality.
"Inland Empire" has been released on DVD in a limited edition two-disc set by Rhino that is surely a must-have for Lynch fans. Disc 1 contains the film in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. As the movie was filmed entirely on digital video, the picture quality is perfectly suited to TV viewing. It looks exactly as you would expect digital video to look, often dim and sometimes hazy, though this adds to the atmosphere. Black levels tend to be pretty solid, and whites are very bright. Resolution in general is very good. Though detail is not always clear, this is not surprising.
Audio is defaulted to a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, though two 5.1 Surround tracks—near-field and far-field monitor playback—are also available. All of these tracks sound excellent, and it all comes down to where you want the sound to be concentrated the most. Personally, I preferred the near-field track, with the louder noises and blasts of music (and there are many) generated through the front speakers. In one of the supplements, David Lynch discusses the importance of loudness in his movie, and this track pretty much ensures the maximum effect. Dialogue is clear on all tracks. The sound is clean, with no hiss or distortion.
It should also be noted that, for the first time on a DVD supervised by Lynch himself, the film comes with chapter stops. Lynch has been adamant in the past about his disdain for viewers stopping a film in the middle of viewing or skipping over scenes, but he has finally relented (somewhat) and recognized the conveniences of chapters. There is no chapter selection (in other words, you cannot go right to a particular chapter from the menu), but at least we can skip through. While I agree with Lynch to some extent about the ideal of watching a movie from beginning to end, I am glad he is no longer forcing this on viewers.
On Disc 2, we get 75 minutes (yes, 75!) of deleted scenes in a selection called "More Things That Happened." The scenes have been edited into sort of a second feature, and believe me, it is really just like watching another Lynch movie. These scenes expand on many elements in the final film, and they are certainly intriguing in their own right. I found the extended footage of Dern's monologue to a psychiatrist (I guess?) to be the most fascinating, particularly for Dern's performance.
After this, there is a bonus short film called "Ballerina." This 12-minute short simply shows a young ballerina, apparently in zombie makeup, dancing to some typically creepy music, with footage of clouds superimposed over her. While not as intriguing as the deleted footage, this can be most unsettling, especially if viewed with the lights out in the middle of the night.
David Lynch offers up some personal rumination in "Stories," a 42-minute interview segment. He talks a lot about the production of the movie, gives his thoughts on the digital wave, and expresses his disgust for people watching movies on cell phones. Thankfully, he does not attempt to interpret the film for us or give us anything to chew on in the way of analyzing it. Considering the director's usual reluctance to grant interviews about his movies, this feature is a rare treat and a most entertaining look at one of the most eccentric of contemporary filmmakers.
Up next is "Lynch 2," a 30-minute montage of behind-the-scenes footage. We see Lynch arguing, mopping, walking his actors through their scenes, and yelling at crew members to get out of the shot. There is no cohesive order to any of this, but it is quite a revealing look at the director as he works, showing us some of his strange methods and his unique way of putting scenes together.
Three trailers (all set to Lynch's own recording of the haunting "Ghost of Love") and a still gallery nearly finish things off. The last and most perplexing feature is a 20-minute cooking lesson with Lynch. In this black-and-white spot, he shows us how he prepares quinoa. While he waits for the food to cook, he sits on the patio with a glass of wine and tells a story about buying sugar water in Europe. Somehow, he finds a way to make even this a creepy experience.
"Inland Empire" is truly one of the most frightening movies I have seen in a very long time. It is not often that a film stays with you every waking minute of the day for several days after you watch it, but that is almost a guarantee when David Lynch is behind the camera. To "get" a Lynch film is not to understand its meaning but rather to fully take in the experience of watching it. You must forget all notions of logic and reality as we know it and allow yourself to be taken in by the images and sounds that flood the room. Lynch's films are, by and large, escapism, but they are not an escape from the troubles of our world. Instead, they take us away from the comfort of stability and sanity to a chaotic world of mystery and despair. When we come back, we are relieved, but we never quite look at our world the same way again.