Whew! It took me three nights, but I finally got through David Lynch's Inland Empire, the surreal, three-hour "epic" that last year drew raves from the critics but only a handful of hardened Lynch fans to a smattering of screenings.
It's easy to see why. After an opening salvo of seemingly disconnected, but intriguing snippets (including a weird, resonant scene from Lynch's separately-produced "sitcom," Rabbits, above), we're plunged into a plot heavily reminiscent of the director's arthouse triumph, Mulholland Drive: Laura Dern, his perennial muse, stars as Nikki Grace, a slightly-faded actress who's just landed a comeback role in a new film, On High in Blue Tomorrows. Trouble is, even before she's gotten the big call, she's warned (in a typically hammy performance by Lynch's other muse, Grace Zabriskie), that the film is cursed - and once on set, she learns it's actually a remake of an earlier film, 4/7, based on a Polish folk tale, which collapsed upon the death of its stars. Hmmmm. Cue the doomy Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack!
Unsurprisingly, Nikki soon finds her "real" life moving in parallel with the story she's enacting: she's playing a woman cheating on her husband - and is simultaneously drawn to her seductive co-star (Justin Theroux), despite the warnings of her own jealous hubby, who's - yes - Polish. After just a rehearsal or two, Nikki can't distinguish between lines in the script and lines she thinks she's thought up for herself, and we suit up for a standard-issue elliptical, post-structuralist pastiche a la Mulholland.
But then the fun really starts. Nikki slips through a backdoor on a soundstage and finds herself banging around in a scene already experienced in "reality" - she's somehow bifurcated into a living feedback loop - and when, panicked, she desperately dashes to another part of the "set," she finds that she's fallen down yet another rabbit hole (remember that sitcom?) not just into On High in Blue Tomorrows, but also into its previous, Polish-gypsy incarnation, and even its production history.
Dern's in the dark - just like us - through much of Inland Empire.
Needless to say, this is a deeply original idea - out of all the unreliably-narrated, mobius-strippy movies I've seen, none have actually allowed the making of the movie to bleed into the head-trip (we also pop out of the finished product at times, as a girl watches it on TV and weeps). But then Lynch has always been about digging into the comforting fantasy of "reality" to reveal what lies beneath - only here he he takes it to the next level, and lets what lies beneath and above refract each other into some wild, incoherent extrapolation. Everything is in the mix - not just Nikki's "character" (she's an actress, she's a white trash housewife, she's a whore!) and the movie-within-the movie, and the history-of-the-movie-within-the-movie, but also some of Lynch's own oeuvre (Dumbland, Rabbits), and the distraught viewer of the whole train wreck, to boot. We vaguely get the sense, as Nikki/Lynch slides through the slipstream that seems to terminate (surprise!) in the psyche of a doomed hooker, that Lynch is also trying to produce his movie in the same way his heroine is "living" it - through intuition, free association, and dream. Which is fine, as long as we sense an impending - or even possible - synthesis.
But here's the rub - Lynch does achieve a weird, simultaneous sense of extrapolation and tunneling internality as Dern wanders through door after door, but the narrative leaps become repetitive, even obsessive, and said synthesis never happens - or when it does, and Nikki and her movie reach the end of the line and head back into "redemption," we realize that at bottom, Lynch's mentality is a little silly, and deeply melodramatic. He's fascinated/disgusted with his own psyche the way a baby is fascinated/disgusted by the load in its diaper; and sure, his free-form stylings are sometimes inspired, but the rest of us can perceive the crudeness of the core material. Stripped of its ontological hysteria, Inland Empire is essentially Laura Dern tied, like Little Nell, to the psycho-sexual-conceptual train tracks - it's just that emotionally sophisticated.
So I can't help but feel that Lynch isn't well served by all this fearlessly self-indulgent adventure - his subconscious is too sentimental, too obvious. Nor is he well-served by those fans who egg him on, under the pretense that he's some kind of improvisatory, jazzy genius (he's not). The best things in the movie, it turns out, are the humanoid hares from Rabbits. Frankly, their oblique vignettes convey the claustrophobic essence of Lynchiness better than anything else in Inland Empire - and thus it strikes me Lynch might be better at the sonnet than the epic.