INLAND EMPIRE written and directed by David Lynch, with Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons and Harry Dean Stanton. 175 minutes. Opens Friday (May 4) at the Royal. See Indie & Rep Films listings, page 91. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
In a supremely perverse act of counter-programming, the Royal has booked David Lynch's three-hour Inland Empire to open opposite Spider-man 3. Good for them. It's the perfect anti-blockbuster: perverse, narratively incoherent, disturbing, grainy-looking, with more "what the hell?" moments than any five Hollywood hits put together.
Laura Dern, who produced the film, stars as Nikki Grace, a Hollywood actor who lives in a really nice house. One day her weird new neighbour (Grace Zabriskie) shows up and tells her she'll get the role she wants, but bad things will happen. Zabriskie is odd-looking to start with, and Lynch makes her look odder through angles and lens selection.
When Nikki gets the role, weird things do start happening, and I don't mean weird by ordinary standards, but weird by Lynch standards, which is very weird indeed.
About a third of the film is in Polish and was apparently shot in Poland for what may have been a separate movie but has become either an alternate reality or one of the two movies-within- the-movie of Inland Empire.
Lynch is a great recycler. Mulholland Drive began as a pilot for a TV series, and Inland Empire was shot over a period of years, some of it for short films that Lynch posted on his website. I wonder at what point it evolved into a feature, and why he kept the sitcom with the people in rabbit costumes. (You read that correctly.)
I don't think anyone would argue against the idea that cinema is essentially dreamlike or deny that most filmmakers struggle against the dream to achieve realism and clarity - Hollywood studios particularly, and never more so than with the big summer pictures.
Spider-man 3 has been gnawed over by every story executive at Sony, while Inland Empire is by a filmmaker who works as close to the dream as possible. Associative leaps, weird character shifts, dreams within dreams: Lynch makes feature films that get released in theatres, but he's not playing the same game.
You can complain that Inland Empire is opaque, pointlessly obscure and follows its own narrative illogic into dead ends. All that is true.
You can complain about Lynch's decision to shoot in grainy video and give it a really raw 35mm blow-up - it looks like oatmeal.
The film is maddeningly indirect and works hard to make you dislike it. It's also a perverse masterpiece
I came out of Inland Empire (which opened in L.A. in 2006) wanting to see it again immediately. Despite all the complaints, if you can tune into its nightmarish sensibility, it's an absorbing bad dream anchored by an astonishing central performance. Were there any justice, Laura Dern would have won the Oscar last year.