What is he, a director or a pervert? It's for him to know and us to find out. In Inland Empire, David Lynch studies the fear, rage and sorrow in the distorted face of a woman. Watching with the same keen observation with which Picasso studied his weeping mistress Dora Marr, Lynch is interested in Laura Dern's contorted face from an aesthetic angle. And Dern's emotions are the central obsession that drives this supremely baffling antifilm.
In Inland Empire, the rangy blonde plays at least two different characters: a great movie star with a butler, and a raspy street prostitute with a steel tooth. Dern keeps you watching through unfathomable twists and turns and miles of bafflement, and deserves the award for best actress.
It would take at least three viewings to make up a coherent explanation of what's going on in Inland Empire. Ultimately, some sort of a diagram will turn out to be more useful than a description. Lost Highway was a Möbius strip, Mulholland Drive was a pair of asymmetrical loops. What's this one shaped like--an asterisk?
In the mansion of actress Nikki Grace (Dern), a new neighbor comes to visit. ("Neighbor" is a loaded word in Lynchese; it's what Frank Booth called Jeffrey in Blue Velvet.) With the poisonous insinuation of Bela Lugosi, the neighbor (Grace Zabriskie), starts to interrogate Grace about her new movie. And then she starts to relate an old folktale about the origin of evil: it was a little boy's reflection that one day walked off with a life of its own.
Inland Empire's largest loop begins as Nikki commences work on a new film, starring as an adulteress in On High with Blue Tomorrows. Her co-star (Justin Theroux) is the supposedly irresistible actor who always seduces his leading ladies. It looks like history will repeat itself, despite the fact that Nikki's husband has a lethal reputation that scares everyone in the industry. And then On High's director (Jeremy Irons) has to spill the beans: the movie is based on a never-completed Polish movie that, er, killed its stars.
During the early stages of production, On High with Blue Tomorrows changes. The sets come to life and swallow Nikki up whole and transport her to some place in L.A.'s trackless suburbs, the Inland Empire. With the help of Lynch's usual team of retainers, Aphasia and Amnesia, the actress morphs into a snarling Hollywood Boulevard whore called Susan Blue. Fictional character that she is, Susan seems to know she's in a movie within a movie, and so she mocks Nikki: "I'm a whore!" Susan howls derisively. "Where am I? I'm soooo scared!" (This certainly could be read as a parody of Charlize Theron in Monster, or perhaps any fancy that a pampered actress could understand what a street hooker goes through.)
Even after he moved away from linear narrative, Lynch's films used to suggest which way the power was flowing. Previously, there was some idea of cause and effect. In Inland Empire, one clue is the tale of a circus and one of those B-movie mentalists who can hypnotize an innocent into killing.
It is tragic that the director who gave us the fragrantly erotic surfaces of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive is reading film the riot act. ("I'm through with film as a medium. For me, film is dead," he writes in his new book, Catching the Big Fish.) Inland Empire brings out previously unseen ideas of what one can do with the small camera. There have been exciting moments in digital film: the flat patches of haunted darkness in The Blair Witch Project, the fields of flood-lit color in Bubble, the nimbus of goldenrod light around Chloë Sevigny's head in julien donkey-boy.
All these films seem mostly serendipitous compared to what Lynch achieves with a far from state-of-the-art Sony PD-150. The grain, the stuttering image when the camera is tracked, and the flurrying specks in dim light are perfect for an exercise in trying to re-create what's seen by the eye of the subconscious.
Inland Empire is a long version of the dream sequences we usually have to pay for with a dull movie. And in this dim, threatening format, Lynch appears to be leading the pack instead of following it.
'Inland Empire' opens on Friday, Feb. 9, at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.454.1222.
New and upcoming film releases.
Browse all movie reviews.