THE INLAND EMPIRE
By Lee Marshall, Screen Daily, September 6, 2006
Around 10 minutes into INLAND EMPIRE, David Lynch’s baffling new cinematic mindgame, a guy with the head of a rabbit drones: “I do not think it will be much longer now”. Wrong, bunny: it will be another two hours and 50 minutes of improvised plotting, rumbling sound effects and blurry digital camerawork before the final credits roll.
Lynch’s latest, which he spent two-and-a-half years filming on and off – and with no script – begins intriguingly enough, apparently promising a dark mystery along the lines of Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway. But in those tastily bizarre earlier films, you always felt that you could puzzle out the whole thing if only you watched them enough times. With INLAND EMPIRE – and yes, that’s how it’s spelt - we soon begin to suspect that there’s nothing to solve. All we’re left with are a few atmospheric scenes, some menacing music and sound effects – and a great performance by Laura Dern, who commands the screen despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to have a clue what’s going on either.
The film already has distributors in place throughout most of Europe (though not the UK) and much of South and Central America, plus Australia, New Zealand, Korea and Japan. In these territories distributors will benefit initially from Lynch’s strong cult appeal, but results will tail off sharply after the first weekend once word gets out that this is not a dark and sexy mystery but a punishing experimental experience that borders on video art.
INLAND EMPIRE will undoubtedly get a US release sooner or later, but it will be unusually limited for a Lynch film. There was a real sense of collective disappointment after the film’s press screening at Venice, where it played out of competition; the stunned silence from those of us who had expected more was far louder than the few isolated handclaps from diehard Lynch fans.
It’s almost impossible to summarise the plot of a film that doesn’t really have one; by the end of the three hours, we have little to add to Lynch’s laconic press-book statement that INLAND EMPIRE is about “a woman in love and in trouble”.
The woman is Nikki (Dern), an actress who appears to live in a palatial mansion with a jealous husband upstairs. A creepy neighbour (Grace Zabriskie, a Twin Peaks regular) predicts that Nikki will get an important part in a film, and seems to suggest that evil will follow.
Dern indeed gets the part, and begins rehearsals with Kinglsey, an English director (Jeremy Irons), and his lugubrious assistant (Harry Dean Stanton). Her co-star is a cocky young actor called Devon (Justin Theroux), whose romantic pursuit of Nikki in the film within the film (where she is called Sue and he Billy, and they both talk with Gone With The Wind Deep-South twangs) soon spills over into real life.
Kingsley tells his actors that the film they are making is actually a sort of remake: the first attempt to shoot the script, years before, ended with the murder of the two leads before the venture wrapped.
This is a promising Lynchian premise – but the set-up described above takes up no more than half an hour. For a while, as Nikki steps from the film-within-film to another layer of reality that seems to lie behind it, we remain hooked, as Dern’s initially magnetic performance, swinging from tender passion to paralysing fear, plays against the often mannered dialogue and seems to suggest that answers will be forthcoming in due course.
But as the Dern character gradually loses her way in reality’s backstage area, we begin to lose patience. Along the way we meet a desperate, homicidal woman (Julia Ormond) with a screwdriver embedded in her stomach who later turns out to be Billy’s wife; we keep cutting back to the family of rabbit-heads (one voiced by Naomi Watts) who spout annoying Pinteresque non-sequiturs; and we are introduced to some girls who later turn out to be hookers, and who dance in formation to The Locomotion. Oh, and we get some scenes shot in snowbound Polish streets that we strain in vain to relate to the rest of the story. The Irons, Stanton and Theroux characters have pretty much left the scene by the end of the second hour; they probably had other films to make.
Perhaps one of the biggest let-downs, though, is the director’s conversion to digital film-making, which he enthused about on the Lido. Though the format has undoubtedly allowed Lynch greater creative freedom, the result for much of the film is a poor TV-quality image that bleeds colour, and lighting that even a Dogme director would blush at. There are exceptions – notably some striking black-and-white moving collages that take us back to Eraserhead and German Expressionist cinema.
Lynch’s sound design comes on like the boiler room of a Transatlantic liner for much of the time, and though it often racks up the tension, it becomes wearing when we stop caring enough to get tense.
Dir/scr: David Lynch. US-Fr-Pol. 2006. 189mins.
Inland Empire Productions
Harry Dean Stanton
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