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Dustin Putman

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Learn more about this film on IMDb!Inland Empire  (2006)
4 Stars
Directed by David Lynch
Cast: Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons, Julia Ormond, Karolina Gruszka, Peter J. Lucas, Jan Hench, Krzysztof Majchrzak, Grace Zabriskie, Diane Ladd, Mary Steenburgen, Ian Abercrombie, Jordan Ladd, Emily Stofle, Kristen Kerr, Terryn Westbrook, Nae, Helena Chase, Terry Crews, Bellina Logan, Amanda Foreman, Karen Baird, Erik Crary, Scott Coffey, Laura Harring, Nastassja Kinski, Naomi Watts
2006 – 179 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, some violence and sexuality/nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 17, 2006.
Whatever drugs David Lynch has been smoking, let us all respectively pray that he never goes to rehab. If ever there was a director who represented the desire as a filmmaker to be independent-minded and visionary in all of his projects, sticking to his guns and never streamlining his ideas to accommodate mainstream audiences and make a few extra bucks, it is him. In all that Lynch does, he works without compromise—his latest is even being self-distributed instead of going out via a major studio. Besides being a great maker of movies, it is this adamant claim he has made for true individuality that is most admirable. Sure, Lynch has been getting more off-the-cuff with every recent film and is an understandably acquired taste, but not even those viewers who dislike his stuff can deny that there is talent behind his creative madness.

"Inland Empire" is David Lynch's next and one would almost have to assume final step toward reaching a plane of cinematic existence never before captured in a theatrical release. The film, at once seeming to have been created on the spot and meticulously designed, is a phantasmagoric nightmare sprung to life. It defies description, burrowing to corners of the human psyche so dark and unsparing that many people (read: Lynch's non-supporters) won't want to go there. For the rest of us, it is a masterpiece of narrative layers, hidden meanings and semiotics so heady, imaginative, frightening, freakish, devastating and brain-twisting that it makes the viewer want to start from the beginning and rewatch it the second its three-hour mind trip is initially over.

Serving as a complementary piece to 2001's equally stunning "Mulholland Drive" that touches on many of the same thematic elements—the Hollywood milieu of struggling actresses and power-hungry movers and shakers; the breaking-apart of a person's mental state; identity crises—"Inland Empire" nonetheless carves out a place for itself in the Lynchian fold that is staunchly and uninhibitedly one of a kind. Viewers who like easy answers and a concrete A-to-B-to-C plot might as well look elsewhere, as even the partially inscrutable "Mulholland Drive" is as conventional as "The Holiday" in comparison. "Inland Empire" looks and feels like an actual dream that somehow was shot with cameras, the memory of it vivid in parts and fuzzy in others. Frustrated or not, adventurous filmgoers may just end up talking about it for hours after seeing it. I, for one, would take such an experience any day over a generic hack job that leaves the viewer with nothing to discuss afterwards.

In a too-rare leading role, Laura Dern (2004's "We Don't Live Here Anymore") dominates the screen in a hugely demanding performance of blinding beauty and wrenching heartbreak. At the start, she is Nikki Grace, a fading actress who gets a chance to revitalize her career when she wins the main role in a Southern gothic melodrama titled "On High in Blue Tomorrows." She and her costar, Hollywood hunk Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), are ominously told by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) prior to shooting that the movie, its story based on a piece of Polish folklore, is actually a remake to a picture never finished when the original actors were murdered.

Against their good judgment—Nikki is mentioned to have a jealous husband (Peter J. Lucas)—she and Devon sleep together. It is at this point that Nikki's identity is stripped from her. Suddenly she is Susan, an emotionally broken and physically abused woman who may or may not be the character Nikki is portraying. She may be a prostitute in Poland, or might not. She is interrogated by the police about a murder, and could very well be the culprit, brought on by the tragic loss of a son and an oafish husband who didn't understand her. As Susan's sense of self fractures into pieces, she makes her way around a labyrinth of rooms, each doorway leading to horrifying revelations about a life that stopped being her own long ago.

Shot with an economy-grade video camera, "Inland Empire" is gritty, quixotic and intoxicatingly ominous. Although lacking in the clarity that good old film provides, this turn toward digital imaging is the only way this story could be told while still retaining the grim mysteries hiding within the darkness of every corner Nikki/Susan turns. Made over a period of three years—Lynch is said to have written scenes and had the actors perform them without indicating what would be coming before and after—the movie indelibly gets under your skin and stays there long after the end credits have rolled.

Understanding the picture as a whole isn't anywhere near the top of David Lynch's list of priorities—in fact, it probably doesn't exist on such a list—and that is as it should be in this instance. The cinematic world is filled with so many cookie-cutter affairs that it is a welcome respite to be presented with something that plays like a puzzle box not meant to be solved. And yet, profundity does emerge amidst its impenetrable nature. In one respect, "Inland Empire" is about the Hollywood world in general and the need to be accepted within it, where aging or unpopular actresses can be spit out just as fast as their souls are eaten up by the allure of fame. Nikki yearns for the glory she once had—she lives in a stately, gated Los Angeles mansion whose deceased past owners haunt the property—but along the path to reclaiming it deteriorates into a shell of a woman who has no idea who she is and who she once was.

Cynical but truthful, the film is also about the robotic reprogramming of society, where consumers are trained like animals to swallow whatever is placed in front of them. This is no more evident than in the eerie sequences of a three-person family of people in rabbit costumes, their inane, disconnected and unfunny dialogue answered by the stale sounds of a canned laugh track. In another scene, a mortally wounded woman lays dying on the street as strangers waiting for the bus carry on a conversation between her, their beings so desensitized that they hardly have time to acknowledge the life being lost under their noses. And then there's the Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka), who sits in front of a TV in a darkened room, acting as spectator over what is transpiring in the film and weeping forlornly. There are various reasons for her crying, gradually unveiled as her past indiscretions come to light, but she could just as well be weeping for the state of uninspired, mass-produced entertainment in today's society.

"Inland Empire" is unlike anything else you have seen—to be sure, this includes the sight of disaffected Polish hookers doing a zombified dance to the sounds of Little Eva's "The Locomotion"—and is additionally body-flinchingly scary in a way that the creator of "Eraserhead," "Blue Velvet," "Twin Peaks," and "Mulholland Drive" only knows how. When a strange visitor (Grace Zabriskie) shows up at Nikki's door in the first act and gives her a portentous prophecy, Nikki shudders alongside the viewer, unknowing of the nightmare in store for her. It is this critical scene and another, in which Devon tries to track down a possibly evil presence lurking on the soundstage where he is rehearsing, that sets up the shiver-inducing, endlessly fascinating tone of the rest of the film. In the marvelous, internally naked Laura Dern is the Alice of the picture, tumbling down the rabbit hole, bypassing Wonderland altogether, and finding herself through the looking glass of a world she scarcely recognizes. "Inland Empire" isn't just a brilliant motion picture; it's a work of staggering art.
© 2006 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman