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Saturday, May 30, 2009

"No more blue tomorrows. You on high now, love," or, Inland Empire broke my mind

Inland Empire (d. David Lynch, 2006)
Starring: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons and Justin Theroux

There's something weird about watching this on the same day I watched Uwe Boll's Bloodrayne. That weirdness is increased by the fact that both movies end with the respective heroines flashing back through earlier sequences in the movie. In Bloodrayne's case, it seems like mere padding. But who knows, maybe Boll has a budding auteur inside him, struggling to get out?

But Inland Empire is a dense, insular and obtuse film even for David Lynch. It starts off looking like it's about the way art blurs with reality or replaces reality, as co-stars Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) begin carrying on a relationship similar to the one they have in their film. And then it might also be about their film's cursed earlier incarnations, which ended in the murder of the two leads. Or it might be three juxtaposed versions of the same story that bleed into each other (including one set in pre-World War II Poland). And then the Polish mob shows up (or are they circus performers?) along with some time-travelling Hollywood Boulevard street-walkers. And unlike Mulholland Drive, which this sometimes seems like a remake of, it doesn't make sense at the end.

Inland Empire's pacing reminds me of the way Family Guy paces jokes. The first hour and a half, the movie seems to hold it's own internal consistency, focusing on Dern and Theroux's characters and the temptation to let art's intensity replace the stupidity and banality of real life.  But then things get very weird once Dern disappears into a set that's become a real building and I started getting lost. I sort of held in this confusing state of mind. And then, somewhere about thirty minutes before the end, the movie started clicking in some sense as callbacks to earlier sequences start proliferating. I still can't explain what the movie was about. Or what the ending meant.

But Laura Dern does an amazing job throughout, playing two different characters, but differentiating them in varied and subtle ways that helped clarify the movie somewhat. In fact, whenever Dern disappears from the film or the camera goes away from her, the film as a whole starts collapsing into a black hole of weirdness. But when she is on screen, it is clear that what's going on is happening to a real person and the strange stuff that people do in David Lynch films is, for her at least, grounded in some real place.

And for his part, Lynch does very well by Dern, treating her like a great cinematic beauty in some scenes (even though she's not a classical beauty in any sense), an intellectual enigma in others, and an adept performer of  slice-of-life realism in even more. I'm not sure if I've seen any other roles that have come close for sheer complexity in the last few years for women, let alone a woman in her 50s. 

But David Lynch makes a transformation into the art-house Lucio Fulci in this film. There are great set-pieces (the street-walkers in Dern's 'living room', Dern's painful death near Hollywood and Vine, all the "inside baseball" movie-making scenes), but the stuff between you have to come to some sort of Stockholm Syndrome-esque acceptance of.

This is far from a glowing review, but it is Lynch at his Lynchiest. It is a fascinating but frustrating glimpse inside a fascinating and frustrating mind. I wouldn't watch this to unwind or with a group of friends. It's a movie fit for a lonely day, when you're sick or mildly hung-over and your mind is in that strange half-accepting but half-stupid mode caused by minor illness or too much drinking.