Inland Empire Review

The news that David Lynch had decided to go it alone and embrace Digital Video – and not exactly state of the art DV technology either – was received with a certain amount of scepticism and trepidation by long-term fans of the director. Given Lynch’s usual troubles with studio executives and the financing of his increasingly non-commerical films, the reasoning was at least sound in principle, and if there is any living American director capable of exploiting the freedom that the format allows to more accurately present his own unique vision, that director is David Lynch.

The uncompromising nature of that vision is certainly borne out in Inland Empire, which consequently turns out to be the purest David Lynch film since his independently made debut feature Eraserhead. As well as finding a format whose look is quite in keeping with the subject matter, the hands-on approach of the digital medium affords the director with the means to let his imagination fly unfettered into the dark realms, violent impulses and self-destructive drives of his characters, without having to compromise that vision towards the narrative structure demanded by commercial imperatives.

Inland Empire does indeed seem to be the natural direction that Lynch might have followed after Eraserhead, and if the technology had been available, there is no doubt that director’s career would have been a very different and more purely experimental one. Coming in 2007 however, Inland Empire feels like a retrograde step, adding nothing to the distinctive and troubling output Lynch has been able to achieve working within and simultaneously against the American studio system in the meantime. It’s that duality that has driven Lynch’s work to date and it is evident in the split-nature subject matter of just about all his feature films, most often symbolised by a division between a blonde and a brunette woman (sometimes the same woman), one of whom finds themselves in trouble. Witness the underlying corruption exposed beneath the surface of middle-class suburbia in Blue Velvet, the beauty queen with a dark secret life in Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me, or the split personality of Lost Highway. Most recently, and significantly, Lynch explored the two sides of the Hollywood/American dream in Mulholland Dr.

It’s the latter that comes to mind most frequently while watching Inland Empire, the film almost a remake or perhaps a product of his experience on Mulholland Dr. Originally intended to be a pilot for an on-going television series in the manner of Twin Peaks (the mind boggles at what he would have achieved), Lynch was forced to recover the work and fashion it it into a standalone feature film. Although he managed to make the inconsistencies work to his advantage, the result was not entirely satisfactory. Inland Empire would seem to be a correction to that film, Lynch making it the way he would have wanted to make it if he had had total freedom from the start.

There are many superficial but significant similarities in the two stories. Most importantly they are set in Hollywood and focus on a blonde actress who has successfully won the starring role in a new film, one that is going to propel her career into the stratosphere, as is evident by a stunning audition/rehearsal performance she manages to deliver. In Inland Empire that actress is Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), who has just secured the leading role in a film called On High In Blue Tomorrows, a film it transpires that is based on a cursed Polish gypsy folktale. However, success comes at a price and Nikki’s dream soon turns into a nightmare since - as it is repeatedly pointed out - there is an event in Nikki’s past which has come back to haunt her, a great evil for which a price must be paid. To say any more about the plot however is pointless - as the film’s subtitle on the US DVD makes clear, Inland Empire is about “A Woman In Trouble”, something confirmed by David Lynch, who repeatedly in interviews refuses to divulge anything more about its meaning. And it’s no surprise that he doesn’t, because indeed, the film is about nothing more than “a woman in trouble” in the most abstract sense.

Lynch explores this typically Manichean good versus evil set-up in his usual manner, wrapping it up in a puzzlebox film-within-a-film situation filled with outlandish characters (Lost Girl, Visitor #1, Phantom), echoing sequences and characters from one part in the other – as ever with the blonde/brunette conundrum - and leaving it to the viewer to make whatever connection they like out of them. Inevitably, although the basic reading is simple enough, there are as many interpretations as there are viewers out there, with enough red herrings and irrelevancies to make it virtually impossible to provide a coherent reading of the film. And it’s not worth the effort either. What Lynch says he wants to achieve is recreate the experience, the inner, emotional world of “a woman in trouble” undergoing a mental breakdown.

Given greater degree of freedom through the DV format to follow his own instincts, impulses and images derived from dreams, meditation and intuition, and without any analysis or self-restraint, Lynch plunges headlong into this fractured, tortured inner reality for the latter two hours of what feels like an interminable three-hour film, filled with cinematic stream-of-conscious gibberish in trademark Lynchian fashion with jarring soundscapes and strobe lighting. In interviews, Lynch has repeatedly stated that he wishes the film to be viewed as a purely sensory experience rather than as a linear narrative. It is in this area that Lynch has always most successfully operated, and Inland Empire can on occasion be almost as disturbing and unsettling as any of Lynch’s most surreal moments. Almost, but not quite. Divorced from any kind of reality that the viewer can identify with, it seems more like going through a series of motions and mannerisms – an abstract exploration of the inner world of David Lynch.

The same can be said for Laura Dern’s performance. Highly praised in some places with the words “Oscar nomination” bandied about, in reality her depiction of Nikki/Sue is nothing more than a series of mannerisms and performances. She does pain, anxiety and anguish - as well as very credibly looking very confused – but not a whole lot else, and not for any discernible reason. Divorced of any context, it’s an abstraction of a performance, merely playing anguish rather than representing it in any meaningful way, with any kind of underlying psychology or identifiable personality. It’s one of the most irritatingly mannered performances you’ll see in any film this year.

Despite Lynch’s protestations, all you are left with then is a puzzle to work out – but once you’ve connected the Lost Girl, the Phantom, Nikki/Sue, Devon/Billy and Visitor #1, what are you left with? Inland Empire would appear to be this year’s Caché - a film with numerous levels and insoluble puzzles to unravel, giving the viewer the impression of something deep and meaningful buried beneath the surface, but in reality being the rather thin material of a solipsistic worldview dressed-up in a lot of mannerisms accumulated by the director over the years. Without any underlying storyline to hang his tricks onto this time, Lynch has quite literally lost the plot.

Inland Empire is released in the USA by Absurda as a 2-disc Special Edition. The feature disc and the extra disc are both dual-layer discs. The display format is NTSC and the DVD is encoded for Region 1.

Appearing to be a direct digital transfer of a DV film, Inland Empire looks simply perfect on DVD. Inevitably, the resolution is not the greatest, but it suits the material and as far as I can tell it is a perfect reproduction of the digital projection I saw of the film in the cinema. It may even have been cleaned-up slightly before being transferred to DVD as I seem to recall the image looking rather more grainy in places. On DVD the dark scenes also do not fare as well as when projected, looking quite murky, but being no less effective at creating the all-important mood. Menus indicate that 4:3 and 16:9 options for the film, but I found that both selections played the widescreen version.

David Lynch films have the best sound design in movies and Inland Empire is no exception. There are three audio mixes included here, though the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix can be discounted as it fails to accurately represent the intented impact of the film. The two Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mixes however are simply stunning. They are labelled Dolby Digital 5.1 (Far Field) and Dolby Digital 5.1 (Near Field) and there is indeed a subtle difference in dispersion of the sound, but I couldn’t say whether one is more effective than the other.

There are no English captions for the film, though the Polish dialogue contains the film’s original fixed English subtitles. Rather annoyingly, the Japanese girl speaking in English at the end of the film is also captioned with forced English subtitles, when she is no less comprehensible than any other person in that scene.

The extra features on disc 2 are extensive, and considerably different from those available on the UK Edition. Essentially they consist of the standard Deleted Scenes, Making Of, Short Film, Interview, Trailers and Stills Gallery, but Lynch presents a new twist on them and even includes a cookery lesson! Personally, as a fan of David Lynch, I found these much more interesting than the main feature.

More Things That Happened (1:15:00)
The most important extra feature is undoubtedly the 75 minutes of extra scenes. Essentially deleted scenes, their added value is variable, but they are all weirdly compelling, particularly as the viewer feels less inclined to draw them together into some kind of narrative - although there are enough “echoes” between them and the film that you could construct your own meaning out of them if so desired. A couple of scenes are banal exchanges between characters, over missing shoes and buying a watch, but they are given an air of menace through the lighting effects and the droning music score. There’s also a deleted scene with Nastassja Kinski and another interminable rambling monologue from Sue. The best scene however is with the prostitutes on Hollywood Boulevard, using them much more effectively here than in any of the scenes in the feature, touching on a human level and “woman in trouble” manner that Inland Empire completely fails to achieve in its entire three hours.

Ballerina (12:21)
Quite literally, this is a short David Lynch film showing a ballerina in a red dress dancing, the camera adding misty and blurring effects to the image, with the occasional flash of strobe lighting added. With an ambient soundtrack, this is beautifully hypnotic, reminiscent of Lynch’s performance video Industrial Symphony No. 1.

Three trailers are presented, anamorphically enhanced, each just over a minute long. They are very much abstract and heavy on the surreal imagery and atmosphere.

Stories (41:38)
A long rambling and haphazard interview with Lynch, you can however pick out some facts about the origin of the film, his work in Poland and his approach to digital editing and sound mixing. Most enjoyable however is listening to him sound off on films downloaded to phones, his experience of discovering the music of Penderecki and his desire to make a film with rock concert sound levels – all of which show his complete enthusiasm for the purity of his artform. The subject matter of Inland Empire is only mentioned briefly on the most abstract of terms. You’ll find no clues or answers to the content here.

Lynch 2 (30:10)
More or less a making of, this is similarly random, jumping around all over the place. It gives a good indication to how Lynch works on the set and in his workshop, his precision and attention to detail. Occasionally he seems a little bit irascible with his cast and crew, but it is clearly down to the fact that he knows exactly what he wants, and is striving to present his vision as accurately as possible.

Stills (7:17)
A slideshow presents production stills, behind-the-scenes photos and images taken directly from the camera.

Quinoa (20:04)
David Lynch presents his own cookery programme, showing how to prepare a quinoa dish. While waiting for it to cook, he shares a fantastic story in inimitable Lynch fashion. Outstanding.

An experiment by David Lynch to regain greater control of his films and more effectively and immediately present his ideas, Inland Empire nevertheless turns out to be a deeply unsatisfying experience. Rather than signal a new direction, Lynch merely re-treads over old ground, exploring many of the same themes and using many of the same effects employed in his earlier films. In particular, Mulholland Dr. is mined for references, this time however delving deeper (or perhaps just longer) into the nightmarish side of the Hollywood dream. Such is the puzzle nature of the film however that it is almost impossible to view it as the purely sensory experience the director intends. Rather the film’s complex arrangement, structure and surrealism tend to distract the viewer and disguise the fact that there is not really a whole lot going on beneath the surface. Repeated viewings and home viewing may make the story easier to decipher, but once you have cracked the puzzle to your satisfaction, you’re left with very little else. The true horror of Inland Empire is not that of “a woman in trouble” but “a man in trouble”, and that man sadly is David Lynch. So completely wrapped up in his own reality, Lynch seems to now be feeding off himself, recycling the same themes and no longer appears to have anything new or meaningful to communicate to an audience.

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