David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE (all letters capitalized) seems almost like a semi-sequel to the director’s previous film Mulholland Drive. The main protagonist of INLAND EMPIRE, played by Laura Dern, is if Naomi Watt’s Betty had gone on to star in that film she was trying out for. Both characters are innocent, naïve souls who enter a world of double identity and mystery.
But Mulholland Drive isn’t the only David Lynch film similar to INLAND EMPIRE. With a few exceptions like The Straight Story and Dune, all of Lynch’s movies essentially take place in the same universe, where characters live normal lives until they interact with an unnamed or unseen paranormal being. INLAND EMPIRE may have the most likeness to Mulholland Drive, but it’s not too far off from Lost Highway or the early episodes of Twin Peaks in terms of structure. INLAND EMPIRE is hugely complex and wildly surreal, making even Eraserhead look linear in comparison. Its immensity and intricacy may confuse audiences and bewilder many, but I found the film to be electrifying and awing, a picture that’s one of Lynch’s best efforts.
Perhaps in introducing INLAND EMPIRE’s synopsis, it may be best to refer to the film’s tagline “A Woman in Trouble.” That woman is Nikki Grace (Dern), an actress hired to star in a new picture called On High in Blue Tomorrows. Nikki is cast as Sue Blue, a southern belle who secretly has an affair with Billy Side, played by Devon who in turn is played by Justin Theroux.
But things go awry soon in the production as the cast members soon their lives have changed from the movie. Director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) reveals to the two actors, to their amazement, that On High in Blue Tomorrows is actually a remake of a previous film that was shut down during production after both leads were killed. And an hour through the film’s 179-minute length, Nikki finds herself becoming Sue in an alternate world, soon having a real affair with Devon and then falling into a world of darkness and dread.
About two thirds of INLAND EMPIRE is devoted to intercutting between the parallel lives of Nikki and Sue, not to mention a string of characters that seem to appear and then vanish. INLAND EMPIRE moves from location from location, moving from Hollywood to Poland, from run-down homes to motels. Keeping track of everyone is such a difficult task, but I believe that’s Lynch’s intention. He wants the audience to live the nightmare his protagonist is going through. Realizing what’s going on isn’t the main point, it’s to understand what Nikki/Sue is experiencing.
But other than the vast number of characters, there are also plenty of motifs and themes. The picture opens with an east European man and prostitute entering a bedroom and a home whose inhabitants are anthropomorphic rabbits, both of which recur throughout the movie. There’s also an enormous mansion, a tissue and cigarette, a lamp at the end of the hall, and a flickering television set that seems to be the bottom of the story. Not to mention plenty of previous symbols Lynch has used in his work, like red curtains, cryptic dialogue, bizarre comic relief, and a distinct rock soundtrack.
Lynch filmed all of INLAND EMPIRE using a Sony PD-150 digicam, a small and moderately simple camera that often distorts light. Lynch has embraced digital filmmaking earlier than most directors (he announced that he will only use digital from now on), and utilizes the technology to give INLAND EMPIRE almost the feel of a documentary. There are multiple handheld and zoom shots, all of which are transpired with such paranoia. Lynch’s favorite angle in the picture, however, is a close-up of one of his characters, echoing their fear and giving off a feeling of claustrophobia. This helps contribute to the director’s best skill of making even the mundane terrifying and sinister through an ominous score and dark shadows. Setting doesn’t matter; the streets of Hollywood could be as frightening as the corners of Pomona.
INLAND EMPIRE feels like a labyrinth; it seems impossible to crack but the intricacy is just dazzling. Many may find themselves lost in the story, but for myself, INLAND EMPRIE was enlightening and enthralling, a masterpiece combining romance and mystery with horror and suspense. It’s perhaps the bravest form of digital moviemaking currently made.