'Inland': Monkeys, Coffee and Other Lynchpins

Laura Dern stars in
Laura Dern stars in "Inland Empire," a return to form -- or a lack thereof -- for director David Lynch, below. (518 Media -- Afi)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007

For the past 30 years, with such signature films as "Eraserhead," "Blue Velvet" and "Mulholland Dr.," David Lynch has embraced film's unique and unsettling power to colonize the viewer's imagination. With "Inland Empire," Lynch's latest experiment in defying category and narrative coherence, he turns his kaleidoscopic focus on the medium's ability to take over the consciousness of its makers.

Or at least that's what I think he does.

If you check back with me in an hour, I reserve the right to completely change my story. More than any of Lynch's recent works, "Inland Empire" marks a return of sorts to the filmmaker's steadfast refusal to make sense. The film opens in a kind of erotic dream, the two principals acting out a verbal pas de deux with their faces mechanically blurred; there's a Polish girl, who seems very upset; there's a family of rabbits in what looks like a sitcom written by Samuel Beckett; there are lots of vignettes in Polish, recurring motifs (the color red, the time of 9:45 and, because it's Lynch, lots of cups of coffee) and several meticulously staged non sequiturs -- including, God help us, a monkey.

Most of all, there's a Los Angeles actress named Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), who is working on a movie called "On High in Blue Tomorrows," a production that turns out to be haunted. (The auguries are all there during a visit from a Gothically creepy neighbor played by Lynch rep actress Grace Zabriskie.)

Of all the weird goings-on in "Inland Empire" (the title refers to an area that borders Los Angeles on the desert side), Nikki's adventures during the filming bear the closest thing to recognizable reality; Jeremy Irons, as her pretentious director, and Justin Theroux, as her co-star, even manage to deliver slyly funny turns as respective cogs in the Hollywood apparatus. In many ways, "Inland Empire" plays like the free-associative flip side to Lynch's 2001 psychosexual thriller, "Mulholland Dr." Like that film, which starred Naomi Watts in a double-persona role, "Inland Empire" plunges viewers into an exploration of cinema's deepest shadows; this time, that journey is shrouded in even more absurdism and inscrutability. (Lynch filmed "Inland Empire" entirely on digital video and manages, in the midst of the usual strobes and flares, to wring amazingly rich tonal values from the format.)

What's it all about? Who knows. A concept like "meaning" seems almost beside the point in a Lynch film, which in the case of "Inland Empire" sets out to upend expectations of what a film does and why. Clearly for Lynch the point is to explore the subconscious -- in all its violence, depravity and lust -- and to create a movie that unspools as much like a dream as possible. The question is whether the familiar Lynchian devices -- the Gothic interiors, shapely breasts, Arbuslike freaks and brutalized women -- are still porous enough to reward interpretation, or whether they've become a closed system of self-referential mannerisms.

Between its nearly three-hour running time and willfully opaque story, "Inland Empire" will no doubt draw new lines in that argument. If anything, it's worth watching as yet another example of Lynch's extraordinary collaboration with Dern. Possessing one of the great contemporary screen faces, Dern provides an unusually pliable muse, capable of being prim and dignified in one scene, lushly ripe in another and as grim as a Dorothea Lange portrait in yet one more.

"Inland Empire" calls on Dern to take on these and other identities, as Nikki slips through the looking glass into the dangerous role she's playing (yet another way the film takes "Mulholland Dr." one surreal step further). And it's on that tortuous journey that Dern, Nikki and their third alter-ego are asked to endure all manner of physical and psychic abuse. It may be overstating things to call her performance heroic, but it's nothing if not brave, as she dares to embody Lynch's most grotesque impressions of Hollywood -- not as a dream factory, but as the place where dreams come to die.

Inland Empire (172 minutes, in English and Polish with subtitles, at AFI Silver Theatre) is rated R for profanity, some violence, sexuality and nudity.

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