“Dreamlike” is probably the most overused adjective in film criticism. It’s become shorthand for anything slow and strange, likely with stilted acting and a dreamy musical score. But how many films have you seen that are genuinely similar to having a dream? I can think of two: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou and David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE (I don’t know why the title is in all caps. Ask David Lynch). That, if you ask me, should be recommendation enough. But let me go on.
Since his debut film in 1977, David Lynch has had one of the most fascinating, dynamic careers of any modern filmmaker. Despite a constantly evolving technique, Lynch has carved out one of the most distinctive styles in cinema. His films are frequently described as surrealist, but this isn’t quite correct. Beginning with 1986’s Blue Velvet, Lynch has essentially made thrillers with surrealist undertones. In every subsequent film, the surrealism would get amped up, little by little, more or less consistently (the order isn’t perfect but it’s nearly so). Beginning with 1997’s Lost Highway, (and to a lesser extent, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) he took his surrealism to the next level and began experimenting with chronology, breaking up narrative structure, creating characters who are actually two characters, or two who are actually one, or characters that don’t actually exist at all. Following this theme, it’s no surprise INLAND EMPIRE was Lynch’s last film- it is the full realization of everything Lynch has been working towards for more than two decades.
So what’s it about? It’s a fair question. It’s a question you might still be asking after the movie’s over. Well, let’s see. It’s about an actress named Nikki Grace (Laura Dern, in what is surely one of the best performances in all cinema) who gets a part in a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows. The film is about a woman named Sue Blue who has an affair with a man named Billy Side, played by Devon Berk, played by Justin Theroux. The director (Jeremy Irons) tells them one day that the film is a remake of a Polish movie that was never finished because something went wrong, as he puts it, “inside the movie.” And that’s what happens- something goes wrong, first in the movie they’re making, then in the movie we’re watching. At first, it seems a simple case of life imitating art- Nikki and Devon begin having an affair. But then it gets strange; Laura Dern begins slipping back and forth between Nikki Grace and Sue Blue, and the movie we’re watching begins slipping between INLAND EMPIRE and On High in Blue Tomorrows, with the wrong characters in the wrong places. Time slips back and forth, sometimes we see parts of the Polish movie, sometimes we have no idea what we’re seeing. At some point not too long into the film’s three-hour runtime, Dern slips into a third character, a prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard, whose connection to the other characters is not concrete. Eventually the narrative smashes apart entirely.
At this point in the review, it’s possible you’ve already decided you won’t enjoy this movie. If you think that, you’re probably right. Feel free to stop reading now.
Now, for those of you still here, let me explain why this is my favorite movie of all time. Lynch, with this film, has achieved some kind of transcendence, has created something that paints a horrifying, beautiful, darkly comic portrait of the human psyche in all its chaotic non-glory. INLAND EMPIRE is about a person’s internal fears, shames, and anxieties, it’s about the struggle to find personal identity, the struggle to make sense of the world and ourselves, and the way art can help us with all our big unanswerable questions. Lynch has no interest in answering these questions, nor in providing any succinct opinion on identity and memory and the world. INLAND EMPIRE is about the questions, about the struggle.
As a matter of fact, it’s possible describing EMPIRE as dreamlike is reductive. Lynch is a fan of “dream logic,” that is, the unique way situations progress in dreams, but he does not, as Buñuel and Dali did, get specific ideas from dreams. No, Lynch’s ideas are all his own, and, as becomes clear by watching some of his other films, ideas he’s been building towards his whole career. This is more than just “the most Lynch,” however; it’s a bold step in a new direction, a three-hour cinematic revolution (revelation?). For one thing, Lynch made the bold decision to shoot all in digital video. This is not the digital video we see in modern blockbusters, which isn’t dramatically different than film. This is 2006 digital video, and unlike say, Michael Mann in Collateral, Lynch makes no effort to make it sleek or stylish; imagine a feature-length film shot on one of those tiny cameras you might, if you’re the right age, have used for home movies. The effect is both hyperreal and surreal: hyperreal because it looks more like a home movie than a Hollywood movie, and surreal because it’s so very far from the way things actually look. In a dark room, for instance, any source of light looks like a hole punched through the screen.
If there’s one flaw in this masterpiece, it’s the score. Angelo Badalamenti, who composed achingly beautiful scores for many past Lynch movies, including Wild at Heart, Fire Walk With Me, and Mulholland Dr., is tragically absent from INLAND EMPIRE. Instead, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, along with Lynch himself, composed a score that is the exact opposite of Badalamenti’s subtlety- it’s overbearing and in-your-face, trying way too obviously to be “creepy” while the rest of the film achieves this with apparent effortlessness. But on the other hand, when Lynch incorporates pre-existing music, like Beck’s “Black Tambourine” (an old favorite of mine) and Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” the effect is absolutely breathtaking.
INLAND EMPIRE hits its mark on practically every level, even as it transcends every benchmark generally used to judge a normal film. The visuals are absolutely hideous, yet their strangeness has a beauty all their own. Lynch gives certain locations- Nikki’s house, a hotel, a certain red room in an undetermined location- powerful weight in a certain inexplicable way. Like checkpoints in a video game, the story returns to various places and from there, takes off in an entirely different direction. Laura Dern gives what must surely be one of the best performances ever recorded, slipping between roles as fast as you can blink. It’s not the tightest film in the world, but everything that’s there needs to be, and if something doesn’t work for you, it may stay in your thoughts, wondering how it connected to the rest of the film.
There is no a-ha moment in INLAND EMPIRE. There is no point at which all the puzzle pieces come together, where the viewer can confidently say, “I know what’s going on in this film, and I know exactly what David Lynch is trying to say.” And good thing, too. If all the puzzle pieces did come together, then the film would be reduced to, well, a puzzle, to be solved and then forgotten about, no more secrets to reveal. Without this closure, however, EMPIRE becomes a movie not to be solved, but to be felt, to be thought about endlessly. I can almost guarantee it will be an exhausting experience. I won’t spoil the ending (which would take effort, considering the abstract nature of the film), but rest assured it is more beautiful and fulfilling that any concrete explanation. After I finished, I went outside and and looked at the streetlights against the night sky and felt like the world looked completely different. I was seeing everything through Lynch’s eyes; he had replaced my reality with the reality of INLAND EMPIRE. And if that’s not what makes movies so wonderful, I don’t know what is.