David Lynch’s new movie is many things, among them a sinister waltz through a So-Cal underbelly known as Inland Empire, a murder mystery, a film-within-a-hallucination-within-a-film-within-so-on, and the story of love affairs that span the boundaries of time, space, and reason. It is happening again, you may think (or dread—Lynch, after all, has his haters): a redux of Mulholland Drive, which is only half true. Perform a post-mortem on this three-hour beast of a film and you will find only half a heart beating inside its chest, but you will also discover innards that coil in more grandiose directions. Mulholland Drive, possibly the greatest work of American film art since Altman’s Nashville, is an impossible act for Lynch to have to follow, but the bug-eyed director—pupils dilated and imagination tripping in almost inconceivable directions—has made the Atlas Shrugged of narrative avant-garde films, compulsively watchable and insanely self-devouring.
Seeing Inland Empire bright and early on a Sunday morning for the first time—a second, very necessary viewing already awaits—was not unlike slipping into a nightmarish reverie not long after my equally prolonged adventures in REM sleep the night before, which, incidentally, accommodated a screening of a Lynch movie that was not at all similar to this extraordinary freak-out. There is a very clean divide in Mulholland Drive between a woman’s dreams and waking life, but the walls between the two are completely dissolved in the more fragmentary Inland Empire, Lynch’s most self-reflexive creation to date. The director has vowed never to work on film again, and for this, his first feature shot on digital video, he lobs a cherry bomb at his entire canon, recording the jagged remnants that resonate from the blast as they slide and dissipate into the swirl of his mind’s projector beam. Some may call it a toilet, but I like to think of it as a splendiferous whirlpool of wonders.
Where to begin? At the end, perhaps, with the word sweet, Inland Empire’s answer to Mulholland Drive’s silencio, though sweetness is not a feeling Inland Empire exactly radiates. Much earlier, a nosy neighbor played by Grace Zabriskie (possibly on the same crazy pills Fiona Shaw took for The Black Dahlia) walks into the home of an actress, Nikki (Laura Dern), in order to rant and rave about the younger woman having “it”: the part of Sue in a remake of “a Polish gypsy story” titled 4/7 that was never finished because two of its actresses were gruesomely murdered (the American version, directed by Jeremy Irons’s Kinglsey, goes by the Sirkian title On High in Blue Tomorrows). Zabriskie’s nosy interloper, like Lee Grant’s Louise Bonner from Mulholland Drive, ostensibly sees into the future, offering an implicit warning—to Nikki but also to Lynch’s audience—that time is about to collapse on itself, leaving identities crushed and blurred almost beyond recognition.
Inland Empire is totally fucked up, picking up reception from metaphysical wavelengths past and present and places here and there, sometimes from Lynch’s own short work: The story’s hilarious white-trash scenes are essentially live-action variations of the director’s Dumbland series, and Rabbits, an anthology of shorts starring Laura Harring, Naomi Watts, and Scott Coffey as sitcom rabbits possibly waiting for Godot, is fascinatingly folded into this film’s metaverse. (This time when their phone rings there’s someone on the other end, and when their door opens someone walks through.) From her own den of frustration, a woman—Nikki/Sue’s 4/7 proxy or, perhaps, a spectator of Inland Empire—watches Rabbits, whose canned laughter undermines her fit of busy tears. These shorts act as one of many exciting portals in the film through which characters cross between worlds, and what is Inland Empire in the end but a hall with walls equipped with barbed rabbit holes, each one daring us to peek through, possibly even to take a plunge into the sea of Lynch’s id?
You may ask what the film’s stream of non sequiturs, anecdotes, clues, doublings, folktales, and psychotic episodes mean. We could say nothing and declare that Inland Empire doesn’t so much fall into the abyss as it resides in it, telegraphing dizzying sounds and visions from its drowned world toward the outside, which should suffice as an explanation if you’ve learned to respect the fact that Lynch carves his films much closer to where our subconscious impulses resonate from than anyone has ever dared. Lynch, more honestly than Godard, embraces the dark and dingy contours of the DV format, which reflect Nikki’s in-too-deep thesping. She goes after her married co-star Devon (Justin Theroux), thinking he’s really Billy, the character he plays in On High in Blue Tomorrows, screaming for him not unlike Irene Miracle does when she flashes Brad Davis her breasts in Midnight Express, only to finally confuse her own self. Nikki is Sue and Sue is Nikki and never shall the two part—and realizing how they inhabit and torture each other may just save the world.
Lynch indulges familiar fixations, risking the self-importance of Ghost World’s Mirror, Father, Mirror video, but he’s serious about burrowing into Sue’s psyche and tapping its resources. Dern works fiercely with the director to send us blistering imprints of how Nikki’s consciousness filters itself into her unconsciousness and then back again, and together they weave a meditation on the ecstasy and healing power of watching movies. Dern’s is the performance of her career, a spectacle of freakish facial expressions, primal screams, and howling monologues; like Watts in Mulholland Drive, she isn’t afraid to get ugly for her art—which also happens to be Sue’s own daring in the film. She’s a mess of hurt trying to find herself, but what she ultimately stumbles upon, like Watts and Harring do inside the club Silencio, is a form of rapture that permits others to transcend loss. More viewings will, no doubt, suss out new riches, possibly even clear up or muddle what has already been revealed. After all, where films like Little Children spoon-feed their audience, Inland Empire rewards our scrutiny.