“A little girl went out to play, lost in the marketplace as if half-born…” — Reflection of an old Polish folk tale
Reflections and rhymes abound in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Consider its first image: the light of a film projector glaring (and blaring) outwards. For a brief moment, just before the beam angles sideways to illuminate the all-caps title card, the very screen we are watching is a perfectly aligned mirror—fact projecting fiction, fiction projecting fact. The extra-textual meaning is clear: this is Lynch’s first feature on Digital Video (shot entirely on the Sony PD-150 consumer camera) and so we must adjust our expectations accordingly. Fact the first: Inland Empire, with its muddy, grain-laden textures and sensuously bleeding hues, does not, as some have said, look ugly; it looks like it was shot on a camcorder, which is a crucial and necessary distinction. Fact the second, simply put: Lynch’s previous film, Mulholland Drive, was about a failed actress; Inland Empire is about a successful one. And even that’s too much of a reduction, a near-futile attempt at codification, which might very well inspire the writer/director to crinkle his nose and proffer, as he did with maximum sincerity to an explanation-obsessed audience member at a recent New York Film Festival press conference, that “the words coming out of your mouth are very beautiful.”
“You know what whores do?” asks a Polish john of his trick at the beginning of Inland Empire. “Yes. They fuck,” she replies from behind the pixelated digital blur that briefly obscures her face. It’s the performer’s dilemma in a twisted nutshell: does she go through the anonymous motions or rise above her profession’s mechanistic particulars? In this case, she sits down to watch a movie, one that, as Lynch’s puzzle-box of a narrative unfolds, will inextricably intersect with her own story. Lynch cuts back to the Polish prostitute’s tear-stained and beatific visage throughout Inland Empire, and it’s somehow appropriate that I can’t locate any information on the actress who plays the role. She’s an audience conduit who works best, at least initially, as an anonymous and distanced specter. There’s something profound, for example, in the way she weeps while watching a zombified sitcom starring monotoned, man-sized rabbits. Despite the images’ seemingly antithetical intents and executions, there is a concomitant sense that fantasy and reality are intertwined in singular purpose—that the various inhabitants of these worlds (real? unreal?) are waiting for an as yet unseen liberator who will release them from their nightmarish limbo.
And so we quite literally follow the rabbits (“What time is it?” one of them pointedly asks) to Inland Empire’s Alice, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). Lynch stalwart Grace Zabriskie, playing a threatening spirit-world/real-world hybrid called Neighbor, knocks at Nikki’s gilded door one morning to inform her that she’s received a coveted role in Inland Empire’s film-within, On High in Blue Tomorrows. What to say about this overheated, down-in-the-Bayou melodrama—to co-star hot property Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), to be directed by Brit expat Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons)—except that it is cursed. As Kingsley explains to his stars, On High is an unofficial remake of a Polish film that was never finished because its two leads were murdered. He none-too-convincingly brushes off any portentous parallels, though the shifty-eyed silences and frequent non-sequiturs of his elderly assistant Freddie Howard (Harry Dean Stanton) warn ominously enough of the discombobulating intrusions to come.
When one of On High’s rehearsals is interrupted by a shadowy, unseen figure, Nikki’s world begins to split. But Lynch is not merely repeating the depths-of-despair tragedy of Mulholland Drive. If Inland Empire has a central theme, it is this: the recesses we visit in order to play the parts that we play. At its (gloriously optimistic) heart, the film is a detailed analysis of Nikki’s creative process, of her struggle towards that transcendent point where her art, to slightly paraphrase E.M. Forster’s oft-quoted insistence, only connects. The particulars of Nikki’s everyday struggles (which here touch on both emotionally and politically charged issues of infidelity and isolation) are merely a means to an eventual end, though she can only go so far on her own.
As in Mulholland Drive, Lynch illustrates the ever-burgeoning divide in Nikki’s psyche by invoking the spirits of cinema past. Early on, Nikki (embodying her On High alter-ego, Susan Blue) is lost in a pastel-colored realm of rubes n’ rednecks where a gaggle of narcotized, musically-inclined prostitutes are lorded over by a demonic, barely-seen entity named Mr. Crimp. One night, a ghostly feminine figure appears to Nikki/Susan over the image of a scratchy record player (playing, I like to think, one of the fragile accompaniments to an Edison Studios picture show) and offers up the key to Inland Empire’s unhinged wonderland. (The specter’s astounding pure cinema metaphor, which I won’t dare spoil, is comparable in its complexity to Trintignant’s Plato’s Cave illuminata in Bertolucci’s The Conformist.) Spirits and entities are prominent in Lynch’s work, yet where Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio impresario called Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita’s (Laura Harring) attention to cinema’s elemental breakdown (“There is no band, and yet, we hear a band.”), Inland Empire’s gramophone phantom beckons Nikki to look beyond the divide—to allow the medium and its methods to completely absorb her; to allow her preconceptions and prejudices to fall entirely away.
“I’m a whore,” Nikki says hesitantly when she suddenly appears, with no explanation, on a nighttime Hollywood boulevard. And after a considered pause, she lets mockingly loose: “I’m AFRRRAAAAIIIIIIDDDDD!!!!” (I must here take a moment to commend the brilliant Laura Dern, whose entirely cohesive and deeply affecting performance is matched only by the perverse genius of her facial contortions.) To the thrumming/thudding accompaniment of Beck’s “Black Tambourine” (one of Inland Empire’s many masterful music cues) and pursued by a soon-to-be screwdriver-wielding Julia Ormond (best thing this former It-girl’s ever done), Nikki makes her way towards a back-alley club where a confessor awaits in the red-curtained rafters. Nikki’s monologue to this bespectacled Mock Turtle psychologist—sprinkled dissociatively throughout the film—is an increasingly lurid admission of false hopes and dashed dreams, of abuse given and revenge taken. It is the sequence out of which Inland Empire grew and it is the focal point for all the incidents that precede and follow. Appropriate, then, that it is replayed for Nikki at a most crucial point, almost immediately after an elaborate “death scene” (during which two homeless women converse, often via subtitles, about a supposedly Pomona-situated Nirvana) that appears to signal the nightmare’s end.
Lynch’s dedication to and practice of Transcendental Meditation inform the remarkable beauties of Inland Empire’s final movement, which is not so much a descent into the void as it is a resurgence and reclamation of a particular kind of holy land—Mulholland Drive’s despondent last-act plunge into Jungian viscera reconstituted and refocused through a hopeful DV prism. There’s a moment in this section, my favorite in the film, where Lynch returns to the face of Grace Zabriskie’s Neighbor and, before our juandiced eyes, this formerly intimidating and ugly figure (who ominously intones the quotation at the head of this review) becomes suddenly beautiful and ethereal. Moreso than Dern’s final close-up (a stunner in its own right) I think the answers to the film’s many mysteries, for those who need them, are contained in Zabriskie’s sideways glance and virtuous smile. All else, per Inland Empire’s Nina Simone-scored, end credits exhortation, is not Silencio, but Sweet. Strange what love does.
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications.