If you thought David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” was too linear, you’ll love “Inland Empire.”
The director’s latest film begins with a john and an endangered prostitute — or is it merely a couple playing those roles? Their faces are obscured. Throughout this strange and somehow life-affirming film, murky images come slowly into focus. But don’t expect that every mystery will be solved.
“Inland Empire’s” tag line is “A woman in trouble.” That simple summation would work for many of the films of this singular filmmaker. In 1986’s “Blue Velvet,” it’s Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens living under the boot of Dennis Hopper’s psychopathic Frank Booth. In 1992’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” it’s the doomed Laura Palmer. In his last feature, 2001’s “Mulholland Dr.,” it’s the amnesiac Laura Harring who’s in trouble — and then it’s her lover, Naomi Watts.
An early and recurring shot in “Inland Empire” is of a woman watching a television, tears streaming down her face. It’s certainly not the first time Mr. Lynch has captured a female crying — and explored the twisted world that made her do so.
It’s best if you go into the film knowing nothing and expecting anything, but if you must have a plot, here’s one: Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) receives a visit from a new neighbor (Grace Zabriskie, Laura Palmer’s mother in “Twin Peaks”). This Eastern European woman foretells evil and murder — but gives Nikki the good news that she’s going to get the role that may save her struggling career.
“On High in Blue Tomorrows” is the film, directed by Kingsley Stewart (a wonderfully magniloquent Jeremy Irons). Nikki’s co-star is the lothario Devon Berk (District native Justin Theroux from “Mulholland Dr.”). Nikki’s husband swears to kill the pair if they start an off-screen affair. Then Kingsley reveals that the movie is a remake of a cursed film in which the two leads were murdered before shooting was completed.
This first third of the film is fairly straightforward, though typically Lynchian in its slow pacing and distinctive dialogue. When Nikki begins to confuse her own life with that of the role she’s playing, however, “Inland Empire” becomes almost as confused.
It’s not any less fascinating for that. “Inland Empire” abounds in references to Mr. Lynch’s previous work — visual motifs like red curtains, blue strobe lights and a lumberjack sawing a log as well as thematic motifs like film as dream, infidelity and obsession, and the mystery of identity.
At times, Mr. Lynch seems to be poking fun at himself. Miss Dern, for example, has a priceless monologue in which she talks about how confused she is — as by this point much of the audience is — by the chronology of events: “I’m watching everything go around me like in a dark theater before they bring the lights up.”
Miss Dern has done her best work for Mr. Lynch — she helped make “Wild at Heart” one of the best films of the 1990s — and her performance here is breathtaking. She may have a look of horrified bewilderment on her face for much of the film, but her chameleon talents are on full display in this meaty role, which one guesses Mr. Lynch wrote with her in mind.
Other Lynch veterans here include Miss Dern’s mother Diane Ladd, delicious as a TV interviewer, and the deadpan genius Harry Dean Stanton as Kingsley’s assistant.
Naomi Watts and Laura Harring from “Mulholland Dr.” have cameos — but underneath bunny suits in segments first developed in Mr. Lynch’s short film series “Rabbits.” These sitcomlike set pieces with nonsensical laugh tracks are some of the best satires Mr. Lynch has done on Hollywood. Tinseltown is a frequent target here — notice Devon being helped into his jacket by not one, but two, helpers.
“Inland Empire” is Mr. Lynch’s first film shot on digital video, and it shows. It’s not always pretty to look at, and it’s not clear if that’s always intentional. But there’s no denying the brutal beauty of the film. Whether or not you figure out who the woman in trouble is — and it seems there’s more than one — there are few directors better than Mr. Lynch at exploring her predicament.
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