David Lynch’s newest film, Inland Empire, has a lot in common with Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Both have metaphysical subplots that are not as well interwoven or synchronized with the frame plot as their directors would like to have you believe. Inland Empire is named for the suburban terrain sprawling from the eastern edge of Los Angeles County to the Nevada border, and at nearly three hours, the movie stretches out longer than the congested highways of Riverside County. The film’s repetitive scenes, interspersed throughout, do little to further the plot, illustrate the characters’ personalities, or make the film more artistic or thought-provoking. To add to the languid incoherence, Lynch is planning to eschew navigable chapters in the DVD version, thereby stripping away one of the few reasons anyone could have to purchase her own copy of Inland Empire.
Lynch may run through his cheap magician’s bag of tricks, but none of them can save his film. He employs scenes with clothed, personified bunnies living out conformist 1950s domestic status quo throughout the film; But the slightly surreal quality of these scenes doesn’t tie back into the film’s seemingly main storyline, which follows actress Nikki Grace (played by Laura Dern) as she slips into her character, Susan Blue, the protagonist of a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows that is being directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Meanwhile, Nikki’s husband, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), is assigned to the male lead in Kingsley’s movie, creating a parallel that could have been slick and sharp in the hands of another filmmaker, but just contributes to the overall confusion in Lynch’s work. It’s hard to differentiate between scenes in which Nikki and Devon are acting in the movie-within-a-movie and scenes in which they are characters in Lynch’s movie.
A film about the shooting of another film, like this one, isn’t inherently metaphysical. Hollywood’s screenwriters tend to be at their best when they write scripts about what they know best, which often happens to be the movie business and the process of writing. (Think Singin’ in the Rain.) But Lynch makes this film into something that is trying to be not only metaphysical, but also heady, trippy. We never see the characters, who flash in and out of this film’s weird and unrelated settings, and who actually take drugs, hallucinogenic or otherwise. But perhaps we are meant to assume they’re doing so. Or perhaps it’s the movie industry itself that’s altering its humble actors’ minds for the worse.
Dern’s Nikki, as well as the sub-character she takes on for the movie-within-a-movie, feels isolated and detached due to various aspects of a possible teenage rape experience, her life, the movie industry, the postmodern condition, and probably many other triggering phenomena obscured by Lynch’s love of exposing his cinematic techniques. We get this. But Lynch thinks we won’t get it unless he cuts back and forth many, many times from a party of sluts in a hotel room to Dern’s face as she leans against a wall. The girls are having a rollicking time, have great party chatter, and sometimes they even show off their breasts to their companions or perform a coordinated dance number while “Locomotion” plays on the soundtrack. Nikki (or maybe she’s her character, Susan, at that point) just watches, and she is never shown in the same frame as the young women lounging and laughing around her.
Sometimes, in case the audience is still confused about the degree to which Nikki/Susan feels disconnected from everything around her, Lynch toys with other techniques, ranging from the experimental to the clichéd. The film was shot entirely on digital video, giving it a low-quality graininess to further indicate that the situations portrayed don’t feel entirely real to the characters enduring them. Often, settings change quickly, but the same characters engage in similar activities as in the scene before without any hint of how or why these characters have changed location so suddenly. Then, Lynch delves into more clichéd depictions of disjointedness, such as when there are repeated, nearly identical scenes of one of Dern’s dual characters confiding to her shrink the details of her near-rape at age 15 and how she prevented it by gouging the rapist’s eyes out. Closer to the film’s climax, or the nearest it comes to approximating one, Dern wanders in an empty, greenly lit hallway, carrying a gun, repeatedly shooting at Theroux. That’s one way to achieve human contact.
There is a point in the film, as jarring as any other, when we are subjected to a thunderstorm nightmare of neon lights. The sluts reappear. Dern, probably as Susan, cries, “I’m a whore!” while the party girls laugh. “Where am I? I’m a freak!” They’re in Hollywood. The camera drifts from Susan, who has become increasingly disheveled, to a spot across the street, where a clone of her stands with her own set of promiscuous pals. It’s like a heroin-stoked Nan Goldin photograph—a crazed performance art piece—just like the movie as a whole.