“Inland Empire” isn’t your typical film. Made by the equally atypical David Lynch, it’s difficult to review because Lynch seems to transcend your expectations of movies with each of his projects. So while I will do my best to describe and unearth the various levels of the film, keep in mind that it can’t be judged with conventional standards.
Lynch has long been famous for his unsettling psychological stories that frequently flit in and out of consciousness. His work ranges from the odd (“Mullholland Dr.”), to the oddly conventional (“The Straight Story”). “Mullholland Dr.” was acclaimed for its labyrinthine tale that played with the worlds of dreams and their emotional effects. Some of his other work has been along this vein, if not as obviously. Yet, if “Mullholland” depicted a dream, “Inland Empire” depicts a psychotic episode.
The story, as best I can describe it, revolves around Nikki Grace, played by Laura Dern, who gets cast in a film directed by Kingsley Stewart, played by Jeremy Irons. The film, as they discover, is actually a remake of a Polish film that was never finished because the lead actors were murdered under mysterious circumstances. As they work on the production, Nikki starts to have feelings for her costar Devon (Justin Theroux), reflecting their romantic link in the story of the movie they are acting in.
That story occupies the first third of the film. Then, things start to get hazy as the lines between reality, the original Polish film, and the remake are blurred. For more than an hour it is difficult to tell just which story a scene is from, and sometimes, things happen that don’t belong in any of the stories. Characters take on traits of their film counterparts, and then interact with characters from the Polish film, and so on. Time means nothing; people die and then you see them again later.
In a way, Lynch is defying the normal film logic that one shot somehow relates to the next shot. Much of the film is a series of random scenes, all linked by an overhanging peril facing Dern’s character, the name of which you are not even sure of by the end. In short order you are taken from a backyard barbecue to Hollywood Blvd. and then onto a television sitcom featuring the actors in full size rabbit suits.
This is definitely bold filmmaking, but as a whole, it gets to be a little much. At almost three hours, for many the film will feel like a test of endurance. Because there is little semblance of a story arc, there is not much to compel you to keep watching. While such experimental portions of his other films led to a deeper sense of mystery and discovery, here it’s too much to handle.
The last portions of the film at first seem to hold the promise of some kind of resolution, but don’t be fooled; Lynch hardly ever makes it that easy. All of the growing tension and unsettling tone lead to a violent and illusory end. Followed by what has to be the strangest ending credits sequence in film history, “Inland Empire” stakes its claim as one of the most confusing films in Lynch’s varied career.