Inland Empire could be described as the natural successor to Mulholland Drive – a successor in the sense that it goes even deeper into the rabbit-hole of time distortion, symbolism and, somewhere among all that, the meaning of stardom in Hollywood.
The film is essentially about a past-her-prime actress, Nikki (Laura Dern), who has been given a career-reviving role in an upcoming film, the script of which is based on a Polish Gypsy tale that is said to be cursed. Before long, Nikki and the viewer get caught up in a labyrinthine narrative that jumps between the main plot, the plot of the film that’s being shot, and the dark recesses of Nikki’s mind as she worries about a potential affair with her co-star while slowly losing herself in the role of her character.
This is an overly basic explanation, and can’t possibly prepare you for the overload of disjunctures, disturbing motifs, rabbit-people, Polish circus-folk, lost girls and other puzzling imagery that Lynch throws at you. But if you don’t obsess too much on trying to piece every single piece of this puzzle together, and allow yourself to get lost in the utterly absorbing mood of the film – that is in turns nightmarish and serene, intimate and distanced – then you’ll find Inland Empire to be an incomparably powerful film experience.
Technically, Inland Empire is outstanding. The basic look of the film has a low-budget, almost sitcom appearance to it, but this is layered with jarring jumps between scenes (and time periods), moody lighting, and sound effects that send waves of foreboding and dread up the spine. When all these elements come together, Inland Empire creates an atmosphere more ominous than that of any horror film, even though it can hardly be categorised as such. Lynch uses all his cinematic experience to have us lose ourselves in this film, in the film within the film, and everything else on the side.
For all its twists and turns, Inland Empire has a strong sense of closure, which has an almost cathartic effect after what at times can be a harrowing experience. Yet, while the ending does give some welcome clarity to the film, as well as providing a reference point for piecing together the preceding events, the true power of the film is apparent on a more sensual level.
If anything, the film points to narrative as being a secondary aspect of cinema, with many sequences of dialogue being self-consciously disjointed and off-setting. Taking privilege here is the plethora of dark feelings that Inland Empire evokes in the viewer; feelings that are imposed on us by Lynch’s mastery of cinematic technique and which can only be obtained through the medium of cinema. That’s what makes Inland Empire a truly ‘filmic’ achievement.
Best performance: Laura Dern’s dual-role performance gives the viewer something to hold onto in Lynch’s surreal world(s).
Best scene: Too many to choose from.
Watch this if you liked: Mulholland Drive, Enter the Void