48. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)

Weirdest!

“My response to viewers who are puzzled by the plots is, I don’t think you’re so puzzled as you may think.  We all have a certain amount of intuition, and that is something that can be trusted and should be trusted… And so when you see something that’s abstract in a film, and you seem to be getting lost, the thing to do is to start talking to your friends, and they’ll say something and you’ll find yourself disagreeing with that, and realize that you really had formed opinions, and you had a scenario that made sense in your mind, and that’s valid.  We know more than we think.”—direct advice from David Lynch on understanding his films

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: Laura Dern

PLOT: INLAND EMPIRE shifts around on a dozen tectonic plates of varying levels of surreality, but the unstable base layer involves Laura Dern as actress Nikki Grace cast in a melodrama based on an unproduced Polish screenplay which was abandoned as cursed after its two leads were murdered.  As she acts out the adulterous scenario, Grace becomes confused, coming to believe at times that she is the character in the screenplay.  After consummating a relationship with her handsome co-star, that reality slips away and Dern is seen playing several different characters, wandering around in a series of loosely interconnected sketches that involve (among other stories) an abused woman confessing her hatred of men to a psychiatrist, the lives of a gaggle of lip-syncing prostitutes, infidelity dramas, and a sobbing woman watching a room full of bunnies in an absurdist television sitcom.

Still from Inland Empire (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film began as a series of individual short films shot on digital video, as Lynch was exploring the new format.  After Laura Dern suggested working on a project with the director, Lynch later noticed recurring themes in the shorts he was shooting, and decided to put them together into a feature film.
  • In his announcement for the movie and in interviews afterward, Lynch has said that he is done shooting on film and will work exclusively with digital video from now on, citing the greater freedom afforded by the format and going so far as to say that the idea of going back to film makes him feel “sick and weak.”
  • Lynch reported that he wrote the film scene by scene, working without a finished script and trusting that connections would appear.
  • The footage of the rabbits is recycled from a series of short films called “Rabbits” that was exclusively screened on davidlynch.com.
  • Lynch has said he decided to title the movie INLAND EMPIRE after hearing Dern say that her husband hailed from that Southern California enclave, simply because he liked the sound of the words.
  • Lynch invested his own money to get the film made.  He also distributed the film himself, thus facing no pressure to make cuts to the finished product.
  • David Lynch himself sings on the soundtrack.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The nattily-dressed, stiff and deliberately posed bunny-people from the series of short “Rabbit” films, who were so evocative that Lynch decided to give them a new home in INLAND EMPIRE.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDINLAND EMPIRE is David Lynch at his most deliberately

Trailer for INLAND EMPIRE

unhinged, experimenting with how far he can stray from linear narrative while still producing a work that feels thematically whole, searching for the minimum number of recurring images and themes needed to stitch a piece together so that it tantalizingly approaches coherence without ever actually resolving.

COMMENTSINLAND EMPIRE is a frustrating movie, or, more charitably put, a challenging one.  It is Lynch’s most doctrinally surreal movie; at three hours, it’s also his most bloated and self-indulgent picture.  Long stretches appear to be composed of unrelated scenes chopped up and inserted randomly, and yet, there is a sort of underlying plot.  There are also enough images echoing between the different storylines that our rational synapses start futilely firing, trying to make connections out of little hints that refuse to add up.  Parts are intriguing, parts are horrifically fascinating, parts are risible, and different viewers may not agree which parts fall into which categories.  At times it seems as if Lynch is playing a joke on those fans who insist on overanalyzing and constructing elaborate symbolic readings of his films by finally giving them something so self-contradictory and illogical that even the most pretentious cineaste throws up his hands in despair.  (If so, then that part of the experiment failed, as the briefest glance at the IMDB discussion boards for the film will prove).

After the critically successful Mulholland Drive (2001), Lynch had been spending most of his time directing shorts for his website.  The announcement of a new feature film from the legendary and eccentric director was a major event in hip Hollywood circles.   The announcement that he would be shooting the film entirely on digital video was a further novelty.  With so many roles to cast, distinguished actors were lining up to get a piece of INLAND EMPIRE. Many Lynch stalwarts show up in the film:  Grace Zabriske (Wild at Heart, “Twin Peaks”) has a crucial and campy role as the gypsy neighbor who delivers the bizarre and dire warning that sets the tone for the film. (Mulholland Drive) plays the suave leading man from the film-within-the-film.  Harry Dean Stanton (who has played five roles for Lynch, ranging from “The Cowboy and the Frenchman” to The Straight Story) steals a few scenes as a director’s assistant who’s hard up for cash.  Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons, who appeared in Wild at Heart, takes the film’s third meatiest role as the director of the cursed film script.  Diane Ladd (also in Wild at Heart) delivers a brief turn as a gossipy talk show host.  Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) is also technically in the film, or at least her voice is.  Other major actors without Lynch connections agreed to appear in INLAND EMPIRE in roles beneath their stature. Julia Ormond accepts a very small but important role as Theroux’s fictional wife.  Oscar nominee William H. Macy reads a single meaningless line in his cameo as a television announcer, and Natassja Kinski and Mary Steenburgen have even tinier parts, essentially playing extras.

Despite this impressive lineup of thespians, the only actor who could be said to be featured in INLAND EMPIRE is Laura Dern; the film is virtually a one-woman show.  Dern plays at least three distinct roles in the film: actress Nikki Grace, the character Grace is portraying, Susan Blue, and an abused woman who delivers a long, chopped-up monologue.  She possibly plays as many as six or seven characters, depending on whether you chose to see the woman who fights with her husband when she announces she’s pregnant, the woman at the outdoor barbecue, or the woman who hangs out with the prostitutes as having a separate identity or not.  (Yes, it’s that kind of movie, where it’s impossible to count characters properly since some of them may actually be versions of existing personas seen at other times, or in alternate realities).  Dern’s face precisely reflects the experience of being trapped inside a David Lynch script; she goes through most of the movie wearing an expression of confusion and horror mixed together in varying ratios.  She shows great range, but more importantly she provides the film with an indispensable center.  In the hands of a lesser actress the movie could easily have fallen apart into complete fractured twaddle; Dern manages to hold it together.  Lynch pushed her for a “Best Actress” nomination, and were the Academy in the business of recognizing important artistic performances, she would have been nominated. No actress could have possibly meant as much to her film as Dern did to INLAND EMPIRE.

For a movie that is so baffling on its surface, and one that is composed partially out of recycled footage and scenes shot over a period of four years, there is a surprising amount of craft in the construction of the film.  The loose structure consists of two prologues, about an hours worth of only mildly odd development of the base plot involving Nikki Grace accepting a role in the film “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” followed by the nightmarish sequence of hallucinations that constitute the bulk of the movie, and ending with two epilogues.

The central parts of the movie are explained as well in the above synopsis as they will ever be, but I would like to highlight the existence of the two prologues and two epilogues, as they serve curious purposes.  Since INLAND EMPIRE is a non-linear movie, I’ll discuss the two epilogues first.  The first epilogue is notable because it ends the film on an unexpectedly happy note.  Despite the consistently hellish tone, Lynch ends on a weirdly hopeful note as a minor character appears to reunite with a family we don’t know and had no clue she was estranged from.  The second epilogue continues the uplift over the credits, bringing back long-suffering Laura Dern, now happy and blowing kisses, as dancers perform a routine and lip-sync to Nina Simone’s magnificent “Sinnerman.”  This closing credit sequence is surprising and almost shockingly cheerful.  It’s like a wrap party—although, since it’s a David Lynch film, the party includes a one-legged woman, a monkey, and a lumberjack.

The first prologue is a surreal montage of elements that will recur later in the movie: the black and white closeup of the phonograph needle, the tear-stained face of the “Lost Girl” as she watches the TV showing the Lynchian sitcom “Rabbits.”  The purpose of this lengthy introduction is to remind viewers they are watching a truly weird film, so they can’t argue later on that they were cheated when reality breaks down.  The second prologue is one of the more memorable sequences in the film: Grace Zabriske, playing a neighbor with ruddy apple cheeks and a voice like a female Bela Lugosi, wanders over to greet her new neighbor, the actress Nikki Grace.  In the course of the conversation, she tells Old World folktales about Evil and Lost Girls, reveals herself as a mystical and not necessarily friendly being who knows something of Nikki’s future, and in the end catapults Nikki one day into the future in one of the strangest flash forwards you will ever see on film.

That second prologue reveals one of the things that Lynch does so well, that separates him from less subtle surrealists who like to jar the audience with whiplash transitions.  Lynch builds individual scenes by starting with a completely ordinary event—a neighbor coming over to introduce herself—and allow circumstances to slowly grow weirder, evolving the audience’s anxiety through the growing uncanniness of the situation.  Zabriske’s speech to Dern grows slowly and subtly stranger by steps as their meeting progresses, and Dern’s expression moves from slightly quizzical to slightly fearful, until Zabriske explodes with menace and sends Dern hurtling into the next scene and the next day.  It’s a slow-burn transition from the everyday to the blisteringly weird that Lynch uses again and again in the dialogues and monologues here—never so effectively as when a homeless person begins by insisting that the bus to Pomona stops at the corner and ends on a revelation so strange and sickening that her companion upbraids her for it.

Some individual scenes move with a sort of extended, if impossible, logic.  It’s not that Lynch doesn’t abruptly jerk us from one layer of reality to another—we frequently observe a man clutching a lightbulb between his teeth, then suddenly find ourselves watching an out-of-context dramatic snippet enacted by Poles.  At other times, though, Lynch effects smoothly surrealistic transitions.  Sometimes the change is morphological: characters end a dramatic scene in a particular positions, and the next scene fades in with the bunny-people standing in exactly the same posture.  Other times, there is an impossible but logical flow between scenes.  One long sequence begins with a nasty flashback to a scene of marital strife; moves to a scene of what may be the same or a different character confessing to her psychiatrist; she leaves when the doctor gets a phone call and emerges onto Hollywood Boulevard as yet another character; she is stabbed, staggers over to where a trio of homeless people lie and falls down dying; when she expires, the shot pulls back to reveal the director filming the scene; Dern stands up and wanders into the next set piece…  There is an illogical but recognizable cause and effect sequence during this stretch, but Lynch doesn’t always adhere to his own rules.  It’s not that the director is thoroughly irrational and unpredictable throughout the film; it’s that he alternates herky-jerky changes with smooth ones, completely absurd scenes with completely naturalistic (although incongruous) ones.  The effect is a sort of semi-logic that keeps appearing and disappearing, and keeps us more off balance than if he had simply moved randomly from one story to the next.  That’s part of the power of INLAND EMPIRE: Lynch tantalizingly constructs a “sort-of” story rather than a non-story, and the way in which he teases our narrative expectations shows a mastery that lesser surrealists can’t muster.

Besides the way he handles transitions, Lynch uses one other trick to give INLAND EMPIRE a false coherence.  He sprinkles the script with little objects and concepts that recur in separate stories.  A partial list: the number 47, wondering what time it is, confusion between today and tomorrow, a ringing phone, affairs, murders, a screwdriver-inflicted wound, whores, scenes of a wife revealing she’s pregnant that are repeated with slight variations between different sets of characters, the line of dialogue “Look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before.”  (Devoted students of the movie could probably come up with a dozen more examples or repeated motifs).  You could build your own a backstory out these elements—an unrevealed tragedy of your imagination—but Lynch is interested in constructing not a puzzle, but the appearance of a puzzle.  These echos provide a semblance of continuity between the different stories, but the dots he provides are deliberately unconnectable.  To the extent this technique resonates with a viewer, it gives the movie a mysterious universality and timelessness.

Despite the care that went into constructing the scenario, critics of the movie do have a point.  There is a lot of recycling here, not just of footage from earlier Lynch projects, but of themes and repeated ideas.  The scene where the hookers break out into a tension-breaking rendition of “Locomotion” is a Lynchian cliché I could have done without.  At three hours, the film is bloated: there is simply too much material for it all to be top-notch Lynch.  A lot of surrealistic fat could have been cut; there is the nagging feeling that there might have been a two hour masterpiece hiding inside this three hour odyssey.  In interviews given after INLAND EMPIRE‘s premiere, Lynch cites one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking: “you never turn down a good idea, but you never take a bad idea.” Ironically, he broke his own rule, and thereby missed out on the opportunity to create a truly special film, instead producing the insistently noteworthy movie that is INLAND EMPIRE.  Lynch edited and distributed the film himself so that he could have complete control, but the movie was desperately in need of a no-man; someone to stand up to the auteur and explain that this part isn’t working, the film is meandering right now and in danger of losing it’s momentum, let’s tighten this up by including only your best ideas.

INLAND EMPIRE is a movie that could only come from David Lynch.  It’s not just that it could only come from the mind of David Lynch, though it is so shot through with his peculiar obsessions and fetishes that that statement is, of course, true.  But no other director could attract such top-flight talent to work on a plotless, scriptless, prospectless project.  INLAND EMPIRE is bloated, narcissistic and self-indulgent, but in this context, those are not necessarily bad things.  A bombastic Lynch is far preferable to a timid Lynch.  INLAND EMPIRE is far from David Lynch’s best picture, but it is his most Lynchian.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this film-within-a-film casts an enveloping shadow over Nikki, leading her real and reel lives to blur.  The reeler it gets, the weirder it gets… Like the surrealist practice of automatic writing, the film feels as if it could have been made in a trance, dredged up from within.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“The resulting grab bag of Lynchian motifs and methods—grotesque character actors, saccharine pop music, grind-house camp, horror clichés, gratuitous gore, chipmunk voices, jejune sex play, theatrical tableaux, and mystical hokum—quickly devolves into self-parody.”–Richard Brody, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

“The great eroto-surrealist David Lynch has gone truffling for another imaginary orifice of pleasure, with results that are fascinating, sometimes very unwholesome, and always enjoyable.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: INLAND EMPIRE:: Bim Distribuzione – this offering from Inland Empire‘s Italian distributor seems to be the last official website left standing

IMDB LINK: Inland Empire (2006)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

David Lynch (interview) – Post Inland Empire interview and Q&A with Lynch hosted by British film critic Mark Kermode; features both a transcript and video clips

Lynch invades an ‘Empire’ – one of the first media reports announcing Inland Empire‘s production; it raises a lot of questions as to what the film would be about, few of which were answered by the finished product

David Lynch’s Latest Endeavor Breaks New Ground – recording of the radio piece on the film from National Public Radio, incorporating interviews with Lynch and Dern

Inland Empire Page at The Auteurs – contains a five-minute film clip, and discussions about the movie

What is David Lynch’s Inland Empire About? – readers of The Guardian‘s film blog attempt to answer the title question

YouTube: Nate and Matt meet David Lynch (and a cow) –  two Los Angelinos chronicle their meeting with David Lynch on film as he campaigns for an Academy Award nomination for Laura Dern

Inland Empire Cinema – this blog styles itself the “official” website of the movie, but it appears to be a poorly updated fansite; perhaps it was once an official site whose domain name expired and was seized by a squatter.

DVD INFO: The Absurda/Rhino two-disc release (buy) features the three hour movie on disc 1, plus a second disc full of extra features which expand the world of INLAND EMPIRE for those who felt there were too few rooms in Lynch’s rambling mansion.  The key supplemental offering is “More Things That Happened,” a collection of about 70 minutes worth of deleted scenes (even though it’s a movie in itself, this featurette arguably should have been a lot longer).  Other bonuses are the short film “Ballerina”; “Lynch 2,” a behind-the-scenes reel; a 40-minute interview with Lynch; stills and trailers; and Lynch’s recipe for quinoa.

This movie was nominated for review by reader “Ayla.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.

7 thoughts on “48. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)”

  1. I just hope he’ll go even farther with his next feature and that’s why I cannot agree with the latest statement (about “far from the best” one). So far, I consider Inland Empire as one of Lynch’s best movies. It is all about why I prefer watching him than many other directors, even though I can’t precisely describe what that “something” is… Maybe, I just love being confused.

    But, even though I do not agree to the last sentence, this review is a great read. Thank you. :)

  2. oh. my. god.

    i’ve just watched Inland Empire.
    it is the best movie I ever seen, standing next to Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky in my eyes.

    David Lynch has just told what’s impossible to tell in words. It’s useless to try to explain the plot yet it’s said right we all know what it’s about. About true ourselves and about subconscious inland empire we have inside.
    It was pure thrill and awe from beginning till end. Lynch’s creative freedom simply overwhelms.

  3. Just to simply say, I’m surprised that you didn’t talk about the part where Laura Dern slowly runs to the camera while eerie music plays, to then revel her showing a maniacal face as she paces towards the camera.
    Or at the later part of the film, where she encounters that guy, and his face becomes a distorted reflection of her own smile, to turn into a grotesque, haunting expression of wildly abstract proportions.
    To be honest, that was some of the most terrifying things I have ever seen in a film.Just because of the deeply disturbing delivery they’re given.

  4. To Caleb: YES about Laura running at the camera. I’ve searched for that clip on YouTube, just to see if it still affects me as strongly as it did (I remember cursing at my TV screen), and I still have trouble watching it.

    More generally: Lynch has said before that his films weren’t just empty abstractions… that they could be figured out — the puzzle could be SOLVED, if you just found the right key. So far, the most convincing key to Inland Empire I’ve seen (at The Auteurs/MUBI) is that it’s about a pregnancy (hence the subtitle “Woman in Trouble”), and that it’s really the psychological journey of the girl watching TV.

  5. Nice collection of info, this is truly one of the best movies from one of the best directors.

    Even if this movie is baffling it still manages to end up as a heartwarming (comedy? tragedy?) about the transformative power of cinema to give transient aid to the objectified lives of distressed women mistreated by men, it’s like a more surreal horror version of Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo or whichever movie that was.

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