The Reeler


December 6, 2006

Inland Empire

Is David Lynch's Hollywood hall of mirrors meta-punking you -- or just misunderstood?

No one can grimace like Laura Dern. Her smile is a grimace, her scowl is a grimace, her terror is a grimace and her abject confusion is the grimace to wrench the life out of all grimaces. Dern's extensive repertoire, particularly that last one, is put to the test as it may never be again in Inland Empire, David Lynch's ugly, stubborn, finger puzzle of a movie, opening at IFC Center today and a tiny bit wider on Dec. 15. Despite my great affection for both the ugly and the stubborn, I reached my saturation point about 60 minutes in -- with a solid two hours to go. Laboriously weird without the recommendation of being rewarding or even remotely penetrable, Inland Empire takes great pains and goes to great lengths to make a fool of you; at least Borat was quick about it.

Here is the synopsis Lynch offers for the film in the press materials, because I can’t do much better:

A story of a mystery...

A mystery inside worlds within worlds...

Unfolding around a woman...

A woman in love and in trouble...

Got that? Laura Dern is the woman, I know that, and Jeremy Irons seems to be the director of a film he is remaking called On High in Blue Tomorrows; the original was filmed in Poland, though production halted when its two stars were murdered. Dern is cast as the female lead opposite a ladies' man played by Justin Theroux. Digital convert Lynch often shoots without regard for focus or composition -- the film indeed began as a series of consumer grade DV tests he shot with Dern --and the tissue paper texture of his images, aside from being hard on the eyes, doesn’t fully support either side of the hyper- vs. hyporealism dichotomy set up by the story of an actress whose real life seems to be swallowed whole by the world of her character. In a way it feels like he’s playing with that texture, which has come to signify a kind of filmic authenticity, by making it both transparent and patently incoherent; if that's so, then the experiment is far less intriguing (or successful) than he seems to think it is.

Lynch has based his push for the film almost entirely around the performance of Laura Dern, and you can hardly blame him; the rabbit-headed denizens of what looks like a creepy German cable sitcom don’t get nearly as much screen time. She is his game muse, as usual, and often compelling as our co-pilot through the kind of existential obstacle course you can imagine as an actress’s worst nightmare. We do learn some concrete things at the outset: Her husband is scary; Justin Theroux is sexy; Julia Ormond has a screwdriver in her gut; and Harry Dean Stanton, the film set’s apparent mascot, cadges money and speaks exclusively in non-sequiturs. As Nikki Finke playing "Susan Blue," a ponytailed Dern trades moist come-ons with Theroux (as Devon Burke playing "Billy Side") in a floral frock and teal eye shadow, her knees knocking in four-inch heels; none of it bodes particularly well, career-wise, but a girl's gotta eat.

The role, however, opens into a rabbit hole wider than Dern’s messiest grimace, and the choice of actress (Dern previously starred in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart), self-reflexive meditations on the perils of filmmaking and referential stroll down Lynch’s private hall of fame -- a mirrored hall, of course, where even the nods to prior films are reflections of other nods to prior films -- suggest that Lynch is going for what the press notes call "a masterful recap of a career," his own 8 ½ that is in fact not half as good as the film it siphons from most directly: Mulholland Drive. I got the discomfiting feeling that Lynch is daring his viewers not to play along, lest they be branded bad fans or intellectual midgets, denied even the applebox upon which the heights of genius are visible. From where I’m standing, Inland Empire's only capital belongs to its F-you.

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