An astonishing, staggeringly powerful film where director David Lynch is finally completely unrestrained, liberated from any barrier between his vision and his audience.
[Spoilers for the film, as well as “Mulholland Drive” and “Lost Highway” below.]
Before seeing “Inland Empire”, I thought that “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive” worked as perfect counterparts, both dealing with mental breaks with reality born of duality, but one from a masculine mindset, and one from a feminine. But after seeing “Inland Empire”, I think that gender split between those two films is superficial in light of the deeper connected “Inland Empire” and “Mulholland Drive” have. “Mulholland Drive” sees Hollywood as a dream, and follows Naomi Watts falling into that dream. “Inland Empire” sees Hollywood as a nightmare, and follows Laura Dern breaking out from that nightmare. Both films revolve around that gap between fiction and reality, between dreams and the waking world, and look at the power of cinema as a conduit between those worlds.
Some say cinemas, as in the actual physical location, are womblike in how the dark room and freedom from distractions brings audiences completely into a world other than their own, and those two films definitely play off that state of mind. But “Inland Empire” goes beyond a fictional character’s mental break, as in “Mulholland Drive’ and “Lost Highway”, and plunges directly into the audience’s world, the world where Laura Dern is Laura Dern, not Nikki Grace or Susan Blue.
The end credits of the film feature Rita from Mulholland Drive and supernatural characters from “Twin Peaks” (the monkey and lumberjack from “Fire Walk With Me” specifically), seeing the film break through right into David Lynch’s subconscious, or maybe more accurately the unconscious world from where he believes ideas are drawn from. Much of “Inland Empire” is based on dreams of Lynch’s, quickly filmed with Laura Dern and some other friends in the industry of his, which accounts for much of the film’s loose and seemingly disconnected nature.
It’s a film about a character breaking out of a film, that ends in a self-aware credits sequence parading through Lynch’s filmography. “Inland Empire” sees Lynch liberated not only from film itself (as he shot the film himself on a standard definition digital camera), not only from the studios (as he produced and released it independently), but finally from the conceit of fiction itself. There’s even a break from what may have evolved as a “standard” Lynch story if he kept making films like “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive”, a sort of “it was all a dream” twist to put it reductively. The many narratives of “Inland Empire” are too strangely arranged and connected to be explained like that.
The film plays hard and loose with the format, being shot in decidedly uncinematic standard definition, but the incredible sound mixing (as par the course for Lynch films) prevents it from ever feeling amateur. Using adultery as the kind of centrepiece to manoeuvre the film’s many stories around works well, but becomes less interesting than the more metafictional layerings in the second half of the film, as the film’s narratives increasingly splinter.
In no ways is the film an invalidation of the medium though, as the climax is Laura Dern’s incredible, masterful performance connecting with the lost, trapped girl we first see at the beginning of the film watching the film’s events via television, connecting with her so much that the cathartic power of Dern’s performance frees the girl from her prison. It’s a testament to the transformative power of cinema, of stories, and of performativity in general. “Mulholland Drive” sees cinema used as an escape from the world, but “Inland Empire” sees it as catharsis, as a way to transcend trauma. So many shots see light refractions of the camera lens, and the film seems to encourage coming to the sort of self-enlightenment that cinema-specific visuals like that suggest – a sort of self-awakening in recognition born of recognising the relationship between dreams and reality.
The neighbour character seen early in the film (played by Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie) speaks on how evil was born in reflection of humanity, and this idea of the power of the unreal, of stories, runs through the whole film. But it isn’t an inherently evil, just powerful, as seen in how Dern’s character liberates the lost girl. Cinema is not “real”, but it has real power, and this film channels that idea across its form, its production, its story, across every aspect of itself. It’s certainly Lynch’s most difficult and inaccessible film, but in many ways I think it’s his most powerful. I give it five renditions of “The Loco-Motion”, and a distorted face-warp of Laura Dern.