David Lynch's wildly eccentric INLAND EMPIRE is one of the more challenging films you'll ever endure, if you make it through the whole 179 minutes. It's a self-indulgent swerve into a ravine of non-sequential, visceral madness
Left wide open to interpretation and maddening, deadening effect, INLAND EMPIRE (purposely in all caps) is an organic work of art that sparks thought and debate. It's not a story of anyone or anything in particularand the movie experience is as frustrating as that sounds. But we'll attempt to explain anyway: Four or five unconnected plotlines revolve around Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a troubled actress in love. Nikki is shooting a film costarring Devon (Justin Theroux) and directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Nikki's schizophrenic, tortured reality seems to blur her personal identity with that of her movie character, Susan Blue. Dern screams she's in love with her Billy, the character Devon is playing in the movie, while those around her seem confused. We, too, in the audience are left unaware of what world Dern is in. A psychedelic series of interludes focuses on a family of brown rabbits with upright ears (one voiced by Naomi Watts), framed coldly in a living room with a 1950's-style TV laugh-track. Another recurrent series of images is a Polish subtitled film, aborted when its stars are killed. With INLAND EMPIRE, we're left to guess what Lynch is thinking. Is it Nikki's internal self--or could it be ourselves? Whatever it is, it's big and mysterious.
INLAND EMPIRE is essentially a Dern marathon one-woman, showing her ability to play grizzled upset, crazy, frightening, smiling and folksy, all with a tarnished luster. She's a Lynch three-time collaborator, after Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet. If INLAND EMPIRE were a better, more logical movie, Dern may have been touted for an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination. But alas, the performance is too parsed and incomplete to register an emotional resonance with most audiences. Dern has several powerful scenes in which she's vulnerable, wounded, and pathologically driven for violence and one of those all-important crying scenes. But under Lynch's directing, Nikki/Susan is like a photographic scrapbook of vignettes, not a complete character. Numerous recognizable cameos (William H. Macy, Mary Steenburgen, Watts) add to Lynch's credibility, while Harry Dean Stanton (in his fourth Lynch film) has a funny, befuddled turn as a director's assistant. Irons is strong--if under-used--as director Kingsley. He chomps his scenes, playing the Hollywood conventions of a larger-than-life helmer to delicious effect.
INLAND EMPIRE is a baffling statement of artistic entitlement. Its Lynch's first film since Mulholland Dr., which garnered the pop provocateur an Oscar nomination for Best Director, but its a fussy follow-up, a long-winded, Terry Gilliam-like descent into dementia. At three hours, confusion is the collective effect, as though the film has been conceived on some kind of altered, drug-induced state. The intention seems to evoke an emotional response, instead of an intellectual one, but it's mostly one of distress. The audience's only option is to follow along, through black-and-brown-lighted visions of nothing. Lynch, described in INLAND EMPIRE press materials as "Eagle Scout Missoula Montana," financed this avant-garde film himself and plans to promote it in person with a live cow. If that makes sense to you, buy a ticket.
Hollywood.com rated this film 1 1/2 stars.