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December 14, 2014

Inland Empire

by Franz Patrick


Inland Empire (2006)
★ / ★★★★

When the movie ended, I felt thankful—thankful that the torment was finally over.

An old woman (Grace Zabriskie) visits an actress, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), who is waiting for a phone call from her agent. For some strange reason, the visitor is not only aware of the role that Nikki is hoping to get, she appears to have prior knowledge that Nikki has in fact booked the job. The film is called “On High in Blue Tomorrows” and although the actress and her co-star (Justin Theroux) are led to believe that it is an original work, the director (Jeremy Irons) confesses later on that it is actually based on a Polish gypsy folktale and the story is said to be cursed. A prior film that attempted to tell the story was unfinished because the two leads ended up dead.

Written and directed by David Lynch, “Inland Empire” is very well-acted by Dern and the scenes between Dern and Theroux are fiery-good, sometimes sexy, but I found the picture’s dream-like approach to be so pretentious that a potentially fascinating story ends up overshadowed by the technique. The subplots are a drag and whenever Dern is not front and center, I lost interest completely.

It is weird for the sake of being weird. Do not believe anybody who claims to have the answer as to how scenes involving people in rabbit suits relate to the main plot. The writer-director tries so very hard to be mysterious that for a second I was convinced he is actually turning his work into a parody—which would have been a more interesting avenue given his reputation for creating movies that are insular.

Its attempts to surprise, shock, or scare do not work. One of the reasons is due to a lack of buildup. The most common approach is a character entering a dark room and either one of two things will almost always happen: a sudden, bright flashing light fills the space or a cacophony of sounds blast their way through the speakers. I suppose Lynch is trying to replicate dreams but if one were to really think about it, dreams do not have loud or shrill noises. There is no bright flashing light meant to surprise or scare. We begin to realize we are in a dream state when we notice the small but incorrect details.

A technique that works is the camera’s tendency to be real close on the performer’s faces to the point where it is real unflattering at times. It makes otherwise beautiful or interesting faces look bizarre. Couple such images with elliptical dialogue, a specific mood is created—that something strange may be brewing.

The picture’s saving grace is Dern, a consummate performer. She has a special talent in controlling her face so she seems capable of delivering just about any emotion required in a scene. She knows how to change her expression in small ways—often within a shot—and so we are convinced that her character always has something going on in her mind. Lastly, she knows how to utilize her limbs in such a way that they often create interesting angles. We are convinced that the character she plays has been in more than a handful of films. So when she receives news that she has gotten the job, not only is it not a surprise, it is likely to be well-deserved.

“Inland Empire” starts with a certain level of intrigue, mostly due to the conversation between the old woman and the actress, but it devolves into lurid mumbo jumbo. After three hours of near-total confusion, one just feels thankful that the experience is over. Credit to Lynch for being ambitious but that is not enough. The work must actually be, in the least, not incomprehensible.

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