Hollywood actress Nikki (Laura Dern) nabs the lead role of Sue in director Kingsley’s (Jeremy Irons) next project – a remake of a supposedly Gypsy-cursed Polish film called “On High in Blue Tomorrows” – only to find herself stalked by a mysterious murderer as the barriers separating waking and dreaming life, reality and art, disintegrate in a swirl of euphoria and terror. Such a plot synopsis barely scratches the surface of Inland Empire, a perplexing and astonishing three-hour journey into the depths of Nikki’s cinema-filtered subconscious, a locale that director David Lynch envisions as a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-nightmare-within-a-hallucination full of doppelgangers, space-time continuum rifts, and clips from his short film Rabbits in which Mulholland Drive’s Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring and Scott Coffey wear giant rabbit heads while starring in an eerie sitcom from an apparently alternate dimension. Make sense? Of course not, and that’s without mention of Nikki and co-star Devon’s (Justin Theroux) affair, Harry Dean Stanton’s scene-stealing turn as Kingsley’s pauper assistant, the hookers doing “The Locomotion,” the homeless people who tend to an injured Nikki/Sue on L.A.’s Walk of Fame, the subtitled scenes set in Poland, or Dern’s magnificently extended monologue about murder and betrayal, all of which blend together with such beautiful, seamless illogicality that Lynch’s epic about the movie biz and identity seems less a depiction of the dark recesses of the human mind than an actual product of it.
Surrealistic to its core, Inland Empire – its title a reference not to LaLa Land, I think, but to the interior landscape of the self – is a bizarre creation that, with every shift in “chronology” (if such a concept even applies) and continuity, confounds rational interpretation, the story’s winding route a string of asides, associations, and random sights and sounds that aren’t so much lucidly understood as simply experienced. Lynch’s gorgeously composed, grainy DV cinematography skillfully mirrors the action’s skuzzy, hazy nature, just as his masterful sound design – a surprisingly harmonious mixture of, among other things, horrifying roars and wails and Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man” – amplifies the film’s menacing, lurching tone. Even when her character(s) seem as indistinct and insubstantial as a plume of cigarette smoke, Dern’s wide-ranging performance is a thing of captivating brilliance, consistently rooting the film in tortured, desperate emotion even as it begins fragmenting into avant-garde abstraction. What ultimately gives Inland Empire its dark enchantment, however, is Lynch’s combination and reconfiguration of aesthetic and narrative components until what remains – from its opening scene featuring a prophesizing Grace Zabriskie to its subsequent imagery of Nikki/Sue gazing through burned holes in silk – is a sense of hidden, inextricable connections intertwined in ways both clear and obscure – an impression that lends this, the director’s most challenging and rich work, a through-the-rabbit-hole mystery saturated with endless interpretive possibilities.
(The 44th New York Film Festival)