Inland Empire is one of those dreamed-I-was-dreaming movies that David Lynch can toss off in his sleep. Clocking in at just under three hours, this is Lynch at his most experimental, casting aside traditional narrative patterns and letting the plot fall where it may. But if you liked Lost Highway, which veered off the shoulder early on and never did find its way back, you're going to love Inland Empire, which has stories within stories within stories, rabbit holes that lead to other rabbit holes. Hell, it even has rabbits - rabbits dressed up like people, that is, or people dressed up like rabbits, their dreary scenes scored to a laugh track, like a sitcom. What do they have to do with the rest of the movie? You tell me. Maybe there were some rabbit costumes lying around.
In what appears to be the main plotline, Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, a movie actress who just landed a big role that should firm up her fading career. And Inland Empire, it seems, is about the places an actress has to travel to in order to put together a performance - dark places where identities can be slipped on, like a second layer of skin. For no sooner have we been introduced to Nikki than she transmogrifies into various other personae, first the woman she's playing in the movie, a Southern belle with adultery on her mind, then the woman the character's based on, who happens to be Polish, then...well, I don't want to spoil it for you, or leave you with the impression that I understood what was going on. Not for the first time, Lynch lost me at hello.
Being lost is one of the pleasures of wandering through Lynch's fairy-tale forests, of course, but in his best movies - Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive - he makes sure to throw us just enough bread crumbs to find our way back home. Here, we're left pretty much on our own, the movie shifting every time Nikki walks through a doorway. Perhaps they're doors of perception, leading to alternate/parallel universes. Or maybe they're layers of consciousness, regions of the mind's vast Inland Empire, which is also the name of an area east of Los Angeles. Hollywood is another dream state that Lynch is exploring here, particularly the way it treats women. (Didn't we already cover this in Mulholland Drive?) Nikki's rise to stardom has its inevitable plunge into the gutter, leaving her puking up blood near the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
Or is that the character she's playing? Again, you tell me. Lynch deliberately keeps us guessing as to where we are in time and space. And in one scene, Nikki (or is it the character she's playing?) watches herself watching herself on a movie screen not unlike the one I was watching Inland Empire on, inside the cavernous Orpheum Theatre. Was I now trapped in a Lynch movie? Yes, in a way. When Lynch is at his best, mind-melding with the audience's unconscious fears and desires, he sucks our world into his. When he's not at his best, he...sucks. Inland Empire produces both kinds of moments, in abundance, but to say that the movie holds together would be to give Lynch more credit that he either deserves or perhaps desires. He likes it this way.
And you may too. I found myself wishing Lynch hadn't given his unconscious mind such free rein over his conscious mind. And why couldn't he entertain us a little more? Where are the kicky, kinky highs of Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart? Looking like something the cat dragged in from an old Frankenstein movie, Grace Zabriskie shows up early on, and her line deliveries are so tongue-in-cheek campy, with a Polish accent so thick you want to slather it on a kielbasa, that I nearly fell out of my seat. Why not more of this? It could be that, with his imitators (most recently, Lost and Heroes) having caught on to his bag of tricks, Lynch feels he must burrow ever deeper into his psychic recesses to keep us squirming with pleasure.
If only there was a map.