Through the darkness of future past, Judge Bill Gibron longs to see, one chance out between two worlds...and that's definitely David Lynch's latest masterful magnum opus.
A Woman in Trouble
Look at the tagline. Could a film be any more ambiguous and vague about what it plans on presenting? After all, "a woman in trouble" could mean anything. It offers infinite possibilities and hundreds of interesting connotations. And then there are the inherent inferences involved. Who is this woman? Where does she come from? What kind of mess is she in, if it's a mess at all? If she's in trouble, who is there to help her? And if no one is around to assuage her wounds, why not? What's the context? What's the motive? More importantly, why should we care? Unfortunately, you can't come to a film like David Lynch's masterful INLAND EMPIRE (his capitalization) and expect to have your qualms quelled. Instead, this dazzling digital experiment is a literal interpretation of that formless statement, complete with every possible explanation and none of the necessary clues for closure. This is either the most evocative mess the moviemaker has ever created, or a radically hedonistic slice of esoteric egotism. It stands as a landmark in non-analog filmmaking (blowing efforts by Michael Mann right out of the water) as well as a testament to the power of images. Yet the question becomes, does any of that really matter? Especially if INLAND EMPIRE fails to fully explain our female lead, and the problematic issues she's facing.
Facts of the Case
We begin with a prostitute facing an abusive John. Within minutes, she is sitting in a dingy room, crying. On TV, a surreal sitcom starring humanoid rabbits unfolds. Suddenly we're in Los Angeles, at the home of struggling actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern, Wild at Heart). Hoping to land a new role, she is visited by a strange Slavic woman who predicts she will get the part. She also hints that there will be "murder" in this new movie. After accepting the lead, Nikki meets her costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux, Mulholland Dr.). Together, they are informed by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers) that the shoot may be cursed. Apparently, a previous production tried to helm this seedy storyline about an adulterous couple. Right before the final scenes were filmed, the performers were killed.
Things go along swimmingly at first. The history is forgotten as Nikki and Devon dive into their work. With his notorious womanizing, our leading man is warned about staying away from his costar. Her husband will kill you, and then her, they state. Soon, fate steps in and it appears the pair is involved. During some late-night pillow talk, however, Nikki begins to crack up. She starts seeing visions—of the film set, of her husband, of another quite different life. Running away from the pain, she is propelled into a parallel plotline. Now in Poland, Nikki is a nameless hooker hoping to hire someone to off her abusive spouse. As she spills the story to a sleazy hood, we see the entire enterprise unfold. As part of a group of girls (for sale? as strippers? as pay-for-love whores?), she is jaded by the lack of respect she's given. Even worse, there's a man called the Phantom who may or may not be hurting these wanton women. Eventually, our pained prostitute is betrayed, and revenge seems the only way to settle the score—or is it all just part of Nikki's new movie.
Prepare to be dazzled, disturbed, and dumbfounded by the latest accolade in auteur David Lynch's growing artistic legacy. INLAND EMPIRE remains a frustratingly fabulous work of unbridled genius, a definitive statement in this director's long-running desire to incorporate dream logic into his otherwise normal narratives. As is the case with any Lynch effort, there are moments here that break your heart with their beauty and passion. Similarly, there are sequences that will outright frustrate and flummox you. INLAND EMPIRE is a movie that never presents its problems or personalities outright. Instead, it's all a question of implication: what do certain elements mean, and, vice versa, what does a lack of specific material mandate? Placing a massive burden on his actors, as well as the attention span of the audience, Lynch will languish over situations that seem slight, and then turn around and twist everything into a monumental ball of questionable quirk. Like a painter passively placing brushstrokes on a canvas to see what will blossom and develop, he's one of the few filmmakers who sees the process as being as important as the byproduct. Eventually, the image will become clear. Until then, we will watch in blind faith as he builds his layers of creativity and prepares to unveil the finished version of his own idealized dementia.
At this point in his career, you either "get" Lynch or you don't. You either appreciate his idiosyncratic interpretation of the language of film, or you shake your head in baffled disbelief. Hollywood loves to marginalize and manipulate his legacy, calling him everything from a talented visionary to a purposefully obtuse joke. It's a reputation derived solely from the conventional, a view that forgets to take the actual films into consideration. So walking into INLAND EMPIRE, you kind of know what to expect. It is a sly combination of many of the man's latter works. It has the tainted Tinseltown angle of Mulholland Dr., the bifurcated personality plotting of Lost Highway, and the far-out fabrications of his online experiments (both Rabbits and the long-delayed AXXON N play a part here). In addition, Lynch has discovered the joys of the digital revolution. Using the camcorder dynamic in creating this "film," it provided him with a freedom and a looseness that grants him the luxury to follow his every whim. That's why INLAND EMPIRE feels like the most personal David Lynch experience to date. It's overflowing with his innermost idiosyncrasies, long-delayed experiments, and astounding artistic flourishes.
For those looking for enlightenment, this is one of the director's knottiest narratives. There are many ways to interpret what's happening, but the basic storyline consists of one of two potent possibilities. Perhaps the prostitute we see at the start of the film is so alone and afraid in her pathetic sex-for-pay life that she fantasizes about an existence outside the fringes of reality. In her mind, she becomes a famous movie star, hired to play a demanding part and using that celebrity to step in and save a number of her "friends," also desperate in their white-slave surroundings. Another view would suggest that Laura Dern's actress, motivated to win a much-needed part, has turned so inward and method that she can no longer distinguish the meaningful from her motivation. In trying to connect with her character, she loses her own sense of self, frequently disappearing into flights of fractured, fearful fancy. In either case, we are definitely dealing with a "woman in trouble," and again Lynch is looking for as many literal and metaphysical ways of expressing this ideal as possible. That's why we get scenes of domestic strife, interpersonal difficulties, professional insecurity, cold-blooded calculation, and intense internal struggle. Relying almost solely on Dern to deliver the goods, Lynch lives up to these hyperbolic conceits, while tossing in a great deal of simple cinematic splendor. His lead deserves complete and utter kudos for taking on such a surreal statement; it's the medium he's manipulating that deserves the most praise.
When it was announced that Lynch was using the digital format as a way of making his next movie, many in his formidable fan base were disturbed. The reaction was two-fold: first, many feared the man couldn't get financing to create an actual "film" film, and so was "slumming" just to get his muse across. The other, and more oddball, idea was that Lynch was abandoning celluloid in favor of a grittier, gonzo concept. He wanted to go back to his idyllic indie days, and a DV would help him achieve that aesthetic. In fact, both notions held a kernel of truth. Studios, especially the Hollywood heavyweights, are not about to give an already problematic artist (while critically acclaimed, Lynch doesn't do well with mainstream moviegoers) a huge hunk of cash to run around the globe and create a conceptual collage without any manageable marketing points. So digital allowed him to do more with substantially less…dollar-wise. On the other hand, all craftsmen like to mess with tools to see where the inspiration takes them. In this case, armed with a series of new toys, Lynch could simply go out and play. Similar to when he had the time, location, and unlimited stock to work with (resulting in his first film, the amazing Eraserhead), INLAND EMPIRE feels the closest to this director's oft-proclaimed imagination than anything he's done recently. And besides, the movie looks amazing. Lynch understands both the technical and the ephemeral aspects of the medium he's working in, and he does digital 100 percent right.
The result is one of the most breathtaking accomplishments you will ever see. And hear. It's important to note that Lynch places video and audio tests and calibration menus on his discs so that people can "tune" their home theaters properly to reproduce (as best as possible) his work outside a big-screen setting. So both sound and vision are incredibly important to him, and with INLAND EMPIRE, he has really outdone himself. This is a startling experience, one that begins as a standard motion-picture drama and descends into both the hearts of darkness and the disturbed. Colors crash and blend, as slow, soft rumbles build to crescendos of aural assault. For Lynch, film is as sensual (meaning, "of the senses") as it is cerebral or emotional. He wants you to get lost in the opticals, to use the bombast blazing out of your 5.1 setup as a doorway into another dimension. Similarly, what you will see onscreen will cause you to question the facets of reality while firing forgotten synapses way off in the back of your brain. The end result is a defining, draining experience, a means of meeting cinema at its very core—and then continuing beyond. Like his beloved meditation, which he claims allows him to tap into the inner pool of possibilities within his creative ocean, Lynch is a magician manipulating echoes and ideas into a test of one's potential perception.
Sometimes we don't like what we see. At other instances, the elements can come together so effortlessly that they make the soul soar. Never one to explain or expound (this is the guys who used a psychogenic fugue as a legitimate plot point, after all) while leaving interpretation and intent for others to determine, David Lynch seemingly celebrates the insane and the bizarre. But actually, all he's doing is redefining experience, one fascinating graphic at a time. It's as if he taps directly into your nervous system and captures incidents without the benefit of an intellectualized filter. All drama appears found, all horror or happiness arrives spontaneously and unprocessed. While it's possible to label this as self-indulgent, delusional, excessive, or unapproachable, the proof is that everyone sees what they want when it comes to film. A comedy that causes some to crack up may actually be a witless wonder. Similarly, an action epic that gets your blood boiling and your adrenaline droning may put others into a sound slumber. Love him or hate him, David Lynch at least deserves to be recognized for what he is—a true artist working in an arena that usually shuns such arch philosophies. If it's not simple, saleable, and strategically targeted at a base demographic, it doesn't matter much to studio suits. But all art lives beyond its pop-culture calling, and one thing is for sure—decades from now, when scholars are sorting the weakest wheat from the rock-solid chaff, Lynch and INLAND EMPIRE will be among the mighty.
True to his tech-specs word, Lynch supervised the transfer of INLAND EMPIRE to DVD, and Rhino's release is something quite special. The movie's amazing look is brilliantly captured by the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Don't listen to other sites that criticize this film as an ineffectual DV production. There are only the slightest of hints of the telltale facets we expect from the medium (fuzziness, lack of clarity, unclear contrasts), but Lynch makes them work to his benefit. In this critic's considered opinion, this is a jewel of an image, a complete representation of what can be achieved with the new advances. On the sound side, things are equally solid. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo mixes provided play with spatial ambiences, and yet both deliver devastating sonic significance. You feel lost in Lynch's world, enveloped by his music and involved in his effects. Again, there will be those who believe this is less-than-reference quality, and, believe it or not, they'd have a champion in the director. Home video actually sickens Lynch, since it deprives the viewer of the project the way he intended them to experience it—in a theater, with a properly calibrated projector and a full-blown, properly volumized speaker setup. What he hopes to do here is not recreate the Cineplex dynamic as much as give the best possible product for the living room.
As for added content, this stellar set provides lots of insight—as well as a few comic asides. Offered up as something entitled "More Things that Happened," we are treated to 75 minutes of deleted scenes. Most deal with incidental aspects of the narrative, but there is more material regarding Dern's hobbled home life and the prostitute's predicament. "Ballerina" is a nine-minute meditation on an ethereal dancer, captured as only Lynch can. "Quinoa" is the director, at home, making up a pot of the famous South American "superfood" (actually, a small, protein rich grain). Trailers and stills are self-explanatory. The best bits are reserved for two amazing supplements. "Stories" is 30 minutes of Lynch discussing his rationale for the film, what inspired him, and the various issues he has with moviemaking and the industry in general. It's the closest thing to a commentary you'll ever get from the man, and its fascinating stuff. Similarly illustrative is "Lynch 2," a collection of behind-the-scenes sequences showcasing the director as a cross, if calm, curmudgeon. He pisses and moans, demands and barks orders, but always within his mild-mannered Midwestern character. It's like seeing a dictator shorn of all his sturm and drang, and yet still getting exactly what he wants. It presents a side of Lynch we rarely get to see, and gives the DVD of INLAND EMPIRE the "extra" boost it needs to be a definitive digital statement.
So, in the end, what exactly was the "trouble" our "woman" was in? Sure, we see someone struggling with a difficult acting role, set inside a film that may or may not be cursed. We see a beaten and abused hooker seek the help of a hitman to take out her cruel and brutal husband. We see other streetwalkers, feigning happiness as the reality of their life hits them hard. And finally, we see an actual Hollywood celebrity, a female noted for her fine, Oscar-nominated work, walk effortlessly through a troubling, tentative experiment in expression. Together, they become all aspects of the gender big picture, a portrait of women as heroes, villains, whores, saints, lovers, adulterers, mothers, and mistresses. Few filmmakers today would even try to make something so all encompassing and endemic, but it's clear that David Lynch is not your ordinary artist; he never has been, and he never will be. Instead, he continues to clip the boundaries of the art form while redrafting many of its original ideals. You may not like everything inside INLAND EMPIRE, but it's near impossible to deny its designs. Sometimes, a director is so ahead of the curve that it's unfair to fault him for not living up to our everyday expectations. As a planned provocateur, Lynch is a man of startling genius—and INLAND EMPIRE is a near-masterpiece.
Not guilty. Both Rhino and their DVD of INLAND EMPIRE are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• "More Things That Happened..." Deleted Scenes
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