If David Lynch’s surreal first feature Eraserhead was, in his own words, “a dream of dark and troubled things”, this, his ninth film, is a pitch black, face-down in the pillow nightmare, defying all rational explanation, meaning or logic.
While the director has made his name in a unique brand of oddness, this is by far his most inaccessible, oblique piece since his 1977 debut. Here, Lynch doesn’t so much take you down the rabbit hole as drags you kicking and screaming to the edge and hurls you bodily into it. INLAND EMPIRE (Lynch demands it be capitalised) is a mesmerising, terrifying and at times blackly humorous experience that will stay with you long after the final credits roll. Shot entirely on consumer-grade digital video, this certainly won’t win over new fans (two critics walked out of the screening OMH attended), but Lynch obsessives will find this as close to Nirvana possible over three hours.
The plot, such as it is, is disarmingly simple for the first third of the film. Former Hollywood star Nikki (Laura Dern) is given another chance with the lead role in a romantic drama, the ridiculously titled ‘On High Blue Tomorrows’. During the first rehearsal, the director (Jeremy Irons) lets slip to her and her co-star, the supremely creepy Justin Theroux, that the film is actually a remake, the original film having been abandoned after the murder of its two stars.
However, as this is Lynch, nothing is as it seems. The boundaries of real life and the film begin to blur dramatically, and just as Dern seemingly becomes embroiled in an affair with Theroux, she walks through a door in the set, and straight into another life. Lynch might as well have nailed a sign above the door with the words “abandon all hope yea who enter here”, such is the complexity and downright bizarreness of the following two hours. Dern appears first as a Polish housewife, and then as a prostitute. Eventually, she appears back in Hollywood, crawling on all fours across the boulevard at midnight with a screwdriver protruding from her chest.
Anyone struggling to make sense of this seemingly unconnected series of vignettes should simply sit back and relax. It isn’t going to work. This is as close to art as you’re likely to see in modern cinema.
A roll call of Lynchian archetypes rear their heads briefly and fall away into the blackness. A bonkers film crew. A vengeful husband who appears to be a gangster. A group of prostitutes miming to The Locomotion. A TV set in an abandoned motel room showing a television show starring talking rabbits. And at the centre is a blistering performance by Dern, taking everything that Lynch can throw at her, both metaphorically and literally. It’s a mark of the esteem that Lynch holds for her that he attempted to kickstart an Oscar campaign for her by herding a cow into Los Angeles and calling a press conference on a street corner.
It would be very easy to call INLAND EMPIRE a companion piece to his slightly superior previous film Mulholland Drive, both about Hollywood’s constant pull and push on the rationality of its inhabitants. However, this is a leap into the unknown for even those who fell for Naomi Watts’ charms the first time round. If you are willing to take the plunge, this is one of the most rewarding, thrilling films you’ll see this year. If not, we wouldn’t blame you for a second.