Five years on, the director makes up for his absence both with volume – the film is three hours long – and with a grandstanding, eye-opening stage-presence: ‘Inland Empire’ is as arresting, disturbing and puzzling as anything he’s ever made and takes the tag ‘Lynchian’ to new levels, not all desirable. It’s near-incomprehensible in terms of conventional narrative and so, more even than with Lynch’s other films, it’s worth ditching any masochistic desire to unravel its plot. Instead, ‘Inland Empire’ plays like a dirty, inescapable nightmare fuelled by nasty night-time drugs. It’s a nightmare born of cinema: this is a tale of the dark side of Hollywood – blood flows on the Avenue of the Stars and movies themselves have ghosts in their closets.
Faces are familiar: Laura Dern (‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Wild at Heart’) is Nikki Grace, an actress cast as ‘Susan Blue’ opposite Justin Theroux (‘Mulholland Dr’) in a film directed by Jeremy Irons (a Lynch virgin), who is assisted by a taciturn, gnomic Harry Dean Stanton (‘Wild at Heart’, ‘Fire Walk With Me’). We see some of the fruits of this film-within-the-film, called ‘On High in Blue Tomorrows’, and it looks ghastly, a ropey Tennessee Williams-lite affair that calls for flowery dresses and scenes in sunny gazebos. It’s conceived in a Californian studio world in which Irons will drool ‘Nikki, you were wonderful’ even after we’ve watched 172 minutes of Nikki/Susan/Dern going to hell and back. It’s that aesthetic which defines ‘Inland Empire’: intimate, invasive, cracking up.
There are several worlds at play here, each entirely of Lynch’s invention and each melting and flowing into the next, continually reconstituting themselves like a bunch of old vinyl records left in the sun to warp, cool and reshape. Dern, in various guises, is both our guide and our victim: there’s Nikki’s empty Hollywood life of gilt furniture and house servants, appearances on creepy talk-shows and banal work chit-chat with Stanton. There’s also the world of ‘On High...’ and a whole parallel story in Poland, apparently a reflection of a failed earlier attempt to make the same movie in Eastern Europe. There are other sideshows too, from a humanoid, rabbit-headed family watching TV to a gang of La-La Land wannabes, all fake tits and smiles, doing The Locomotion in one very funny, discomforting scene.
Which, I imagine, is all about as clear as mud to the uninitiated. But plot is a red herring and mood is everything in Lynch’s first feature foray into the world of DV – a foray that’s pushed him more than ever to tell a story in freefall. The best moments consist of pure shrill, as piercing sound design marries with pieces-of-a-non-existent-jigsaw images to create a primal sense of dread. At its worst, though, when Lynch fails to maintain a tight grip on this super-ambitious project – as happens for just that bit too long somewhere in the middle of this very long piece – the film becomes baffling, stoking neither intellect nor emotion, impossible to enjoy and sometimes plain dull. But whether shattering or boring, you’ll still have your eyes wide, wide open from begin to end.