It's useless to approach David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE (the all-caps title is his preference; in keeping with his often maddening opacity, Lynch refuses to divulge why he prefers it) as a traditional film. Everything about it screams art-against-the-grain -- shot on digital video in a catch-as-catch-can fashion over a period of five years and featuring a plot that could charitably be elliptical and realistically called fucked up, INLAND EMPIRE is an art-house endurance test, a mind-bending feedback loop and the kind of film the true cinephiles like to throw on at parties and watch the room clear out.
Subtitled "A Woman In Trouble," INLAND EMPIRE is Lynch's most ambitious, fractured film yet; it's like the final hour of Mulholland Drive stretched out to three hours -- anything approaching sense is thrown out the window in favor of ghoulish atmospherics and the director's finely honed sense of theatrical dread. Lynch semi-regular Laura Dern, whose performance is the glue holding the film together, stars as Nikki Grace, an actress who's just landed a part in a film that may or may not be cursed, acting alongside the impetuous Devon Berk (Lynch alum Justin Theroux). Add to this a surreal sitcom featuring anthropomorphic rabbits, sinister doings in Poland involving prostitutes, random musical interludes and a never-ending sense of horror and you've got the makings of a loopy cinematic ride.
What's most frustrating about INLAND EMPIRE is its stop-start brilliance -- for every startling moment of beauty, there are just as many abrupt cuts to non-sequitur scenes and sequences that mar some truly skin-crawling segments of filmic genius. The freedom afforded Lynch by saying goodbye to film and embracing DV is a mixed blessing; rather than whittle his story into something cohesive (well, as cohesive as Lynch gets), there's a sense that the director kept shooting and shooting and shooting ... and shooting ... unwilling or unable to make any kind of effort to shape the narrative. I'm sure there are those who will rail on me for "not getting it," but that's not the point.
The point is Lynch has channeled his ability to infuse reality with oddness to searing effect before -- Mulholland Drive being a prime example -- without sacrificing traditional storytelling techniques. It's hard to be engaged with a film so intent on keeping you at arm's length, dancing away from cohesion just when it seems to be settling into a groove.
As it is, INLAND EMPIRE is a deeply flawed, occasionally unfathomable work of erratic art from one of modern cinema's premier provocateurs. No one's denying Lynch's abilities to push buttons -- I just wish he'd focus more using his gifts as a means towards telling a story, rather than simply throwing everything and the kitchen sink against the screen to see what sticks. See the film for Laura Dern's extraordinary, raw performance, but don't expect to want to revisit INLAND EMPIRE anytime soon. The DVD
INLAND EMPIRE is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (preserved here in an anamorphic widescreen transfer). I know I'm going to get lots of heated e-mails (or forum posts, as the case may be) telling me how wrong I am, but INLAND EMPIRE looks like crap. I know that's intentional and that Lynch is giddy about the opportunity to play with DV, claiming it liberates him in ways film never could. Fair enough - but there's atmosphere and then there's just muddy, digitally compressed messes that pull you out of the creepy goings-on and make you think, "Wow, for someone who obsesses over deleted scenes from 'Twin Peaks' looking top-notch, this really looks terrible." Plenty of smearing, blown-out contrast, aggressive edge enhancement and washed-out colors abound -- when you can see what's actually transpiring, that is. Much of INLAND EMPIRE takes place in dark, claustrophobic rooms, which means much of the film is spent squinting at the screen, trying to figure out what the hell you're looking at. I applaud Lynch's embrace of modern filmmaking technology, but plead with him to remember he's still making a film. As such, there are a few rules that need to be followed in order to make something watchable. The Audio:
A buffet of aural options is included, with Lynch providing a pair of Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, one tailored for near-field monitor playback and one better suited for far-field monitor playback. What that means is, basically, near-field monitors are considered to be more compact speakers and are closer to the listener, allowing them to hear less "reflected" sound while far-field monitors are larger, farther away and rely more on "reflected" sound. For this review, I sampled the far-field Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and found it to be quite bass-heavy, often very quiet during passages of dialogue and skimpy on surround effects. A Dolby 2.0 stereo track is also included, as are optional French subtitles (but, of course, no optional English subtitles). The Extras:
Supervised by Lynch himself, INLAND EMPIRE arrives on a tricked-out two-disc set, complete with plenty of extra goodies. The first disc contains the film, which at just a shade under three hours, takes up most of the room, although a picture calibration tool (not unlike that found on Eraserhead) is included. The bulk of the supplements are housed on the second disc; the crown jewel of these being 75 minutes of deleted scenes (presented as "More Things That Happened" in anamorphic widescreen and the same trio of sound selections as is found on the film); seven minutes and 15 seconds of stills, presented in anamorphic widescreen; a 20 minute, four second featurette (presented in black and white and anamorphic widescreen) that details Lynch's fondness for and preparation of quinoa; the weirdly compelling, 12 minute and 20 second "Ballerina" is an atmospheric outtake (for lack of a better word), presented in anamorphic widescreen, that consists of a ballerina dancing to the film's moody score; the 30 minute, 10 second mini-doc "Lynch 2" that serves as a fly-on-the-wall peek at the making of INLAND EMPIRE (and is actually the most insightful behind-the-scenes look I've ever seen with regards to Lynch); three trailers for the film, presented in anamorphic widescreen and "Stories," a 41 minute, 37 second featurette, offered in anamorphic widescreen, similar in presentation to what's found on the Eraserhead DVD -- basically Lynch waxing nostalgic for various projects -- rounds out the package. Final Thoughts:
INLAND EMPIRE is a deeply flawed, occasionally unfathomable work of erratic art from one of modern cinema's premier provocateurs. No one's denying David Lynch's abilities to push buttons -- I just wish he'd focus more using his gifts as a means towards telling a story, rather than simply throwing everything and the kitchen sink against the screen to see what sticks. See the film for Laura Dern's extraordinary, raw performance, but don't expect to want to revisit INLAND EMPIRE anytime soon. Recommended, but only barely.