When David Lynch's "Inland Empire" was first released in 2006, it was so utterly unlike anything else around that it felt years—decades—ahead of its time. In this follow-up to the critical and commercial success of “Mulholland Drive,” Lynch took a blowtorch to both the traditions of conventional narrative storytelling and the established laws of the entire Hollywood filmmaking apparatus. Now, following a long period in which "Inland Empire" was hard to see, both in terms of access and visual quality, his tenth film has returned to theaters in a newly remastered edition. It somehow feels even more ahead of its time than ever.
The unusual manner in which Lynch prepared, produced, and released "Inland Empire" has by now become legend. Instead of preparing a traditional screenplay and then trying to find funding for it, he began by writing random scenes and giving them to the actors to perform without any true initial idea of how they would go together. Intrigued by the possibilities that digital video could create in the filmmaking process, Lynch eschewed film stock and shot the entire thing with a commercial-grade standard definition Sony digital camera. Then, as a final blow against the moviemaking apparatus, Lynch not only financed most of its production by himself but handled the distribution of his three-hour film as well.
Following an opening that involves a mysterious encounter between a young prostitute known as the Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka) and a client in a grim hotel room, both of whom have their faces blurred, a plot begins when a strange Polish woman (Grace Zabriskie) turns up at the home belonging to actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and her husband, Piotrek (Peter J. Lucas) claiming to be her new neighbor. Nikki, as it turns out, has just auditioned for what could be her comeback role in a Southern melodrama entitled “On High in Blue Tomorrows.” The stranger insists she will get the role in a conversation that starts off on an odd note and soon becomes as unnerving as the infamous party chat between Bill Pullman and Robert Blake in “Lost Highway.”
Nikki does get the role, and is cast opposite Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), an actor with a reputation as a seducer. Devon is warned by his people not to try anything with Nikki for fear of what Piotrek, who says little but who evidently carries much power and influence in Hollywood, will do. Their first script read-through on a soundstage is interrupted by mysterious noises but whoever made them is able to escape without being noticed. It's at this point that the film’s director (Jeremy Irons) decides to level with his stars by informing them that what they thought was an original screenplay is actually a remake of a Polish film based on a Gypsy folk story that was never completed after the two co-stars were murdered, leading to rumors the project itself was cursed. (“They discovered something ... something inside the story.”)
At this point, things get weird in ways that I leave for you discover (indeed, if you have not seen the film before), partly to preserve the surprises. But no mere review could possibly hope to explore all the seemingly inexplicable story points and thematic elements in remotely adequate detail—one would need an entire book to do that (and there a number of those, including a recent monograph from critic Melissa Anderson). Even then, you might only be scratching the surface of what Lynch is offering up here. I concede that when I first saw the film at a press screening in 2006, I liked it enough but it did not completely register with me. I saw it again a month or so later and for whatever reason, it clicked with me that second time. At this point, I would place it alongside “Eraserhead,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,” and “Mulholland Drive” as one of Lynch's finest works, even if I cannot quite explain why I love it as much as I do. The movie is so dense with imagery, ideas, and sheer audaciousness that you might think the only thing it's possibly missing is Nastassja Kinski sitting enigmatically on a sofa while a group of women lip-sync and dance to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” On a wholly unrelated note, be sure to stay during the closing credits.
Like the previous films in Lynch’s so-called Los Angeles Trilogy, “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive,” notions such as time, space, and identity are obliterated to the point in "Inland Empire" where characters suddenly become other people, locations and timeframes change with equal abruptness, and the City of Dreams becomes an endless night from which it seems impossible to awaken. In the earlier films, the split between the dream and real worlds are reasonably hard and fast, though perhaps only really so in retrospective. Here, Lynch smears the line dividing the two practically from the start, both metaphorically and literally. The latter is thanks to his decision to shoot the film on digital video, giving it a visual style that is both familiar and oddly disconcerting and leaves you constantly trying to get your bearings.
The problem is that while this stylistic approach makes for any number of haunting and unnerving visual moments, it made the film somewhat of a hard slog to watch for three solid hours back in 2006, and while the subsequent DVD that Lynch put out was presumably state-of-the-art at the time, it has not exactly stood the test of time. For this re-release, Lynch and Janus Films have put "Inland Empire" through a long and detailed remastering process of the audio and visual components (Lynch also did the film’s hair-raising sound design) to arrive at a new 4K transfer. Although there's only so much improvement that can be done given the source material, it looks about as good as it is ever will. When this version of "Inland Empire" hits Blu-ray (presumably via Criterion, who have done bang-up jobs on a number of Lynch films already), it should come across quite nicely.
That said, the two truly standout aspects of “Inland Empire” require no such technical tweaking. The first is Lynch’s direction, which is both formally daring enough to take viewers to places they never expected to go, and done with enough skill to hold them spellbound over the course of an extended running time that never feels too long for a second. The other—the one that even the film’s naysayers would easily agree with—is the performance by Laura Dern. Her work here is a high-wire act that never steps wrong for a second and which is not only the best performance of her illustrious career but one of the very best and most intense performances by anyone in this century. Lynch himself famously campaigned for an Oscar nomination for her by appearing on a L.A. street corner, accompanied by a cow, as a way of calling attention to her work. The gambit didn’t succeed—she didn’t even rate a nomination—but I am going to just keep on pretending that, with all due respect to “Marriage Story,” that this was the film for which she won her Oscar.
“Inland Empire” so completely flies in the face of commercial filmmaking that once it reaches its conclusion, most viewers will be at a loss to imagine what he could possibly do for a follow-up. Indeed, it remains his last theatrically-released feature to date. (He returned to television to massive acclaim with his 2017 “Twin Peaks” revival but that, of course, is not a movie.) If Lynch indeed never makes another film, "Inland Empire" is about as strong and sure of a final bow as I can imagine—an absolutely original work that shows him tackling ideas that have fascinated him throughout his career in fresh and innovative ways. But as a fan of both this film and of his oeuvre in general, I dearly hope he gets the opportunity to do at least one more project to inspire, amaze, and confound audiences in equal measure. At a time when most major American movies are like extended toy commercials or filmed deal memos, we need Lynch to throw another glorious monkey wrench into the machine now more than ever.
The 4K restoration of "Inland Empire" is now playing in select theaters, including a weeklong run at Chicago's Music Box Theater starting Friday, May 6th.