This film is playing at the 44th New York Film Festival
at Lincoln Center. It’s playing Sunday, October 8th at 8:30 and Monday, October 9th at 11:30am. For information on how to get tickets, click here. Be aware that even if a show is sold out there will be a Rush line, where you may have a chance to get seats.
David Lynch has been working on his latest film, Inland Empire for years, and it feels like he has included every minute of the footage he shot. A surrealistic, barely narrative film is one thing – a three hour surrealistic, barely narrative film is like an endurance test. The big difference between a overly ambitious student film and Inland Empire is that I sat through all of Inland Empire.
Inland Empire is, in many ways, the obvious next step for Lynch after Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, going deeper into examinations of film and Hollywood and more and more into abstraction and non-linear storytelling. The basics of the story – such as it is – has an actress (Laura Dern) whose career has been less than healthy getting a prized role in a new film. She stars alongside Devon (Justin Theroux), who has a history of seducing his leading ladies. Things get more complicated when the director (Jeremy Irons) discovers that the script is based on another film, which was never finished. Something… happened. I’m not holding spoilers back, I’m seriously unsure what happened. The original film was based on a Polish story, and there’s a lot of scenes in Poland with Polish people that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the main story. On top of that, Laura Dern’s actress travels through time and either becomes or thinks she becomes the character she’s playing in the film.
Anyone coming into a Lynch film expecting a coherent throughline is shit out of luck, but for a while I thought Inland Empire’s storytelling style – it seems structured as a spiral – would give the film major rewatching value. It seemed like elements that were slowly revealed throughout the movie might shed light on seemingly random elements from the beginning. I don’t doubt that this is the case, but anyone able to make it through all of Inland Empire’s unnecessary three hour running time twice has my kudos, especially since it seems like at least 45 minutes of the film consists of Laura Dern wandering through hallways, looking horrified and/or confused. Watching the film slowly became excruciating, and I found myself trying to guess how much time was left; since the movie is so narratively unconventional you can’t even judge how far along you are by seeing if storylines are reaching climaxes. More than once I thought the credits were about to run, only to find that there were still reels ahead of me.
There are moments of great strangeness and beauty in the film, and Lynch has outdone himself in terms of creating a dreamlike reality on screen; so much so that watching Inland Empire makes the dreams in Science of Sleep look even more contrived than they were. And there are thematic aspects about time, identity and art that are fascinating. But the unrelenting length of the film sabotages it completely, and as the movie descends into complete surreality in the third hour it feels like Lynch is testing us and our commitment, a test that pays off in a strange musical number that plays over the closing credits but with nothing remotely resembling closure.
I think that I could have forgiven much about the film, including Lynch’s unstoppable self-indulgence, if Inland Empire wasn’t the ugliest film the director has ever made. After the screening at the New York Film Festival, Lynch did a Q&A where he said he was amazed at how beautiful the digital film he used was, and I was stunned. The movie has none of the usual visual lushness of Lynch’s movies – it’s murky and washed out, looking ratty and undervisualized. The darkness makes for some evocatively creepy scenes (more than a few of which feel like they came out of Japanese horror films – character slowly advance to the camera then suddenly speed up and scream at us) but it’s also often a pixelly mess. Lynch is a visual master, and while digital may make it easier for him to shoot and edit his films, it seems to make it impossible to realize his full vision.