Inland Empire, 172 mins, rating TBC, opening in cinemas on 21 June 2007.


(This is my review as  published in the November 2007 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

Inland Empire is David Lynch’s latest film. Lynch is among the most European of the American directors working today, and with each film he becomes more enigmatic. If you saw Mulholland Dr (2001), you’ll know what I mean. But that was just a warm-up for the intricacies and tropes of Inland Empire.

Here, Lynch has abandoned any narrative through-line and instead presents a series of images and vignettes that lead us through the ‘Inland Empire’ of his heroine’s mind – and his own. Free association and travel through time and space replace more traditional film structure.

In this, Lynch resembles the great non-linear storytellers of European film. Watching Inland Empire recalls the surrealism of Luis Buñuel, the eerie and foreboding moods of the best of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, and the relentlessness of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Lynch, like Krzysztof Kieslowski in The Double Life of Veronique (1991), has lives merge into other lives, and suggests we may be matched in some way with a double or twin who shares our thoughts and dreams.

It is a long film (just under 3 hours) but I found it riveting for all of that time. It requires a willingness to surrender to Lynch’s mastery of the medium. Usually this is easy, because his films – until now – have mostly been luscious to look at: all those saturated blues and reds, the beautiful, tortured women such as Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn, Naomi Watts, and all that lush, moody music.

The bad news is that Lynch has discovered digital video (but not the high-definition kind). The lushness of his previous films has been replaced by a murkier look. But of course ‘murky’ serves his aims very well. Nothing is perfectly clear in a Lynch film. The muddy look is deliberate, as is the lack of a traditional storyline. Lynch is going for a more impressionistic effect visually. In terms of the narrative, he has been quoted as saying ‘Life is very, very confusing, and so films should be allowed to be, too.’ Be prepared: Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, Lost Highway (1997) and Eraserhead (1977) are as straightforward as “how to” manuals compared to Inland Empire.

All that Lynch will say about the film is that it is about “A woman in trouble”. Lynch favourite Laura Dern has the role of a lifetime, playing actress Nikki Grace, but also several alter egos, including Sue, a character in a film-within-a film, with the Lynchian name On High in Blue Tomorrows, plus a foul mouthed abused woman, and possibly a prostitute.

As the film opens, Nikki, in her grand but rather funereal mansion, receives a visit from a neighbour, Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie. She tells Nikki that Nikki has already got the role in the film that she was hoping for, that the story is based on an old Polish folk tale, and that it will end in “brutal f****** murder”. Nikki then is transported into the future (tomorrow), to pre-production on the film.

During filming, Nikki falls into an affair with her co-star, the roguish Devon (Justin Theroux), just as her character in the film does. Filming is interrupted by a stranger we don’t see, but later we learn that this is Nikki, now trapped in the character of Sue in a house on the film set. So far so good.

But another part of the film is set in Poland, where another woman is in trouble. She watches TV – a sitcom about a family of rabbits dressed as humans. This part seems to have no discernible explanation, but is still weirdly compelling.

Throughout, Lynch explores his favourite issues. He’s one of the most interesting directors of, and writers about, women – especially women in Hollywood and the many ways they are used and abused there. Lynch’s imagery is sometimes mysterious and often terrifying. He’s a modern master of horror.

My advice? Treat it as a dream. Lie back, let the images wash over you, then talk about it at dinner afterwards. And don’t miss the credit sequence at the end. It’s almost the best part.