Inland Empire
Reviewed by Martha Nochimson

Directed, written, photographed, and edited by David Lynch; produced by David Lynch and Mary Sweeney; starring Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Peter J. Lucas, and Jeremy Irons. 2-disc DVD edition, color, 172 mins., 2006. Distributed by Rhino Entertainment, www.rhino.com.

Inland Empire, now available in an exceptional two-disc DVD edition, tells the story of Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a Hollywood actress hoping to make a comeback in a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows. But the way ahead is murky: the production is rumored to be cursed. What’s more, Nikki is saddled with both a sinister, powerful husband, Piotrek Krol (Peter J. Lucas), and a womanizing costar, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). If these quasisupernatural, stereotypically melodramatic plot elements sound like an unlikely foundation for a David Lynch film, Lynch thinks so too—he introduces them only in order to elbow them from the center of the film, to make way for the blazingly original story of Nikki’s evolution into a free woman and a free artist. Lynch often begins a film by deflating stale Hollywood formulae, encouraging audiences to trade comforting but tediously familiar clichés for something more threatening but much more exciting. Here, affairs and curses turn out to be tired, old men’s issues, not Nikki’s. As in much of Lynch’s work, there is an inadvertent feminist undertow to this film—in Inland Empire, as he has in the past, Lynch uses the experience of women, who are, quite realistically, both sources of creativity and objects of repression in patriarchal cultures, to reveal how creative energies can be trapped within rigid social systems.

Nikki begins the film beset by the small-minded definitions of her situation imposed by her husband, costar, and numerous other characters who can see nothing more interesting about her than potential adultery in the workplace. This includes her pretentious director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons), who varies the formula by valuing her artistry only in terms of the industry awards it might bring her (and him). What else could be interesting about being a movie star? Plenty, in Lynch’s view.

In order to release his audiences from their accustomed responses, Lynch pulls the kill switch on normative time/space conventions. Since, from the film’s opening images, nothing follows in reassuring chronological order but rather in a fluid stream of fragmented spaces, nothing in Inland Empire looks as it usually does in the movies. When the romantic triangle appears, for instance, it does not emerge typically with a rush of sexual attraction between Nikki and Devon, but rather with a scene between the two men, Piotrek pulling Devon aside after the three have had dinner together, and ordering Devon not to mess with Nikki. Piotrek knows Devon’s reputation and, as he puts it, his wife is not a free woman: “She is bound.” Piotrek’s warning, like none we have ever seen before in Hollywood melodrama, takes the form of high comic homoeroticism—he alarms Devon more by telling him that he wants to hold him close as they speak than by staking Nikki out as his private property. It would seem that Lynch’s instincts have led him to an insight similar to that of the theorists who have asserted that Hollywood’s onscreen triangles tend to mask homosexual desire for which the contested woman is just an excuse.

But this brief comic interlude leads away from, not toward, the men. The dynamic element in the scene is our discovery that Nikki, hidden in the shadows, is listening in on this tête-à-tête. That she lurks on the periphery of this “guy talk” prefigures the rest of the film. If Nikki is bound, both in her mausoleumlike mansion and her becalmed career, it will not be the possibility of an affair with Devon, to which she is very much a third party, that will enable her escape.

Her way out is her performance as Sue in On High in Blue Tomorrows. Intriguingly, the film emphasizes that this is just what the men do not understand. While husband and costar see Nikki’s work in sexual terms, and the pretentious Kingsley Stewart focuses on tinseltown fame, the film itself points toward the way Nikki’s creative process frees her from both patriarchy and the values of Hollywood by allowing her to experience a much larger reality than her more limited colleagues and her domineering husband can conceive of. Working on a film means being an object of exploitation by industry politics and by small-minded hustlers like the parasitic Freddie Howard (Harry Dean Stanton), one of Stewart’s staff members, who endlessly slithers around conning money out of everyone on the set. But that is only the external, socially constructed aspect of filmmaking; Nikki’s exploration of her character also has an internal trajectory. As she submerges herself in Sue, she enters the flow of internal time and into internal space, a mysterious pilgrimage into a reality in which numerous bodies can occupy one place at the same time. Thus we see that as an artist, she can be both Nikki and Sue, discovering who Sue is while simultaneously peering into the repressed and secret areas of her self.

For Nikki, as an artist, making the film becomes a collision between the exterior time and space—linear and clear—in which she is objectified, and the interior time and space—spiraling and slippery—of creative discovery. At the end of the film, we see that this complex participation in inner and outer universes impels Nikki toward personal freedom. Adding to the complexity, Lynch’s reliance on flashforwards suggests that Nikki’s freedom is already there, ready to discover as she begins work. Inland Empire exhibits Lynch’s usual sense of balance, as he probes the interdependence of both aspects of time and space, rather than finding in the internal and external two mutually exclusive states of being. Indeed, Nikki’s dive into the whirlpools of inner time and space, through which she forges her own personhood, depends on her engagement with the linear, commercial process of making a film. In its insistence that it is within our power to use the corrosive world of commerce for spiritual and imaginative ends, Inland Empire is a thrillingly optimistic ode to human freedom.

The Inland Empire DVD set comprises two discs. The first contains the film itself, while the second contains the extras, which unsurprisingly make no attempt to explain Inland Empire. The three most impressive extras are a series of outtakes called “more things that happened”; a playful visual essay in which Lynch teaches us how to cook quinoa; and candid documentary footage of Lynch on the set of Inland Empire, in a mood very different from any I detected when I had the opportunity to witness him in action during the shooting of Lost Highway. The provocative outtakes intensify our understanding of how important the malleability of space and time are to this director, while the documentary disposes of all the nonsense asserted about Lynch’s purported weirdness, providing us with a privileged view of his precise command of all aspects of filmmaking in action. And even the quinoa lesson is an ingenious guide to Lynch’s complex relationship to linear constructs.

Film and extras together strongly suggest that Inland Empire is best understood as an inclusive reality, one that insists on parity between a nonrational flow through those spaces of memory and vision that are available to us through creative work, and the external events through which we move in logical clock-time. In numerous interviews with others and in conversation with me, Lynch has enthused about what a great, marvelous world we live in. Inland Empire and its DVD extras, more than any previous work, reveal that he’s not just talking about the external fragments of life to which reductionist Western attitudes attempt to restrict us.—Martha P. Nochimson

Martha P. Nochimson is the author of The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.