There is no denying that David Lynch is America’s master of weird. Outside of The Straight Story, his films occupy a strange, dark heart and his capacity for the meta-physical, bizarre and surreal has confounded audiences since Eraserhead ground its way into the hearts of cult movie lovers everywhere. At his best, his films whisper dark messages that expose our fascination with the superficial; a topical beauty that begets a malevolent reality. While it may be impossible to be truly right in your interpretation, the strength of Lynch’s work comes from the tight construction of his movies: the images–however disparate–all seem important and meaningful. His ability to frighten, confound, confuse and provoke rarely seems forced or without purpose; a rare talent, especially when your work is filled with abstraction and elliptical structures that sometimes lead you dangerously close to where you started from.
The surrealist tone of Lynch’s visions are at the very least disconcerting meditations on the many dark places we dare not externalize; like the twisted visage of an uninvited guest who knows more about us than we do ourselves. His films often reflect the fragility of a reality which the characters barely recognise but cling to nonetheless. Quite often the characters themselves are interchangeable, reinforcing the theme that reality is a temperament and not a physical being. Space and time are not constant in Lynchland and events are often replayed, revisited and reshaped. So it goes with his latest film Inland Empire, a film Lynch himself suggests is about “a woman in trouble.”
But this overly simple synopsis is not indicative of the film. Running at 172 minutes, it makes you question his motives. By far the most confounding of all his work, the film essentially follows an actress (Laura Dern) as she is visited and then visits innumerable strange characters in scenes that shift from a movie set where they are shooting remake of a cursed Polish film, to real-life Poland, to back alleys near the Sunset Strip. But that’s all you get to hold onto, and it’s not as linear in the film as it appears here. Shot entirely on low-grade digital video, Inland Empire is a frustrating work of indulgent proportions. The choice to go digital seems only to have offered Lynch the comfort to over-shoot and under-edit. There’s no reason this “story” should take almost three hours to tell.
All the Lynch conventions are at work here, so to take issue with the form or tone is to negate any criticism. But where his films usually offer taught composition and evocative cinematography, this one feels like he must have opted for the grainy, lackluster quality of digital video because no producer would agree that a movie that long and weird was a good idea.
While Lynch’s films have always occupied a unique place in mainstream Hollywood as art house films that regular people will watch, Inland Empire is perhaps his most true art film to date, since in its limited release it is an art house film very few people will dare to see, let alone sit through.