Inland Empire: a hot mess express of Lynchian weirdness

I’m a huge David Lynch fan. Mulholland Drive‘s one of my favourite films. Lost Highway, Twin Peaks and The Straight Story are up there too. I even love Dune, despite it being regarded as sacrilege by most fans of the book, of which I’m also one: I just treat them as two totally separate works of art, each with their own merits. And Eraserhead, oh god, Eraserhead. I’ve been hooked ever since I saw it as a teenager, and had my mind permanently blown. Which, while I’m on the subject, should be a forced experience for everyone at that impressionable age. Even if they don’t enjoy it, and most wouldn’t, it would at least set the bar for weird, unconventional storytelling high enough in their minds that it might inoculate them from a dependence on cosy, banal, mainstream entertainment for the rest of their lives.

I’d therefore eagerly anticipated Lynch’s latest film, Inland Empire… and then failed to get around to watching it for six years. I even had a naughty copy on my computer, but watching it on a little laptop screen isn’t really appropriate for the sort of immersive experience Lynch’s films usually are, and somehow it never seemed quite the right time to commit three hours of my life to its promised hallucinatory mindscrew.

Then, last night, alone in the house with no plans, I discovered Inland Empire was being shown on ITV1. I’ll say that again. Inland Empire was being shown on ITV1. On the post-pub Friday night slot no less. For non-UK readers, ITV1 is our most mainstream populist TV channel, devoted exclusively to brain-withering mass entertainment programming. Discovering a piece of avant-garde experimental cinema on its schedules is like looking over the fence into the garden of your dull accountant neighbour, only to find that he’s dressed all the gnomes in gimp suits and is busy constructing a temple out of animal bones and baroque musical instruments. The fact that Inland Empire was being shown on ITV1 was almost more Lynchian and surreal than the film itself. One can only wonder what the channel’s regular Friday night audience made of it.

So, at 10.30pm, I settled down to watch it, fully aware that with a 180 minute running time, plus advert breaks, this was going to be an ordeal of freakishness that would take me well into the following morning. I had a mug of hot chocolate, some biscuits, and the secure knowledge that this couldn’t be the worst late-night film-watching decision ever made. That award belongs to my friend Chris, who once returned home at 3am after a heavy drinking session with work the next day, and decided that it was about time he got around to watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time.

And, of course, as a fan of his previous films, I was already comfortable with the sort of standard Lynch fare I was expecting him to hit me with. As the film got going, I started ticking it off on an imaginary checklist:

  • Unconnected, incomprehensible opening scenes? Check.
  • Nightmarish industrial soundscapes? Check.
  • Harry Dean Stanton? Check.

Then I realised the list was redundant. It’s not just that every Lynchian motif in existence appears in Inland Empire. It’s a film that’s entirely constructed from those motifs, all turned up to 11. For example, it’s a film about film-making: like Mulholland Drive, but done in this case to an arguably self-indulgent degree. Or another: faces loom up to the camera menacingly, until close to the end, when it’s exaggerated with visual effects so ludicrous I actually LOLled. Time, space and narrative aren’t just fractured, they’re pulverised into an indistinguishable mush.

I should make an attempt to outline the main plot, as far as there is one. After the opening scenes, it kicks in with yet another Lynchian signature move: a scene of apparent normality (an actress in her mansion home, waiting to hear about an audition) is interrupted by the unwelcome intrusion of a creepy character (an old Polish woman claiming to be a neighbour) who makes cryptic statements about the nature of reality, triggering the disintegration of the film’s narrative. From there, it’s possible to hang on to that plot thread, following the actress losing her grip on the distinction between her film role and her real life, just long enough for that to be the summary given by all listings editors and blurb writers. However, scenes that are recognisably part of that story take up, as a rough guess, less than a third of the total screen time, and barely any of the second and third hours. Instead, those are filled with non sequitur sequences of various repetitive scenes, including:

  • A group of prostitutes lounging around, gossiping and doing the occasional line dance
  • Some men, who might be circus folk or gangsters, holding nonsensical pseudo-conversations
  • Some rabbit-headed humanoids appearing in a TV sit-com

I should mention that while the few, cryptic lines of dialogue in the rabbit scenes are in English, the prostitutes and circus folk talk mostly in Polish with subtitles. Not that I have any objection to subtitled foreign language films. But that in this case the subtitles are largely redundant, as the dialogue is so abstract, reading it won’t help you get any closer to understanding what’s supposed to be going on.

The other major Lynchian element that’s present throughout is Laura Dern. Godawful, featureless artist’s mannequin Laura Dern. Why on earth he keeps casting her in his films, I have no idea. It’s not that she can’t act: actually she gives a consistently convincing performance, of a character with no discernible personality who I don’t care about. I was already vaguely aware that I disliked Dern as an actress, and it was watching Inland Empire that crystallised it for me.

My least favourite Lynch film is Blue Velvet, which is often considered by others his best, and probably his most popular. I found it an unsatisfying balance: too conventional to enjoy as a Lynch film, and too Lynchian to enjoy as a conventional film. Wild at Heart is the other film I’m not that excited by. It’s not a coincidence that they’re the two Dern films too. She’s just so overwhelmingly bland, the second she appears on screen she acts like an empathy vortex, instantly sucking out any interest I might have had in the characters and what happens to them.

In the first act of Inland Empire, she’s the actress shooting the film and getting her reality mixed up with her character’s. But for the rest of it, it’s not clear who she is any more, or what she’s doing. This is obviously the point, but it really doesn’t help us as the audience to achieve any emotional investment in her plight when we’re kept deliberately, and often literally, in the dark about what’s happening to and around her. Also, apart from the scenes where she recites a monologue to a bespectacled rabbi, she barely speaks or performs any activity at all except to wander around gawping at everything. I’m pretty sure that there’s a good hour-long section where she doesn’t close or move her mouth a single time, but then it was quite late and time was starting to drag by that point. And just when you think you might have grasped an identifiable plot thread involving this slack-jawed ambling lobotomy patient version of Dern’s character, it segues into some hobos discussing bus routes to Pomona and vaginal wall perforations.

I made it all the way through, and even developed a vague theory by the end that it could all be interpreted as taking place in the imagination of one of the framing characters, although I suspect that any such reasoning would miss the point by a few parsecs. Experiencing Inland Empire is far more about letting yourself be submerged in Lynch’s foggy, humid, feverish mess of an imagination, than it is about following any kind of story composed of sequential, causally-related events (there isn’t one). Just like you wouldn’t expect narrative from a fairground haunted house, or a ghost train. It’s a case of leaving your pre-conceived notions of character and plot stored safely in the lockers provided, strapping in, and enjoying the bizarre, sensual and disturbing ride.

However, as willing and ready as I was to be thrown around by Lynch’s rollercoaster of sensory impressions, the complete lack of narrative was a problem. No matter how hard you try, you can’t partake in the emotions being presented to you unless your interest has been aroused by some sympathy with the people on screen, which requires an idea of who they are, what they’re doing and why. The craziness, the jolts and jumps of plot in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, or the meanderings of Twin Peaks, work far better, because Lynch gives you just enough of a handrail that it really freaks you out when he suddenly takes it away again. The combination of David Lynch being more Lynchian than ever, and Laura Dern being more boring than ever, acted as a dampener on the sensations I was really trying to be absorbed by.

I still love David Lynch. I’m immensely happy to live in a world where he’s able to make works of bizarre, experimental cinema like this, with such imagination and craft, and make them commercially successful too. (Also a world where an ITV scheduler with a sense of humour can go rogue and use it to ensnare and baffle the masses.) I certainly don’t regret spending three hours of my life watching Inland Empire, but although it was hypnotically beguiling in places, and thought-provoking enough for me to write this, I’m afraid it does go straight to the bottom of my personal Lynch ratings to join its sisters in the “Dern Triangle”.

Thanks to @KaciRussell for the phrase “hot mess express”.

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