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Inland Empire 

Mark Palermo is shakenand stirred.

Inland Empire is like the last song you sometimes get on a concept album, the one that encompasses all the themes and motives of everything that came before it. Everything David Lynch has been obsessing over in his works—the fragility of identity, the struggle between good and evil in every soul, the purity and torment of falling in love, the beauty in the mundane and the impossibility of living a normal life—is here. But it's the director's most abstract feature since his debut, Eraserhead.

The easiest way to appreciate Inland Empire, or any Lynch film, is to accept that movies are not only a medium for telling stories. Inland Empire is a three-hour interpretive artwork. A common mistake made with Lynch films is that viewers exert too much effort trying to make logical sense of them. His movies aren't puzzles. They just register at emotional levels before typical narrative ones.

If you don't find a way into Inland Empire within its first half, I imagine it will be a plodding three hours. If you can get on its wavelength, it's an amazing, often sinister experience.

First off, Inland Empire is not as good as Mulholland Drive. In that, Lynch delivered the most transcendent moments of any film this decade. His take on the effects of the Hollywood star-making machine on an aspiring actress found beauty and pain in the idea of LA as the beginning and end of dreams.

Inland Empire is instead about the effects of movies themselves—the way they change us, inform our goals and impact our self-image. A girl watches a sitcom about a family of rabbits and cries. The show appears senseless, but she's deeply affected by the world she's looking at. An actress named Nikki (Laura Dern, delivering a career's worth of work in one movie) gets so caught up in a love story she's shooting that when the director yells cut, she's disoriented. That fictional love affair has become her reality. Movies taunt people with the unattainable.

That notion of an ideal life that's so close, but always just out of reach, sends Nikki on a descent through hell. Mulholland Drive at least had some grounding in reality. In Inland Empire, it's never certain. Nikki is like Alice following the rabbit down the rabbit hole. But she keeps losing her way, losing track of the rabbit, losing track of herself.

In the best scene, Nikki lies in pain on a sidewalk as two homeless people debate whether there's a bus route that will take them to Pomona. In Pomona, they each know people they can live with. If only they knew for sure about the route, and if only they had bus fare, life could be much different. Even Nikki's physical suffering in this moment is denied. Nikki is offered no certainty of herself, not even about her misery. That confusion isn't just the movie's style. It's the horror at its centre.

It's not only in tone that Inland Empire is very dark. Shot with a consumer-grade digital camera, there are parts where it's hard to see what's happening. The cheap, often ugly visual quality pays off on occasion. During the haunted, low-lit night shots of hookers on Hollywood Boulevard, Inland Empire attains a completely novel artistic texture. Not even other Lynch movies have felt like this.

The disorienting experience of Inland Empire can be attributed to its indulgent lack of restraint. It's where that madness takes you that matters. The nightmares in it are human, but seem confusing because they're aspects of universal experience that people aren't used to thinking about directly. Inland Empire is the movie rarity of a full-tilt experience. When it's over, you've gone through something.

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Vol 27, No 8
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