Having sworn off film forever — one way of avoiding the financial hassles that surrounded the production and release of MULHOLLAND DR. — director David Lynch shot this typically noirish, three-hour magnum opus on consumer-grade digital video. Gone is the rich, dark gloss and deep, gothic gloom Lynch achieved with 35mm film, but the movie is so filled with all things Lynchian that it's practically an exhaustive career summary. In addition to a cast composed of Lynch's past stars, there are empty yet portentously numbered hotel rooms; slow, fearful creeps up darkened stairwells and down labyrinthine hallways; characters who awaken from one identity only to slip into another; and a narrative that might make perfect sense or no sense whatsoever. The title is a term referring to a cluster of suburbs south of Los Angeles, and while it's mentioned at one point deep in the film, it's not entirely clear whether any of the action actually takes place in the "Inland Empire."
The film opens in a hotel room in an unnamed Baltic country, perhaps Poland, where a young woman (Karolina Gruszka) stares tearfully at a TV screen. The audience sees a sea of snowy static, but she sees something quite different, namely an episode of Lynch's Internet series Rabbits, in which three actors (including Naomi Watts and Laura Harring), dressed as hares, act out surreal teleplays accompanied by inappropriate applause and out-of-sync laugh tracks. Meanwhile, in California, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), an actress and the wife of a frightening, perhaps Polish, underworld-type (Peter J. Lucas), is waiting to hear whether she's been cast in director Kingsley Stewart's (Jeremy Irons) new movie when she receives a visit from a bizarre new neighbor (Grace Zabriskie). In a deep, perhaps Polish, accent that would shame Maria Ouspenskaya herself, she asks Nikki if her new movie is about a marriage and whether it involves a brutal murder, even though she seems to already know the answers. She also tells Nikki a sinister folktale about a little girl who gets lost in an alleyway behind the marketplace, an alley that leads to the "palace." The next day Nikki gets the call she's been waiting for — she's all set to star in "On High in Blue Tomorrows." But during an early rehearsal, after Kingsley's assistant, Freddie (Harry Dean Stanton), claims to see someone lurking on the unfinished set, Kingsley tells Nikki and her costar, Hollywood heartthrob Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), the secret history of the movie's script: It's based on an allegedly cursed, possibly Polish, folktale and was actually in production once before, a long time ago, under a different title. Filming on that first production ended when both leads were murdered. Though spooked by the story and the possibility of working on a haunted project, Nikki soldiers on until it appears that her adulterous character, Susan, has taken center stage in what's supposed to be Nikki's "real life." Susan, in turn, is superseded by a different Susan (all played by the remarkable Dern in three totally different registers): Susan Blue, a battered wife and prostitute who comes to a bad end at Hollywood and Vine.
Like MULHOLLAND DR. — which played with many of the same visual themes, characters and ideas and also unfolded in the Escher-like interior of the haunted Hollywood dream factory — the film can easily be read as one long dream dreamt by that very first lost girl seen watching the empty TV screen. Or not, and it doesn't really matter. Lynch lays out a number of oblique themes that may serve as keys to the film's hermetically sealed meanings, but it's never entirely clear where he's hidden the locks. In the end, it's best to make peace with the film's essential and deliberate inscrutability — something Lynch fans have learned to do since Twin Peaks — and to simply marvel at Dern's astonishing performance, which few actresses are likely to top anytime soon. leave a comment --Ken Fox