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Weird Watch: ‘Inland Empire’

Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Batman, there is a Darkman. For every Star Wars, there is The Black Hole. Here at Fandom, we like to go hunting for some offbeat and off-the-wall films and television shows that might just become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is Inland Empire. (Last time: Repo! The Genetic Opera!)

Inland Empire is now the second movie we’ve covered on Weird Watch directed by David Lynch. Travis Newton beat me to Mulholland Drive in June. However, David Lynch is a director far too weird for just one Weird Watch. He’s probably too weird for even two or three. I bet we’ll cover his entire filmography before we’re done.

Also, don’t be fooled by Travis. Mulholland Drive is a bit of quirky movie.  The movie I have here is the Hard Weird. If you think you’re prepared, you’re not. Nobody is ready for Inland Empire.

An Epic of Weird

Inland Empire is an epic of three hours of psychological torment. It is such an extreme piece of weird that it appears to have killed David Lynch’s appetite for theatrical films. Since Inland Empire‘s 2006 release, he has released exactly nothing to theaters. That’s a depressing ten-year dry spot for one of the greatest directors ever. But he also might realize he could never top Inland Empire. This movie is – and I use no hyperbole here – a masterpiece.

Your first hint that Inland Empire is not going to be a typical film is just by looking at it. David Lynch filmed the movie with a digital video camera. This gives Inland Empire the appearance of a home video or a cheap student film, only with real actors and very unflattering close-ups. The movie was shot largely without a script and some lines are recited with such odd wooden deliveries they seem to be first takes. By far the best acting comes in a scene involving two actors reading from a script. Some conversations have odd pauses between cuts, making me suspect Lynch filmed them with just one camera.

Your second hint that Inland Empire is not going to be a typical film comes from the movie’s very structure. Only the first hour has any semblance of a plot, followed by two hours of surreal horror. The movie opens with a crying prostitute watching some kind of bizarre sitcom starring bunny people on a set. We then cut over to what appears to be our story. However, even there, Lynch cuts over to Polish-language scenes (without subtitles) filmed in a snowy Eastern European landscape far from the main Hollywood plotline.

inland-empire-bunnies

Going Off Rails

The “plot” features Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a middle-aged actress looking for a comeback by starring in a new film, On High Blue Tomorrows. She will costar with Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), a hot young man who can’t keep his hands off his co-stars. The film is a dangerous romance between two married characters, which becomes a mirror for Nikki and Devon as they become involved with each other. Nikki’s husband is said to be a dangerous man that “knows everything”. And the movie already has a dark past, as the original polish version, 47, had to be canceled when its stars were found murdered.

Lynch slowly tears away reality during the course of the first hour. At one point while Nikki warns Devon that her husband is onto something, then realizes how “this sounds like lines from our script!” Suddenly the camera pops on, and the director (Jeremy Irons) angrily demands what is going on. A sex scene is shot with no indication of any kind as to whether this is Nikki and Devon or whether this is their characters. Nikki jumps through time, seeing herself in the future and then staring at herself in the past. Then she runs through a door on set and the movie goes off the rails.

It never comes back.

At this point, it is hard to say if Laura Dern is still playing Nikki, or if she is playing Nikki’s character, Sue. We cut between Dern living in a suburban neighborhood with a Polish husband. Then it is Dern hanging in a house full of young prostitutes (who also dance). Then its Dern talking to a fat nearly mute guy about her violent encounters with men. Now the bunny sitcom again. Now some scenes in Polish. And now a pale woman with a screwdriver jammed into her side. And now things that are just indescribable.

inland-empire-laura-dern

Horror and Tone

To a lesser director, the antics of Inland Empire would appear pretentious. But nobody can do tone as well David Lynch. Even while the plot is not even pretending to make sense, Inland Empire is a gripping journey through subtle terror. This is the sort of movie that breaks your very sense of reality. The world looks askew after watching Inland Empire. One cannot escape the frightening feeling that maybe your real life might just be another layer to David Lynch’s metafictional melange.

Even while Inland Empire is far from a typical horror film, the movie still manages to accomplish brilliantly scary moments. (See the face.) David Lynch can do more with a spotlight shining in an actor’s face than most directors can do with a bucket of blood and an army of CG artists. I know jump scares are hardly fashionable these days, but the two David Lynch includes in this movie are masterful examples of the technique. They scare you so bad you the adrenaline will make you sick to your stomach.

But then there are scenes that either are self-parody or Lynchian to a preposterous extreme. The young prostitutes inexplicably dance to the song Locomotion. But then they are cut away, leaving an empty room and a dull scare chord. There is a Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak) in this movie, a sequel to the Cowboy from Mulholland Drive and Robert Blake’s Mystery Man from Lost Highway. But here he is a disheveled Eastern European man that sometimes has a lightbulb in his mouth. There is a scene at a barbecue so utterly bizarre that nobody could ever guess at its purpose. Not to mention those freaking bunnies.

inland-empire-prostitutes

Conclusion(?)

I have no idea what Inland Empire is supposed to be about. Anybody who does is lying to you. If David Lynch himself offered an explanation, you should probably doubt it. This whole movie refuses to make any sense. Some people will sell you on a decent explanation of what Mulholland Drive or Eraserhead are about. Nobody has a clue here.

Inland Empire a movie that feels truly like a dream. We are watching Laura Dern’s character’s subconscious bounce around. She rotates back and forth to the same images and locations, only each time more disconnected and bizarre than the last.

We know there is a motif of Hollywood and lost fame. There is some kind of story about the abuse of women. Something truly awful is pouring out at the seams of this movie, filling you with dread at every turn. Inland Empire completes an emotion where it does not complete a plot. You are utterly lost on a journey of unnerving sight and sound.

As I said before. This is the Hard Weird. You are not ready.


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