Yesterday, I attended a morning press screening of the forthcoming David Lynch movie, Inland Empire. An extravagant use of my precious annual leave entitlement, I grant you – but then I’m not often invited to these things, and it sounded like a fun little experience to tick off the list.
Although I make a point of never reading film reviews, in case they reveal more than I need to know, I was aware that Inland Empire is three hours long, complex, and plotless. I decided to take this as a challenge.
(Sitting on my own, in silence, for three uninterrupted hours, trying to concentrate on something impossibly complicated, without really having a clue as to what’s going on? Hmm, sounds familiar. Talk about taking a busman’s holiday.)
The film started with a few disconnected scenes, high on surrealism but low on tangible meaning. A needle on a scratchy record. A hooker and a john in a hotel room, their heads smudged out, speaking in an Eastern European tongue. A family of three, with rabbit heads, speaking in non-sequiturs, with an audience laughter track. That sort of thing.
This was all fine. The scenes were slow-moving, and I was primed for weirdness, and so I purposefully committed all the details to memory, for future reference. Weird bits at the beginning have a habit of making retrospective sense, don’t they?
And then, lo and behold, a story started developing. An odd story, to be sure – but rooted in narrative logic, and with properly drawn characters, and an absolute doddle to follow.
The story was about a successful movie actress (played by Laura Dern) being offered a lead role in a movie, and commencing rehearsals, and of an ambiguous relationship developing between her and her male co-lead. There was a supernatural mystery/suspense element, and some nice interplay between the outer story and the plot of the film-within-the-film. This being David Lynch, there was also a vague sense of looming peril. It was all rather enjoyable. Jeremy Irons was in it. Harry Dean Stanton played an amusing cameo role. William H. Macy made a fleeting appearance. There were even a couple of scenes where I was able to successfully predict what was about to happen.
At around the thirty or forty minute mark, I had a flash of insight, as the inevitable arc of the story suddenly became clear. This was followed by a stab of disappointment. Two and a half hours to go, and I basically knew what was going to happen, and why. How on earth were they going to fill the time?
Minutes later, the chaos kicked in, as Laura Dern’s character began to wander between different realities, with ever-decreasing connecting logic. Locations and time scales dissolved. Dern’s personal circumstances altered, as did her mannerisms, and indeed her whole character. Certain familiar faces re-appeared, in varying guises (but not Irons, or Stanton, or Macy, all of whom disappeared). The sense of looming peril ratcheted up a good few notches. All certainties vanished, to the extent that I found myself longing for the film to return to its original story. The longer that the chaos continued, the more my nostalgia for the opening thirty or forty minutes increased.
This bewildering entropy went on, and on, and on, for two and a half trippy, dream-like hours. My concentration lapsed, badly, to the extent where I kept chastising myself for my inability to keep a grasp of the details. If only I could have committed that scene to memory, then this scene might have made more sense.
However, for all the wheels within wheels and world within worlds, all the earlier dramatic tension was lost. Dern’s previously subtle, compelling performance was reduced to a clutch of stock expressions – in particular, an expression of uncomprehending, open-mouthed terror, which became progressively more irksome.
I stopped caring, and started yawning, fidgeting and clock-watching. Hours passed.
There was a fun little formation dancing scene, set to Little Eva’s “The Locomotion”.
Etta James’s “At Last” popped up on the soundtrack. It was nice to hear it again.
There was a suburban barbecue scene, slightly grainy and oversaturated, like an old home movie. Something happened at a circus. I forget what.
There were occasional pieces of relatively straightforward dialogue or monologue, which teased me into hoping that they might explain something or other. I would prick up my ears for a while, before slouching back into itchy exasperation, or glazed ennui. These sometimes took place in a grimy, low-rent office, with Dern explaining her plight to a man behind a desk, who never spoke.
Was there ever a resolution? Of sorts, yes. But only a partial one. I’m saying nothing else.
For about half an hour afterwards, as I ordered and consumed my late-lunchtime coffee and sandwich in the Atlas deli, I felt disorientated and spaced out. Everything had a slightly surreal sheen to it, as if I wasn’t quite physically present. I went shopping, caught a cab home, then mooched about on the computer for a bit.
My prediction: critical panning, commercial flop, cult longevity – especially with the sort of 19-year stoners who delight in spotting and swapping arbitrary and entirely accidental “clues”. (“But the number on the door was 47, man! Think about it!”)
No, I don’t recommend it. Glad to be of service.