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David Lynch rivals his surrealist peak with Inland Empire.

Laura Dern leads Lynch's cast of irregulars.
  • Laura Dern leads Lynch's cast of irregulars.
There's not too much to say in the specific about the latest effort by America's foremost abstract-expressionist filmmaker -- except that it is David Lynch's most experimental endeavor in the 30 years since Eraserhead, that it will do nothing to draw new fans to the director's work, and that, after two viewings, I cannot wait to see it again.

Lynch has made several movies (including The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and The Straight Story) that unfold along a relatively unbent path. But Inland Empire, like the widely misunderstood Twin Peaks prequel Fire Walk With Me, resists explanation -- the more we try, the more it resists, like a dream that dissipates upon waking. Some people will disparage the film for that very reason, in the way that some look at a Jackson Pollock and think, "My five-year-old could have painted that." Others will rack their brains, trying to sift reality from fantasy. But the thrill of Inland Empire lies in surrendering yourself to its epic weirdness, falling under its spell, and allowing Lynch to gradually lead you back into the light.

Set mostly in Los Angeles and Poland, Inland Empire concerns a faded Hollywood actress, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). Nikki's hopes for a comeback are pegged on the role of "Susan Blue" in a movie called On High in Blue Tomorrows, which, judging from our fleeting glimpses of it, falls somewhere between Tennessee- Williams-southern-gothic and one of Lynch's own subconscious safaris. This much we do know, courtesy of Blue Tomorrows' grandiloquent director, Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons): The movie, based on a Polish-Gypsy folk tale, was partly filmed once before, in Germany -- but the lead actors "discovered something inside the story" and paid for that discovery with their lives. In due course, Nikki too seems to uncover something secret and sinister lurking beneath the surface of her latest role. After venturing into a dark corner of the sound stage and walking through a prop doorway that shouldn't lead anywhere, she seemingly vanishes into the ether. Or perhaps she crosses to the other side of the looking glass. Or maybe, as great actors are wont to do, she merely disappears into her character.

Over the three hallucinatory hours that ensue, we follow Nikki -- or is it Susan? -- through various guises that include a housewife in an economically devastated factory town; the same woman (so it seems) on the streets of Poland, pursued by some nefarious underworld types; and, finally, a transient on Hollywood Boulevard, literally spilling her guts upon the hallowed Walk of Fame. As in most Lynch movies, there's also an abundance of dimly lit corridors and short-circuiting lightbulbs, many of them located in an ornate Lodz hotel, where a sad young woman (Karolina Gruszka, billed in the credits as "Lost Girl") gazes intently at a television screen. One of the hotel rooms -- a literal rabbit hole to complement the movie's many figurative ones -- opens onto the set of a sitcom starring a cast of six-foot-tall bunnies. Needless to say, by the time that a battered and bruised Nikki/Susan tells a Kafkaesque interrogator, "I don't know what happened first, and it's kind of laid a mindfuck on me," you'll have a fairly good idea what she's talking about.

The bunny bits, which first appeared as part of a nine-episode series produced by Lynch for his website back in 2002, were the genesis of Inland Empire, and they speak to the unusual nature of the entire project. As with Eraserhead, Lynch made Inland in a piecemeal fashion over several years. Filmed on low-res digital video, Lynch shot new scenes whenever he had the inspiration -- a way of working that most artists (especially painters) take for granted, but which remains virtually unknown to those in the film industry. That alone does not make Inland Empire great or even good. What does make this film great is the fierce lack of compromise in Lynch's vision and the extraordinary degree of commitment he draws from his collaborators -- especially Dern, who plays her roles with the kind of naked abandon that Naomi Watts brought to Mulholland Drive's ill-fated starlet.

Lynch, who has often centered films on the blurring of identity, seems awestruck by the ability of actors to transform themselves on a dime and by the real and imaginary places they must go to in order to do that. Whether or not we fully understand the movie, it's clear that Lynch is ruminating -- in a profound and deeply personal way -- about the ineffable urge that drives actors to act, directors to direct, and audiences to watch, no matter the generally inverse ratio of risk to reward. Inland Empire begins with the flicker of a projector's lamp and ends in a cinema, where Nikki/Susan sees her own image splayed across the screen. In between, it spins a dark and dissonant Tinseltown fable about how and why we are all drawn to that flickering light, like moths to the flame and buzzards to the kill.

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