I only looked at my watch twice
David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ is a three-hour-long surrealist experiment in psychological horror. It’s also a satire of Hollywood melodrama. In addition, there’s approximately 20 minutes of an eerie sitcom parody starring giant rabbits, which Lynch has released separately as a short film. At least a third of the movie is in Polish, with subtitles. Lynch shot the movie, basically without a script, in the aughts, on a Camcorder. Recently, he restored the film, which barely screened at the time of its release, to make it seem more cinematic and less like home video. And it does look fantastic.
I knew none of this when I went to see Inland Empire at the Austin Film Society last night, as part of its art-house re-release tour. I did see some of the rabbit footage online when Lynch originally released it, but otherwise, I was completely in the Inland Empire dark. And I’m more or less of a Lynch completist. I even reviewed his short Netflix film, which he released at the dawn of COVID, where a monkey sings a love song to a chicken.
But even by Lynch’s standards, Inland Empire is bizarre and inscrutable. Earlier this month, I rewatched Mulholland Drive to prepare. But Mulholland Drive really only goes off the surrealist rails in its final act, whereas Inland Empire begins with 20 minutes of insanity, swerves into about a half hour of only semi-insanity, and then spends the rest of its runtime serving up one heaping platter of “what the hell” after another.
Laura Dern, giving a spectacularly committed performance, plays a married on-the-rocks movie actress who gets cast in a ludicrous Southern gothic melodrama. Jeremy Irons plays the director, and Justin Theroux is her handsome and untrustworthy co-star who becomes her lover both in the movie and in real life. Meanwhile, a subplot of sorts develops when Irons reveals that the film is actually a remake of a Polish movie that the director didn’t finish because someone murdered both the leads, who had become lovers. Harry Dean Stanton also appears, as does William H. Macy, who is literally onscreen for 15 seconds as a talk-show announcer.
At some point, Inland Empire becomes a collage of Dern wandering in and out of rooms with increasingly horrifying close-ups of her face as she, or some version of herself, hurtles from one reality to another. We’re never sure if we’re watching a scene from the movie in which she’s acting, or from her actual life, or from some other extra-dimensional experience that she’s having. She finds herself in a room with a half dozen sexy ladies who like to dance. They may or may not be Theroux’s ex-lovers. In other scenes, they’re all prostitutes. At one point, they do a coordinated dance to ‘The Locomotion.’
Meanwhile, we see scenes of the Polish movie, with subtitles. But there are also scenes of a woman, who we think also might be a prostitute, watching the Polish movie in a hotel room while crying. At other moments, that same woman is watching Laura Dern act in her movie, or in real life. But then characters from the California segments of the movie appear in Poland, and, well, you try to figure out what’s going on. It doesn’t really matter.
This takes about three hours. I looked at my phone at the hour and 15 minute mark and thought “well, this is almost over.” Then 90 minutes later I looked at my phone again, but only because I had to pee. No one in the theater was budging. No one even seemed to be breathing. No one in that auditorium was anything less than a Lynch fan, and we were all perfectly content to let the Lynchianness of it all wash over us.
Other than the rabbit sitcom, which is so bizarrely art-museum creepy that no one can ever replicate it, my favorite scenes in Inland Empire were the ones from the movie within the movie. They serve the same function as Naomi Watts’s audition scene from Mulholland Drive, to rip the screws from the conventions of Hollywood melodrama while also celebrating them. Lynch expects full commitment from his actors, and when he gives them a scene to chew, my god, do they chew it. Dern and Theroux parody-smolder whenever the script calls for it. Dern gives a monologue for the ages to some weird sweaty interlocutor, all about an unfaithful husband who joins a Polish circus.
And then, just when you think it’s over, a homeless Japanese woman on Hollywood Boulevard tells a story about a dying friend of hers who has a pet monkey that shits everywhere. And even then, just when it seems like the movie has ended…again…you get 20 more minutes of surrealism. It all ends with sexy ladies dancing in a mansion and the monkey is also there.
If this doesn’t sound like your style, then maybe Inland Empire isn’t for you. But if you’re reading this, it probably is. Just don’t expect any clear answers, questions, or anything else. And you’ll probably leave happy. I don’t know if I enjoyed ‘Inland Empire.’ It’s not really there for enjoyment. But like with everything else Lynch does, it’ll be with me until my death. Which may have already happened. In another reality. Or in another language. Or both.