Imagine you’re dreaming. In this dream, you’re in a maze that has no center — no Minotaur to battle, no prize to discover. The walls of this maze aren’t even fixed like most mazes; they whimsically shift and sink and travel. Each time you pass a certain spot and take the same route, you find that it leads to a completely different corner. You frequently discover television monitors embedded in the walls, on which are displayed images of you running the maze, or images of you dreaming of running the maze, or images of a family with stuffed rabbit heads instead of human heads sitting around a television set watching you dreaming of running the maze. And as much as you want to look away, or stop running the maze, or just wake up — you can’t. What’s more strange, you don’t really want to. You are compelled to keep at it.
That’s essentially what it’s like to watch David Lynch’s latest film, “Inland Empire,” a concupiscent, nightmarish, puzzling, psychotropic — in a word, Lynchian — nose-dive into memory, perception and desire. At least, that’s what I think it’s about.
To summarize the plot of “Inland Empire” is not to state a fact, but to propose a theory. Here’s mine: Nikki (played by the wonderful, willowy Laura Dern) is an American actress whose scary Polish husband, Piotrek (played like the Devil by Peter J. Lucas), leads a double life. In addition to his marriage with Nikki, Piotrek also totes a brunette mistress in a humble, ’70s-furnished rental house. The film revolves around the psychologically complex moment of discovery, in which the shocking secret of her husband’s infidelity is revealed to Nikki — at once an out-of-body experience and a cycle of denial, repression and identification taking place in the contours of a single mind. It’s like a dream, or like watching one’s own life pass by as if it were someone else’s.
But if the story ever becomes clear — and it doesn’t — then it only does so by the end. (I’m not trying to sound cryptic, I’m just confused). What we gather from the beginning is that Nikki is an up-and-coming actress cast in a movie with hunky ladies’ man Devon (Justin Theroux). The director (Jeremy Irons) informs the two stars that rather than working with an original script, they are actually doing a remake of a Polish film that was, for some mysterious reason, never finished. Nikki starts to freak out when “the role she’s playing” mirrors too closely her “real life” — assuming it’s possible for the viewer to make a distinction between the two in the first place. That’s when the shit hits the fan, and Lynch’s film becomes a hot mess of seemingly randomly-aligned images, sounds and naked breasts.
But even if “Inland Empire” is, for most people, unwatchable, Dern’s performance must stand as a singular triumph. A particularly memorable, sublimely-acted scene (although it recalls a very similar set-up from “Mulholland Drive”) is one in which Nikki and Devon perform a sit-down read-through of their lines. There’s Dern portraying Nikki portraying “Susan” in a psychological tightrope walk, and I can’t help but wonder if the chaos of the rest of the film isn’t in some way Nikki’s (or Dern’s?) spiraling fall from that precarious balance.
Lynch shot “Inland Empire” with a Sony digital camera, whence comes the amateurish, slightly fuzzy picture quality (called “ugliness” by some critics). Even more disorienting is the way in which actors are shot so extremely close up that you can count the pores on their faces. While it’s easy to see this deglamorized method as opting for aesthetic displeasure, it may be the closest Lynch comes to having a unifying idea for “Inland Empire” — the uncanny, mind-bending quality of the cinematic images themselves and how, even when they pretend to be getting nearer to reality, they are still heavily distorting and obscuring it. This, to me, has political implications, especially when much of the news-worthy footage we shudder to believe is “real” — a mass killer’s last words on tape, clandestine coverage of an execution, footage from an overseas war — is now shot, like “Empire,” with a consumer digital camera. The same immediate, fuzzy feel of watching a home-made documentary is present in Lynch’s film, and “ugly” seems an understated way to describe the squirm-inducing effects this creates.
As a movie, then, even a David Lynch movie, “Inland Empire” is a jagged pill too hard to swallow. But as something other than entertainment — art, perhaps, or a hypnotic mind fuck — it might just be what the doctor ordered.