Thursday, August 9, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.14: David Lynch's Inland Empire

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Grade: 39 (C)

Mulholland Drive was a giant critical success- it got David Lynch some of the best reviews of his career, his third Best Director nomination (he lost, ludicrously, to Ron Howard), and a greater appreciation for his filmography as a whole. It took five years for him to make another feature- 2006’s Inland Empire, a three-hour long surreal nightmare in the Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive mode. But Inland Empire doesn’t have the same solid through-line of Lynch’s previous puzzle movies- Lynch claims that he mostly made it up as he was going, without any clear plan of what it all added up to. It shows.

Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is an actress who lands a comeback role in a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows after getting a bizarre premonition from an old Polish woman (Grace Zabriskie). She develops an attraction to her co-star Devon (Justin Theroux), but she, Devon, and director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) soon learn that the film is a remake of an unfinished German film called 47, which stopped production after the leads were murdered. Nikki becomes immersed in her character, “Sue”, while she starts to have an affair with Devon, and she starts to lose her grip on reality.

That’s a streamlined version of the plot synopsis, because even as a David Lynch junkie I genuinely have no clue what the hell is going on with this movie. As a Lynch-obsessed teenager, I found that exhilarating. It doesn’t matter if I don’t know what the movie means so long as I have some idea that Lynch does, and that the film itself is a hell of an experience. The problem, as I learned on rewatching the film? He doesn’t, and it isn’t. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that this is a clearinghouse of Lynch’s ideas, all thrown together without much of a purpose. Some of the ideas are good- Dern’s extended monologue has a genuine creepy edge to it, and her character’s “murder” on Hollywood Boulevard would belong on a list of Lynch’s best set-pieces. But the rest of it is a hopeless mishmash of Lynch at his most indulgent and pointlessly cryptic- naked Suicide Girls dancing to “The Locomotion”, rabbits having nonsensical conversations (taken from Lynch’s dire online series Rabbits), and probably Lynch’s least intriguing central plot. Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive were challenging films, but they actually added up to something rather than just jerking them around, and Inland Empire’s tale of how Hollywood chews people up and spits them out isn’t half as clear or fascinating as Mulholland Drive. Oh, and did I mention that this amalgam of discarded ideas is three fucking hours long, with no real momentum to pull it through?

It’d all be more tolerable if at least Lynch’s compositions were as magnificent as always, but Inland Empire shows Lynch experimenting with digital photography for the first time. Plenty of directors (David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh) have done great work with digital cameras in years since, but the technology here is not up to snuff. This film looks absolutely horrible- characters go out of focus, everything looks muddy, and Lynch’s usual strengths with visuals are rendered moot. Laura Dern’s fantastic, wholly committed performance keeps the film from being unwatchable, but this is perhaps the ultimate proof that without some sort of guardrails to keep him in line, David Lynch’s movies really do devolve into what his biggest detractors accuse them of being: a bunch of weird stuff happening.

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