Movie review: 'Inland Empire'

EntertainmentMoviesCrime, Law and JusticeCrimeCelebritiesTelevisionJeremy Irons

3 stars (out of four)

People always say things like, "That's strange enough to be a David Lynch film." The dreamlike current of his visions cannot be ignored. Yet anyone whose greatest achievements--"Eraserhead" (1977), "Blue Velvet" (1986) and "Mulholland Dr." (2001)--are so radically disparate, headlong dives into such different realms of strangeness deserves the handle of American master.

This particular master, who is more of a chameleon than his reputation suggests, is also a true L.A. poet, no less than Raymond Chandler or John Fante or Randy Newman or Robert Altman. Lynch is selling "Inland Empire," his latest dream factory tour and identity scramble, with a very simple tagline: "A woman in trouble." A lot of his devotees, not to mention innocent filmgoing lambs looking for something exotic, may likewise find themselves in trouble here. This is Lynch's most elusive tone poem to date, and its cheapo visual aesthetic links it to no other film in his canon.

It may not look like anything he's done before, but "Inland Empire" joins "Mulholland" and the whatzit "Lost Highway" (1997) to form the strangest show-business triptych around. All three concern artists whose identities demand more than one body. The films give new meaning to the phrase "dual citizenship."

Lynch shot "Inland Empire" over two years, not so much following as intuiting a specter of a narrative. He made it using, among other tools, an ordinary Sony PD-150 digital video camera. The blurry, determinedly artless results (both black-and-white and in color) come from a planet a long way from the evil sheen of "Velvet" and "Mulholland."

Laura Dern is our hostess, and she is wonderful in two overlapping portrayals. She plays an actress, Nikki Grace, married to a powerful man (Peter J. Lucas) of shadowy Hollywood influence. Early on Nikki is visited in her stately pleasure dome by a new neighbor (Grace Zabriskie, hamming as if there's no time like the present). The neighbor, who speaks in an unpeggable Eastern European dialect, moved in "just down the street." (The line recurs throughout the picture.) "I hear you have a new role," she tells Grace with a soothsayer's air of certainty.

The prophecy comes true. Nikki's latest film is the absurdly titled "On High in Blue Tomorrows," directed by an unctuous Brit (Jeremy Irons, very witty) and co-starring a well-known Tinseltown horndog (Justin Theroux, the director in "Mulholland"). An affair seems inevitable. Rehearsing on the set Nikki and company spy someone lurking in the scenery. Thus begins a trip down a series of rabbit holes.

That description makes "Inland Empire" out to be neater and more explainable than it is. Before Dern even appears on screen we're confronted with a wholly different realm, set and photographed in Poland. There a prostitute (Karolina Gruszka), anguished and crying and confined to an old hotel in Lodz, watches a TV situation comedy starring human actors wearing rabbit heads, intoning lines such as "Who could've known?" or "What time is it?" (Lynch created the rabbit show years before "Inland Empire," as part of a series of shorts.)

"On High in Blue Tomorrows" is a cursed project, based on a never-completed earlier picture that cost the leading actors their lives. As both Nikki and as "Susan Blue," her filmic alter ego, Dern slips in and out of modern day-Hollywood and 1930s Poland. A voiceover at the beginning seems to indicate that the Polish tale may be the "longest-running radio play" on the air. I can't say for certain. Nor can I say if, late in the game, an astounding shock-cut after Susan shoots a nemesis--showing a horrible/wonderful composite of what appears to be Dern's face melted into a ghost in clown-face lipstick--belongs to anything other than Lynch's fluid sense of … sense.

Psychopathic sexual jealousy; unwanted children; unreliable electrical currents, leading to exploding light-bulb effects and cavernous hallways--all Lynchian trademarks are presented and accounted for. "Inland Empire," which is more like a video installation than a film, explores darkness and light is ways that are often quite literal. The same goes for Lynch's iterations of female innocence contrasted with female degradation. The director indicts the voyeur and is the voyeur. By the time the blond Dern releases the raven-haired Polish "lost girl" with a kiss, we're back, fleetingly, to the identity schisms informing "Blue Velvet" and "Lost Highway" and "Mulholland."

The film is a minute shy of three hours. Lynch lets some of the monologues (Dern confessing crimes to a bland fellow in specs) dribble on. The giant rabbit imagery feels stale, just as ironic usage of a laugh track feels stale (as if a laugh track isn't ironic enough when used un-ironically). While you suspect Lynch's digital video acumen will flower into something extraordinary in coming projects, this one's intermittently extraordinary at best.

Dern is our anchor and she approaches the film's various intersections with amazing ease and emotional transparency. At one point her character--one of them, or both--is stabbed with a screwdriver. (Don't worry, this is not a spoiler; there's no narrative to spoil.) The murder weapon eventually hits a poetically apt spot on the Hollywood Boulevard pavement: Dorothy Lamour's star on the Walk of Fame. Shooting with cinematographer Odd-Geir Saether in a low-def DV format, Lynch does that storied boulevard full, unglamorous justice.

When that scene comes to an end, Nikki wanders off realizing that the director's call of "Cut!" has only partly released her from captivity. The scene's a bookend to the early encounter with Nikki's soothsayer neighbor, the one from the vicinity of both Hollywood & Vine and Baffling & Dreamlike, who speaks of an old folktale about a little girl "lost in the marketplace." To Lynch, clearly, that marketplace is the film industry. And once you're lost in it, good luck, sister.

Lynch will introduce the sold-out 8 p.m. and midnight screenings of "Inland Empire" Jan. 27, and will conduct a question-and-answer session following the 8 p.m. show. The film's Music Box engagement continues through Feb. 8.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Inland Empire'

Written, directed and edited by David Lynch; art direction by Christina Wilson; cinematography by Odd-Geir Saether; sound design by Lynch; produced by Mary Sweeney and Lynch. A 518 Media release; opens Friday for a limited run at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Running time: 2:59. MPAA rating: R (for language, some violence and sexuality/nudity).

Nikki Grace/Susan Blue - Laura Dern

Kingsley Stewart - Jeremy Irons

Devon Berk/Billy Side - Justin Theroux

Lost Girl - Karolina Gruszka

Piotrek Krol - Peter J. Lucas

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