Down the rabbit hole and into a maze

Times Staff Writer

About two hours into David Lynch's "Inland Empire," Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), or Susan Blue (Laura Dern), or possibly a third, nameless doppelganger (also Dern), runs down a pitch-dark, back-country lane, her mouth frozen in a blood-chilling, smeared-clown grimace. What has inspired this look of terror is never revealed. It could be anything. An anxious, disoriented Dern has wended from one identity to the next, one reality to the next, one country to the next with such paralyzing nightmare logic for such a long time by now that there seems nothing left to do but wait for the inevitably violent end.

If you're like me, you'll wait for it anxiously. If you're like the woman who sat next to me, you'll prove your mettle and devotion by seeing it again. Shot on grainy, often blown-out and distorted consumer-grade video, scored to a feedback distortion-heavy soundtrack that will be familiar to fans and tinnitus sufferers alike, and clocking in at one merciful minute under three hours, Lynch's much-anticipated follow-up to "Mulholland Drive" signals a hale swan-dive off the deep end, away from any pretense of narrative logic and into the purer realm of unconscious free association. I found myself pining for "The Elephant Man," but that's just me.

Lynch has talked about the freedom afforded him by video -- shooting 40-minute takes, writing scenes moments before they are shot, following ideas into places they couldn't have gone had complicated lighting set-ups been required. But the lack of structure and rigor doesn't seem to serve him here, and the film, which begins promisingly, disappears down so many rabbit holes (one of them involving actual rabbits) that eventually it just disappears for good. Dern begins the film as Nikki, a famous actress who has recently crested her celebrity summit and is anxiously awaiting news of whether she's been cast in the new Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) movie, a Southern melodrama ludicrously titled, "On High in Blue Tomorrows."

Something's not right about this scenario, though, starting with the upholstery at Nikki's house. There's the creepy front door. And the creaky butler (Ian Abercrombie). And the fact that Nikki's stuffily macabre taste in decorating would have been outmoded back when Norma Desmond was big. So when a sinister neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) pays her an unexpected visit, informs her that today is tomorrow, she's gotten the part and the movie is a remake -- actually, a haunted remake of a Polish movie that was cursed by gypsies and never completed because the lead actors were murdered -- one is intrigued, but not entirely surprised. Because, clearly, something's not right in general.

Soon the movie is moving between unrelated situations on hallucinatory transitions. Giant rabbits exchange Beckettian dialogue on a '50s-era sitcom set against a laugh track. A Polish hooker sits on a hotel room bed as she watches a movie on TV. Nikki's costar, a young Hollywood player named David Berk (Justin Theroux), finds himself fielding threats from Nikki's shadowy husband's goons. On the set, David investigates a noise that leads to the discovery of yet another alternate parallel reality -- this one inhabited by an alternate parallel Nikki. At first, this reality resembles the movie they're making, in which Nikki plays a character named Susan Blue who falls in love with David's character, Billy Side. Eventually, Nikki disappears into Susan and it seems never comes back, while Susan slides through the grates of her own persona into ever more squalid and disconcerting scenarios that end with her collapsing among the homeless on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

A warped "Alice in Wonderland," "Inland Empire" invites you to study it like a rune. And no doubt that repeated viewings would lead to new discoveries and hypotheses. Is this Lynch's exegesis on why actors are the way they are? A lament for Hollywood production jobs lost to Eastern Europe? A warning about the movie- and TV-created fog in which we live?

A fugue on the variations of fugues, "Inland Empire" mimics the very dissociative disorder it dramatizes, probably intentionally, in which a person forgets who she is and creates a new life elsewhere without memory of the previous life. It's a dreamlike state of altered conscientiousness that lasts for hours. It's a piece of music in which a theme is repeated above or below its first statement. It's a tough movie to sit through.

MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 2 hours, 59 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood (323) 848-3500; Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626) 844-6500.

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