Wednesday, January 31, 2007Yesterday, on the coldest Chicago night this winter so far, my friend Matt and I took in David Lynch’s Inland Empire at the Music Box. The subzero wind chill virtually emptied that typically buzzing section of Southport, desolation exaggerating the film's strange aftertaste the way a shot of icy vodka enhances caviar's salty bite. For quite some time after leaving the theater, nothing in the outside world appeared quite that same as it did about three hours before.
One caveat: don’t let anyone convince you that Inland Empire would be better with chemical seasoning.* Taken straight it's enough of a freak-out, and I suspect combining mind-altering substances with this film’s elemental nightmarishness [or as the occasional Polish-speaking character might say, koszmar] could send a more-sensitive soul on a little holiday in a padded room.
Scenes drift into and out of comprehensibility, with characters’ dialogue often devolving into the kind of non-sequitur that makes no literal sense, but makes perfect sense in REM sleep. Different people substitute for one another, and unknown faces stand in for the familiar. The discordant, swelling score alternates between suggestive vibration and head-on sensory assault, lending menace to scenes as innocent as a young woman’s laugh. I think the digital cameras Lynch uses are especially appropriate for the subject matter, shattering lens flares into prismatic streaks and giving skin, light, and shadow intense, unflattering hues. Oddly, the look is familiar because it's frequently the way our eyes and brain function. It's just not the stylized vision we're accustomed to seeing on the big screen.
Let me say Laura Dern is simply amazing in her multiple personalities/manifestations, but it would be counterproductive for me to try to describe the storyline, since what you might take away from seeing this Rorshach-blot of an epic may be very different. For example, one of the creepiest things in this movie - for me, at least - is a squat mid-Century table lamp with a rectangular red shade sitting ominously atop a dresser. We first see it unlit in silhouette, its angularity suggesting a killer skulking in a shadowy hallway bleached of warmth. In a later scene, the lamp's red glow looks terrifying, not comforting. There is, in fact, little or nothing about Inland Empire that's comfortable.
Lynch accentuates the natural physiological effect of dim light upon the human retina, where darkness shifts perceived chroma blue, by showing sets in varying luminosities. In fact, keep an eye out for all red lamps in this film. There is also a squad of hookers that periodically appears like a taunting Greek chorus, or the faceless wraiths in the underrated 80's supernatural thriller, Nomads. The red lamps may be an allusion to a "Red Light district," or they may be a symbolic portal between the film's shifting time signatures; just remember when you see a red lamp, "reality" is about to slip into the quicksand.
While jarringly surreal, Inland Empire never becomes simple phantasmagoria. There are no human-headed cockroaches or smoking caterpillars on mushrooms here (although we do see a "family sitcom" where the players wear costume rabbit-heads, speaking terse dialogue as if reciting a prayer card) just bubbling streams of distilled subconscious, strained through California-cum-East European anxiety. And forget about trying to keep track of linear time: here it’s always after midnight, even in the scorching midday sun.
The movie is extraordinarily challenging to watch. For the first time in years, I had the urge to walk out of the theater at several points, and a few people actually did. Not because the film was bad, but it was so overstimulating and intense for lengthy periods I could hardly stay in my seat. However, I’m sure that’s the effect Lynch intended, as one leaves with the uncomfortable brain trail you get upon waking from a nasty nightmare. But if you’re up to facing over three hours of full-on Lynchian mindf---(hint: the dashed letters do not start with a “u,” nor end in “k”) this is a limbic-system feast. Today, I actually want to see it again.
* Not unless that's your normal state. If not, I wouldn't suggest you mix the two, as I predict a raging case of the 'noids.
MORE: The Boston Globe's Ty Burr has one of the most elucidating reviews of Inland Empire I've read to date.
"The Trippy Dreams of David Lynch" by Manohla Dargis, New York Times