After starting the 2000s with the bracingly surreal mystery MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) — a movie in early contention for Best of the Decade honors; in the 2012 edition of Sight & Sound's decennial survey, it placed at #28 on Critics' poll and #75 on the Directors Poll of the Greatest Movies of All-Time — unpredictable cornball pervert David Lynch took five years off and came back with a three-hour rewarming of very similar subject matter, and shot it all on low-grade video. It's tempting to say that INLAND EMPIRE rode into critical acclaim on the fumes of Lynch's past successes, as it bears just as much resemblance to the amateurish ramblings of garbage auteur Damon Packard's unwatchable homeless epic REFLECTIONS OF EVIL (2002) as it does to Lynch's arguable masterpieces.
Laura Dern stars in INLAND EMPIRE as an actress who... Look, it's not possible to capsulize INLAND EMPIRE's "plot" in anything resembling a concise or accurate manner. I would say that the meat of the narrative is Dern's character's struggle to delineate between her real life and a new role; but, not unusual for Lynch, there's no guide for what really "happens" and what doesn't. As the title of INLAND EMPIRE suggests, this is an interior experience fraught with chaos, dead-ends, freak-outs, and infused throughout with Lynch's signature of propulsive off-kilter dread. If you've come to INLAND EMPIRE for David Lynch, there's a lot of Lynch in which to revel. If you've come to INLAND EMPIRE for Laura Dern, who also co-produced, it's a constant reminder of how fabulous she is as both a pure actress and as a comforting conduit for dark Lynchian weirdness. If you've come to INLAND EMPIRE for anything else, prepare for disappointment.
It's easy to understand why Lynch shot INLAND EMPIRE on video. It's a cheap choice for a project that has almost zero commercial appeal, and probably afforded Lynch and his cast the luxury to do whatever with very little pressure. It looks like utter trash, like something shot by precociously unskilled high school kids; however, it's hard to imagine anyone putting in the care to make INLAND EMPIRE look as good as, say, MULHOLLAND DRIVE does, because that would be a waste of effort. As ugly as it often is — not to mention constantly (intentionally?) out-of-focus — the aesthetic of INLAND EMPIRE looks wholly off-puttingly appropriate. This is essentially star-studded underground film-making for no one but the director's friends and film club college students.
A lot of the conversation around INLAND EMPIRE seems to center around how nonsensical it is, and how, depending on your temperament, that makes it either great or awful; but thematically it's surprisingly coherent. An actress has managed to use the pain of past trauma to form a successful career in an industry which is intent only on manipulating her, seducing her, exploiting her, condescending to her, degrading her, and destroying her. On the one hand, it's a scathing satire and indictment of Hollywood; on the other hand, Lynch indulges a little too much in his juvenile side, leering at breasts and shock-cutting to screams in lieu of building better slow-burn terror; likewise, as commentary goes, INLAND EMPIRE favors quantity over quality.
I prefer my David Lynch movies to strike a better balance between dark narrative, dark excess and dark surrealism, and INLAND EMPIRE leans heavily on the latter two. As such, there's still still a lot to enjoy about it, including bit parts from Grace Zabriskie and Harry Dean Stanton and Mary Steenbergen and Jeremy Irons and Laura Harring and Diane Ladd and William H. Macy... and Dern really is incredible throughout, arguably single-handedly keeping the entire three-hours semi-palatable; but there's just too much indulgence in INLAND EMPIRE and the exhaustion that comes with enduring it is not really rewarded.