“It’s a story that happened yesterday, but I know it’s tomorrow.”
So says Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a famous Hollywood actress who has just taken a demanding role in a possibly cursed film, to her co-star Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) during a break in a read-through. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he responds.
He’s right, of course, and he’s not. Inland Empire (2006), the story of “A woman in trouble” (according to writer/director David Lynch), simply doesn’t play by the conventional rules of commercial cinema. Shot on video (before it became standard in Hollywood) outside the traditional production system and distributed outside the usual channels, Lynch has made a film that, even for him, defies conventions, expectations, and logic, more personal art project than art movie. Like so many of his previous films, you have to give yourself over Lynch’s sensibility and decidedly metaphysical approach to cause and effect.
We watch Nikki go on a journey of metamorphosis, a shifting existence of multiple identities that criss-cross, collide, and finally blur together while even stranger stories about Polish gangsters, scenes from a surreal sitcom in rabbit suits, and spontaneous dance numbers fill in the edges. Naturalistic scenes collide with exaggerated performances and distorted images, which Lynch fractures into moments of discomforting stares and awkward silences. The soundtrack rumbles with deep bass groans and electrical crackles, as if every narrative tectonic shift is a rebirth, part organic process and part mad scientist transmutation.
The languid pacing and ambiguous events of the nearly three-hour production are confounding and dreamy, like nothing else coming out of Hollywood. Anyone looking for a literal plot will be confounded and frustrated; Lynch essentially delivers a figure-eight narrative that twists upon itself. But if you are willing to lose yourself in Lynch’s sensibilities, you’ll find a hypnotic and richly textural experience that challenges invites you to make your own connections through the echoes of stories and imagery and odd dialogue.
Jeremy Irons plays the director of the film within the film, Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie is a Polish neighbor whose appearance seems to throw Nikki’s life into a new reality, and Harry Dean Stanton and Diane Ladd co-star.
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Inland Empire (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Inland Empire (Absurda) [DVD]
Lynch originally released the film on his own DVD label, Absurda, with the featurette. “More Things That Happened,” which offers 75 minutes of deleted footage edited into a surreal sister film of its own, the short film “LYNCH2” featuring behind-the-scenes footage, 41 minutes of “Stories” from Lynch, the Lynch cooking show “Quinoa” (think Julia Child noir), and the dreamy short “Ballerina.”
Lynch supervised the 4k restoration and sound mix on the 2023 Criterion Blu-ray special edition, which includes many of the supplements from the Absurda release—”More Things That Happened,” “LYNCH2,” “Ballerina”—plus the feature documentary LYNCH [one] (2007), Lynch reading from his 2018 book “Room to Dream,” and a new conversation between actors Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan.