Film review: 'Inland' — mess or masterpiece?

Published: Friday, March 2 2007 12:32 a.m. MST

Laura Dern and Justin Theroux star in dream-like "Inland Empire."

Absurda

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INLAND EMPIRE — ** 1/2 — Laura Dern, Justin Theroux; rated R (profanity, violence, sex, nudity).

"Inland Empire" might be David Lynch's masterpiece — or it might just be a total mess.

Either way it's vintage Lynch and designed exclusively, it seems, for hardcore fans — or perhaps solely for the director himself.

One thing that's clear (the only thing that's clear, actually) is that "Inland Empire" will seriously change your mood for hours afterward. And anything that powerful, that penetrating, simply cannot be dismissed.

It is at once totally familiar, with its cast of Lynch favorites (Laura Dern, Harry Dean Stanton, Justin Theroux) and collection of disjointed, nightmarish visuals that have long been the filmmaker's haunting trademark. If his intention was to re-create the surreal sensation of dreaming, with characters, images and dialogue that originate deep within the subconscious and make absolutely no sense, he's accomplished that.

And yet the movie runs a solid, sometimes insufferable three hours and is even more defiantly plotless than any of the previous work in his long and bizarre filmography. "Inland Empire" is more like a maddening montage of moments that circle back on themselves.

It's almost as if Lynch is challenging us to stick it out, to stay in our seats and try to solve this puzzle to which he teasingly withholds the answer. (At a recent press screening in Los Angeles, several people got up and walked out in the middle. Cowards.)

Lynch shot the movie using digital video, which can at times be inscrutable, and wrote the script for each day's scenes as he went along. He's also chosen an unorthodox method of releasing the movie: He's distributing it himself, without the help of a studio.

In a cinematic landscape where so much is cautious and derivative, you at least have to appreciate Lynch's maverick streak, his unique vision and unmatched voice, if not the lucidity of his storytelling techniques.

And, yes, there is a story — buried somewhere.

"Inland Empire" stars Dern as Nikki Grace, an actress who's just been cast as the lead in a movie she hopes will serve as her comeback. Soon after shooting begins, though, Nikki begins an adulterous affair with co-star Devon Berk (Theroux), and their off-screen conversations start to resemble their on-screen dialogue. Eventually it's hard for them (and us) to tell whether they're Nikki and Devon or their characters, Sue and Billy, as people and places, art and life bleed into one another. (Dern is amazingly effective, by the way, in two extremely different parts: the classy Nikki and the crass Sue. It's reminiscent of the mesmerizing duality of Naomi Watts' performance in "Mulholland Dr.," and it's a great showcase for Dern's versatility.)

Meanwhile, the director (Jeremy Irons) has shared with them a disturbing piece of information: The picture they're shooting is a remake of a production that was never finished because the two lead actors were murdered — a movie that's been considered cursed ever since.

Of course, this totally jibes with the cryptic visit from a neighbor at the start of "Inland Empire". She tells Nikki a Polish Gypsy fable that leaves her shaken. Later, Julia Ormond turns up in a police interrogation room with a screwdriver sticking out of her bloody torso. And then come the young, pretty prostitutes line-dancing to "The Locomotion" in the living room of a kitschy suburban tract house.

And we haven't even mentioned the rabbits yet.

Every once in a while, Lynch bounces back to a scene derived from "Rabbits," a series of shorts he made in which three people (voiced by Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey) sit around an eerie apartment, wearing brown bunny suits and spewing non-sequiturs, which occasionally are punctuated by a laugh track.

Like everything else about "Inland Empire," it'll make you laugh at its absurdity at first. But later you'll find that something has been stirred deep within you.

"Inland Empire" is rated R for language, some violence and sexuality/nudity; 180 minutes.

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