"Off-Halloween" Recommendations: David Lynch's 'Inland Empire'

Laura Dern in David Lynch's  Inland Empire  (2006)

Laura Dern in David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006)


In The Mind Of The Maker, author Dorothy Sayers famously analogized writers "allowing" their characters free will to God allowing free will to humanity. Perhaps no filmmaker has taken that premise to such surrealistic and beautiful lengths as David Lynch, cinema's reigning Annie Sullivan of consciousness, who (by his own admission) has nothing but the vaguest of ideas of what some of his almost unanimously brilliant films are even about.

Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) and her co star, Devon (Justin Theroux) learn that the film they’ve just been slated to star in is actually a remake of a feature that was never finished (production having been halted after the two original leads were murdered). The film itself is based on an ancient legend—one that's largely concerned with identity shifts, time travel, and other deaths and entrances.

A love affair may or may not be taking place. A subplot involving prostitutes may or may not be crossing through sepia-tinted 1930s Poland to materialize on a harsh Hollywood street in the 21st century. Infidelity … with nemesis, self, or lover … may or may not have culminated in a succession of horrific crimes of passion.

The characters who populate Inland Empire are living in the moistness of a nightmare, so dissociated and terrorized that they move about in the film's smears like blurred lights. There are shots of harsh, iridescent late night inner city streets … that sickish, slick sheen streets have when one has nowhere to go, and is very tired. Other scenes, filtered through a strange, muted, unearthly sunlight (as in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway) seem to be hung (to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’ Connor) from behind cobwebs. At other times, the darkling, snuff-filmish graininess of digital video works perfectly for Lynch.

Inland Empire could be said to be about reincarnation, karma, or a Tibetan Book Of The Deadesque trip to heaven via various stages of atonement (like a series of seemingly impossible tasks given to a Grimm's fairy tale maiden). Like most of Lynch’s films, it has an overriding message of redemption, and an extraordinary spiritual beauty to it. It's also a very profound exploration of the reality of PTSD, though in a way that’s virtually impossible to classify: it’s much like one would imagine being under hypnosis would be. (One might call it the supreme masterwork of Regression Therapy). PTSD by way of past life trauma is still considered a pseudo-science, and probably always will be; but the catharsis of this film is mountainous enough to devour science whole, leaving its own fangs gleaming.

There are multiple layers in the film, and each viewing peels back another. Laura Dern plays two, three, possibly more characters overlapping themselves, sometimes simultaneously; and she does it nothing short of brilliantly … this is, hands down, the performance of her career. Grace Zabriskie (best known as Mrs. Palmer in Twin Peaks) is terrifying as a garbled persona exuding a malice absorbed by broad daylight. Her eyes …bulging, homicidal …seem to roll the macabre “house call” she makes on Dern in the film’s beginning around in their irises like lost marbles.

Inland Empire, however, is not quite effortlessly seductive: it’s a build-up to impact. If you’re not prepared to see the film a minimum of three times, you will miss 90 percent of it. Like Charlie Kaufman’s equally brilliant Synecdoche, New York, it's so crammed with sensory imagery and subliminal messages, it’s simply too much to process in a finite viewing. Its only downside is that it does suffer from serious editing issues, on occasion, and there's times when it can become almost tedious, but those moments are more than worth waiting out.

The Blu-Ray/DVD is a gem, and contains 75 minutes of deleted scenes, several of which absolutely should have been in the film in lieu of the aforementioned footage, as they essentially constitute a second movie unto itself. But this is a film whose generosity far exceeds a gift-that-keeps-on-giving: it's more like an eternally self-renewing philosophy, spirituality, and salvation. It's classically, and uniquely, terrifying as all get-out; and even if it's not quite suited for the nostalgic (if sometimes demonic) glow of Halloween-proper, it's a film that every thinking horror fan owes it to themselves (and their immortal soul/proverbial karma wheel) to see.


Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, cinephile, ailurophile, the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press, and the Reviews Editor for Tarpaulin Sky Press. She is the author of diatomhero: religious poems, and her work has appeared in various magazines and online journals. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in Colorado. Visit her here.