A movie about Lynch's obsessions, Inland Empire is largely a meditation on the power of recording: The first image is a shaft of projected light; the second is a close-up of a phonograph needle dropping on a record's groove. Familiar tropes include a movie within the movie and the notion of Hollywood as haunted house. But nothing in Lynch's work is truly familiar, as when a TV sitcom features a cast of humanoid rabbits. Reality is first breached when a ditsy Polish gypsy traipses into the vintage, disconcertingly empty Hollywood mansion that belongs to actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern). Spooking the star with her wolfsbane accent and aggressive prophesies, she casts a spell of weirdness that lasts throughout the movie.
Suddenly it's tomorrow, and Nikki has the role she covets, working with an overeager director (Jeremy Irons) and acting opposite young rapscallion Devon (Justin Theroux), who has been touted by a nasty TV gossip (Dern's mother, Diane Ladd) as the biggest womanizer in Hollywood. An adulterous affair seems overdetermined, particularly given that it reiterates the premise of On High in Blue Tomorrows, the movie that Nikki and Devon are making. Script inevitably merges with life. "Hollywood is full of stories," someone remarks, referring to the rumor that the Blue Tomorrows screenplay is itself haunted.
Dern's long, angular face, which is in nearly every scene, is taffy, and Lynch pulls it with wide-angle close-ups into a mask of anguish. As if in a dream, her Nikki is both spectator and protagonist. Inland Empire is Nikki's world, but she doesn't live in it. Nikki's mansion devolves into a squalid dump, and a scary Pole known as the Phantom appears next door. Blood mixes with ketchup at a backyard barbecue. Nikki plays her big scene at 4 a.m. at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, staggering across the star-spangled pavement to collapse amid the homeless.
Inland Empire is Lynch's most experimental film since Eraserhead. But, unlike that brilliant debut (or its two masterful successors, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive), it lacks concentration. It's a miasma. Cheap digital technology has opened Lynch's mental floodgates. Inland Empire is suffused with dread, but dread of what? Sex, in Lynch, is a priori nightmarish. But there's a sense here that film itself is evil. Movies are all about editing and acting which is to say visual and verbal lies and Inland Empire makes sure that you think about both.
It's three hours before Nikki is transfigured (by the "power of love") and her fearful trip is done. But given its nonexistent narrative rhythms, Inland Empire doesn't feel that long. (In fact, it doesn't feel like anything but itself.) It's an experience. Either you give yourself over to it or you don't. If you do, don't miss the end credits.