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31 Days of Horror: ‘Inland Empire’ an incredible showcase of Lynch’s most unsettling impulses

31 Days of Horror: ‘Inland Empire’ an incredible showcase of Lynch’s most unsettling impulses

Inland Empire
Written by David Lynch
Directed by David Lynch
USA, 2006

So much has been written and posited about the works of David Lynch – not just his films, but his art and music as well – that more column inches will always struggle to unearth any new readings or insights. Lynch is probably the most acclaimed American filmmaker of the last 30 years; not one of his films (not even Dune) is considered universally worthless and many (Mulholland Dr., Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) are almost universally lauded as singular masterpieces. In the spirit of this month’s horror theme, though, it’s worth considering Lynch as a genre director, and specifically, what makes Inland Empire, his most recent and perhaps his final feature film, so effective as a horror film (albeit a deeply unconventional one).

“Lynchian” is perhaps one of the least useful director-derived adjectives ever coined. Lynch’s films are equally likely, at any given moment, to provoke laughter, shock, disbelief, or infuriation – sometimes all at once. As a result, “Lynchian” has become a catch-all to denote anything vaguely surreal or strange. In fact, the essence of Lynch’s core works (setting aside outliers not conceived by Lynch, like Dune and The Straight Story) involves a careful balance between competing and/or colluding forces: the beautiful, the terrible, the hilarious, and the uncanny. That same essence also relies on Lynch’s very specific conceptions of each of those ideas.

The key motif that binds those four ideas in Inland Empire is the drone. Most, if not all, of Lynch’s key features employ some form of drone or ambient music on the soundtrack, usually co-penned by Lynch and his collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, though Inland does not feature the latter’s input. Drone music elongates notes and chords to lengths that render tempo inscrutable, distorting our sense of time and conventional melodic progression. In the same way, Lynch uses smeared, unclear, overlaid, and heavily pixelated images to increase our levels of unease throughout the film. (Inland is the first Lynch film to have been shot on digital and Lynch specifically employs consumer-grade technology.) Moreso than with any other Lynch movie, the audio and video realms converge to create a space freed from time, and therefore logic.

The only reliable constant throughout the film’s constantly shifting nightmare logic is Laura Dern, whose incredible performance is doubly impressive given that Dern has stated explicitly that she has no idea what the film is “about.” Inland takes place in a cruel, alluring Hollywood of the mind that recalls Mulholland Dr. (whose principal cast shows up here voicing a family of talking sitcom rabbits), but there are also callbacks to Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and possibly others, making Inland feel like a demented greatest-hits reel of sorts. Over its colossal three-hour runtime, though, it becomes clear that Inland is not a mere restatement, but rather a digitized remix of Lynch’s pet themes and visual ideas, one that accentuates the most corrupting aspects of its cheap digital photography.

What makes Inland his most effective horror film since Eraserhead (which is not to say that it’s not effective in other ways) is its canny exploitation of our own uncertainties as viewers. By the film’s midway point, Dern has already essayed four or five different personalities, each equally convincing. Inland doesn’t merely blur the line between fantasy and reality, it obliterates it, so that before long we have no way to conceive whether we’re watching a dream within a dream, a film within a film, or some infinitely more obscure variant thereof. Lynch’s introductory quotation at some screenings obliquely elaborates on this: “We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.” Inland, more than any other Lynch film, layers stories within stories in such a way that shortly after the viewer begins to orient himself or piece together a cogent idea of what might be occurring, a new left turn arrives to invalidate or complicate that reading.

Lynch understands the topography of dreams better than any working filmmaker and Inland is notable in this regard for being made up almost exclusively of nightmares, lending it a particularly horrific atmosphere. Dern – as Nikki, or Sue, or whoever – careens from one sordid tale to another, each harder to fathom than the last, until the near-closing sequence that features a shocking cut to her own blown-out, digitally perverted image. It’s a distinctly – yes – Lynchian conception of a horror-film climax, only instead of a masked killer or a supernatural force, we’re confronted with merely the same presence we’ve spent the entire film with, only in a frighteningly over-embellished form. Those few frames represent a key aspect of horror filmmaking at its best: the exploitation of our own impulses to identify with our protagonists (particularly “women in trouble,” another favorite Lynch motif), only instead of using that dynamic to make the viewer feel a sense of danger from some outside force (or some creeping inner conflict, a la Cronenberg), Lynch destabilizes Dern’s identity at the molecular level of the image itself – the ultimate perversion, and thereby the ultimate terror.

Perhaps that’s why so few filmmakers have ever succeeded in reproducing any aspect of Lynch’s peculiar alchemy, or indeed even attempting it. What Lynch accomplishes is rooted in his background as a studied visual artist and his acute awareness of the subconscious impact of the moving image. In a way, the recent influx of found-footage horror films could be seen as an attempt to tap into Lynch’s command of the distorted uncanny, but the great majority of those films remain too firmly rooted in narrative linearity to manage anywhere near the same levels of unease. That’s why Lynch is most likely always going to remain the most effective horror director of his generation to have never made a conventional horror film.

Simon Howell