Review written by Nathan Vass
Typically, it is unwise to decide whether or not one will like a film before seeing it. In the case of David Lynch's films, however, one can usually be pretty sure of one's reaction; there are those who "get" his work, who understand his emphasis on emotion and atmosphere over linearity and resolution, and there are those who don't. The bottom line is, if you enjoy the worlds of Mulholland Dr.and Lost Highway, you'll love this.
David Lynch has insisted that the title of his new project always be printed in capital letters, and the reason for this unusual request is clear upon seeing the film, a true behemoth that more than lives up to the largeness of its title. This is certainly the most ambitious work Lynch has created, and it is already being called by some as the definitive highlight of his oeuvre. INLAND EMPIRE is a gigantic endeavor, running a full three hours, putting its hero through a tortuous narrative of enormous scope, and covering a tremendous amount of thematic ground. The film has been shot on consumer-grade digital video, allowing Lynch to create in an environment completely uninhibited by money, logistics, or time. This is truly a cause for rejoicing by fans of the director's work.
The physical narrative is as convoluted as one would expect from Lynch, although it does start out on a largely coherent note- Laura Dern plays an actress who, after a sinister visit from her "new neighbor" (played by Grace Zabriskie, with her face unsettlingly close to the camera) gets a coveted role in an upcoming film, only to learn that the film is remake, and that the previous version was never completed, because both leads were murdered under mysterious circumstances. This tantalizing idea, which in another film would serve as the entire premise, is a mere jumping-off point here. Dern's character slips deeper and deeper into bizarre, shadowy worlds, where identities are not to be trusted, and strange, terrible things happen in the murky gloom.
Much ink has been spilled over Lynch's use of low-grade digital cameras; unlike the hi-def sheen one sees in films like Miami Vice and Zodiac, Lynch's first foray into digital is messy and unpleasant, and necessarily so- most of the scenes could never have been shot on film, simply because they take place in situations where there is so little light. The uncertain nature of consumer-grade digital lends a unique, distinctly hallucinatory feel to the images that could not be acquired any other way. Although the use of such technology may sound amateur on paper, one never gets that feeling while watching the film- Lynch's sound design is scarily sophisticated. The DVD oddly defaults to a puny stereo mix, but I implore any viewer with a capable sound system to view the film with the proper, full 5.1 sound- Lynch does the sound design himself, and the intricacy of the work is just as mesmerizing as the imagery. His notorious ambient tones, eerie atmospheres, and hypnotic music selections- it's all here.
It is not an exaggeration to say that there has never, in the history of film, been an experience like this one. More than anything Lynch, or anyone else, has ever done, this is the definitive filmic statement of a nightmare. The third hour takes place almost entirely in darkness. To describe the situations and events which take place would be to rob them of their frightening power; suffice it to say that this world of back alleys and gutters, dimly lit hallways, lurking presences, and ominous staircases and doors is unlike anything you have ever seen. Horror films and thrillers operate on a logic that we are accustomed to and can follow; here, there is none. The film plays by its own rules, and follows its own through-line, and although we may not know what's going on, the images have a disturbingly hypnotic power on the viewer. It is simply not possible to turn away.
For all the lack of logical coherence, the film is remarkably cohesive. Its structure is circular, and we often see events more than once, sometimes from different points of view, and things seem so close to making sense; this makes the images all the more tantalizing. As with his other films, the scenarios depicted are not explicitly explained, but there is a definite synergy connecting the events. When all is said and done, one feels as if one has seen something whole, something complete. It should also be noted, that despite the intensely disturbing nature of most of the film, there are moments of odd, Lynchian humor, and the ending is among the most deeply satisfying, well-earned happy endings I've seen in a long time. I don't really know what happened, but I felt great.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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