Inland Empire is the film where David Lynch says goodbye to narrative and sends the viewer dancing down the rabbit-hole of his psyche, (there are actual rabbits) landing us in a grimy hall of mirrors where the half-remembered stars of his dreams clash in the night. Since a dream is like a treadmill, or a stuck record needle, the inhabitants of this world are confined to speaking in an abstract dream-English, made up of a frustratingly small allowance of words and ideas compact enough to fit on the turntable of the unconscious mind. The film's conversations -- over three hours worth -- consist of non-sequiturs, run-on sentences and story fragments. The goings-on are often inscrutable, although sexual content is one of the few consistent clarity boosters. Take one conversation, where a female character played by Laura Dern sits in a darkened interrogation room and recounts an attempted rape. Her story flows forward; the record needle doesn't skip. Other characters speak stiff monotone English, devoid of spark, but her accent and personality, preserved in the memory, are colored in.
That accent is Arkansas white-trash; she bounces the 'f' in 'fuck' off her bottom lip with each usage, as if to preserve its sexual power. Her sentences are declarative and informational, like "I kicked his nuts into his brain." Compare this to another conversation, between two suburban neighbors, where the lack of electricity is palpable and the small-talk full of circular logic; we can see the camera fighting boredom in that scene, pushing in hard on their faces, striving valiantly to maintain focus and stay awake, before the whole thing collapses and is re-absorbed back into the memory pool. This is Inland Empire, for better or worse; a hard and bruising tumble down the neuron branches of an uncompromising painter of moving pictures. Monotony and wheel-spinning are standard in Lynch's world, but if you're so inclined, think of that as the admission price for what comes later: a sharp lightning charge into the center of the director's brain, where the dream neurons flash-pop like the bulb of a table lamp in a cheap hotel room.
This inner knot, this ganglia of head candy, is personified in a group of giggling girls in slumber-party duds. They dance on command, at one point doing choreographed steps to "The Locomotion" and in another momentary strobe flash, performing both male and female roles in a high-school-style slow dance, while the searing sounds of Etta James' "At Last" ricochet off the walls. When they aren't dancing to the called tune of the dream-maker, they fill the air with random, charged words like "tits" and "ass." One of them lifts up her shirt, to show what she's got. The girls will ultimately be transported out of the confines of their dream-room, to Hollywood Boulevard, where they take on the persona of street hookers. Here they will intersect with the Southern caricature played by Dern, who is prowling the boulevard with crazed eyes and a screwdriver, which we know was already used in a physical altercation with a character played by Julia Ormond. Naomi Watts, from Mullholland Drive, also pops up at one point for some voice work, for good measure.
Dern's other main character, aside from the screwdriver-wielding madwoman, is an actress engaged in a confusing flirtation with a co-star, played by Justin Theroux. Their characters and their real personalities as actors mix and match and bleed into one another. There's talk of a doorway to another world that can be accessed by burning a piece of silk with a cigarette and peeping through the hole. As they sit on set, someone unseen watches them from across the way. The film they are shooting has a title of perfect Lynchian pedigree: "On High in Blue Tomorrows." Lynch seems to have an innate understanding of the English language; its capacity for beauty, as well as its vulnerability to misuse and travesty. It's a language made of building blocks, which can be brought tumbling down and scattered. As English speakers, we have the ability to talk ourselves into and out of anything; we have no built-in brakes or boundaries beyond which the language can keep flowering and changing into something new.
A late scene, filmed in gritty, handheld HD on the actual streets of Hollywood, shows us a woman who lay dying of a stab wound while another woman lays beside her, musing about trying to find a bus to Pomona. Within a minute or two, she's off on another tangent, talking to no one in particular about her friend with the "movie star wig" who has a "hole in her vagina" and owns a pet monkey that can scream on command. The capacity for horror in scenes like this doesn't go unrecognized; Lynch teases it out wherever possible. He knows that dreams are scary places where terror can intrude in an instant, and in Inland Empire, terror is never closer at hand than in a room that seems perfectly calm and sterile and empty. Ear-splitting sound explosions rock us without warning, and there are terror visions more or less impossible to describe, including one that I think was a clown-faced sock puppet gushing blood from the inside of its sock-mouth. If that makes sense.
I've described a bit of the three-plus hour rabbit-hole without mentioning the rabbits. These life-sized jackrabbits with huge, stiff ears and wearing human clothes, are frequently seen reclining in a living room set. One of them irons some clothes, lazily. A laugh track follows everything they say. At one point, a bunny coming through the door does the customary pause that a popular sitcom character must do when entering a room, waiting for the audience applause to dissipate before speaking. This kind of horrific absurdity, which Kubrick toyed with in The Shining, could only be explained by the director himself. There's clearly some intractable bunny-itch that Lynch must occasionally scratch, stretching all the way back to the infamous Bobby Peru speech in Wild at Heart. In fact, the whole of Inland Empire could be described as a must-scratch itch; every quirk of David Lynch, from his coffee obsession to his Beckett-like quest to chisel meaning out of language, is thrown into this tumbling wash-cycle of a film. Surely, this must be his masterpiece.