by Jeff Meyers
Or "F." To grade David Lynch's baffling, impenetrable, disturbing and exhausting mindfuck is a daunting task. An early threadbare narrative notwithstanding, Inland Empire's three-hour spiral into confused identities and realities, like the best abstract paintings, asks that you surrender to its weirdness and draw your own conclusions.
Lynch spent years working on the film and perhaps every frame he shot ended up on the screen. And you won't look away; his twisted vision will worm its way into your brain and haunt your subconscious.
Opening with a sexually charged tryst in a Polish hotel room, the film suddenly shifts to a deadpan sitcom starring rabbit people offering humorless non sequiturs to a boisterous laugh track before finally settling into a narrative groove.
Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is a once-successful actress hoping to relaunch her idling career by playing the lead role in a Southern-fried melodrama entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows. After a disturbing encounter with a gypsy neighbor, Nicki's offered the role to the chagrin of her jealous Polish husband (Peter J Lucas). Co-starring with popular actor Devin Berk (Justin Theroux), a notorious womanizer, she struggles to stay true to her marriage despite growing sexual tension. The torrid romance of their characters paves the way for their own affair and Nicki's life suddenly fragments into different identities and time periods, shifting between white-trash Susan (her character in Blue Tomorrows), an abused Polish prostitute (Karolina Gruszka) and her own life.
We're plunged into a disjointed dream that jumps from one hallucinatory setting to the next. Pieces of the narrative flash like fireflies in an endlessly unfolding nightmare, as Nicki or Susan, or whoever Dern is playing, struggles to find footing in an ever-shifting reality. Scenes double back on themselves, flip perspectives and pop up on television and movie screens for Nicki and a mysterious woman (who has lost her family) to watch. There are dancing whores, a screwdriver-wielding wife, menacing Polish men and, of course, the bunny people.
It's the astonishing Dern who holds the film together. The structure and imagery may be Lynch's but the emotion and focus is all hers. She's a criminally under-used actress with ferocious intelligence, passion and poise.
From alienation to terror to hope, this is cinema in its purest form, a meditation on the imagination and consciousness. Maybe our identities are constantly struggling to separate real life from the movie that's constantly playing in our heads. Or not.
Opens Friday, April 13, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.