INLAND EMPIRE, or Lynch doesn’t notice CAPS LOCK is on

You heard the one about the three rabbits?When Lost Highway was released it was only a commercial success in Belgium. Furthermore, the critics made it movie of the year. David Lynch is big in Belgium, which means that his latest movie, INLAND EMPIRE, was announced on posters in the streets weeks before it opened.
When I saw it earlier this week, the (commercial) theatre was 3/4 filled (and it wasn’t the smallest room in the building) and, even more surprising, only 9 people left during the movie. (Including two who ran out after 20 seconds as the opening sequence is filmed in black and white.

Nine is a surprisingly low number, as INLAND EMPIRE takes no prisoners. It lasts almost three hours, Lynch filmed it on digital video and it is perhaps his most difficult feature to understand. The director himself refuses to give information about his films, informing us that it is up to the viewer to understand the film: as long as you can wrap your head around it in any which way you fancy, you’re on the right track.

I waited two weeks before I went to the theatre… countless hours of overwork and a general feeling of being too tired hadn’t made me fit to see this movie, I thought. But then my week-long holidays started, a weekend of much needed rest had passed and it was Monday night. Fit enough to see a hermetically constructed film of 170 minutes… but would I get it? And would I be able to review it later?

Laura Dern A flashlight highlights the black letters INLAND EMPIRE in a black background, a man and a woman with obfuscated heads walk into a hotel room, a crying woman in a hotel room is watching television, three people who look like rabbits sit in a room with an invisible audience who laugh at the sitcom without comedy… welcome to INLAND EMPIRE, seatbelts on?

While you can correctly say this is the first David Lynch in five years, you may or may not be aware that the director also has a webspace where (paying) members get to see web-only short movies. I knew David Lynch had made a series of shorts for his website about rabbits (with people dressed as rabbits) and I’d seen – with thanks to a friend who’s a Lynch fan – The Darkend Room, which contains a crying woman in a room. This gave me the feeling that Lynch was making slight nods to his earlier movies.
More than ever before – and up to the very last scene (don’t worry, this is not a spoiler) where a bunch of people are dancing as the credits role. You’ll see allusions to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (apart from the dancing itself, the log and “Sweeeeett”), to Mulholland Dr. (look everyone, it’s Laura Harring sitting there – by the way, co-star Naomi Watts also appears in INLAND EMPIRE as one of the rabbits), the movie’s lead (Laura Dern) is sitting in the dress she wore in Blue Velvet, next to Nastassja Kinski (appearing for the very first time in a Lynch movie – well, almost…).
William H. Macy also has a cameo in the movie: at one point he announces the next scene, which to me was a clear reference to On The Air, the wacky but not so very successful sitcom Lynch made for tv.

Dance to the underground! (image: plays with confusion in INLAND EMPIRE, which is why the final scene (the party with characters from the movie and other people dancing) is a wonderful trick: the audience, already baffled with being bombarded for almost three hours, is not sure whether it’s okay to leave the theatre or not. The end credits are rolling, yes, but the background isn’t black, there’s people dancing… are we allowed to leave? Please, Mr. Lynch, give us a clue… But Lynch remains silent.

Laura Dern plays Nikki, an actress who gets a role in a film (which will be directed by Jeremy Irons) and who gradually finds out more about the film (now, telling more would be a spoiler) and is confused by time (she knows what is happening, but not what happened first chronologically). Is she losing herself? Is the secret life of the movie the actress is playing in making her lose her identity? The movie mirrors lines, stories, ideas and other Lynch films. Themes you’ve seen before in this movie are alluded later, just like scenes from other Lynch movies.

Nikki’s confusion in INLAND EMPIRE is perfectly shown in the way the movie is filmed. One critic lamented that David Lynch who’d made such beautifully colourful compositions in earlier movies chose the rough look of digital video for this movie.
He couldn’t be more wrong: the uncomprising look of digital video and its occasional imperfections add to INLAND EMPIRE, more than traditional celluloid would.

Laura Dern is puzzled (image:, you’ve been reading this for quite a while and I still haven’t told you whether I liked this movie or not.
It is a good movie and I’m not one those people who thinks that Lynch demanded too much of his audience here (e.g. it’s nice to get the nods to On The Air or Rabbits, but they’re not vital to your understanding of the movie), but it is true that nearly 3 hours of movie make it impossible for a viewer to stay fully concentrated. Again, that is not too bad as this means that you’ll be fully concentrated during other moments, when the person next to you may not be fully aware of what’s happening and will miss a detail you’ll notice immediately. In the end this will help Lynch’s dream: of every audience member having a slightly different experience (and understanding) of his movie.

Which brings me to the worst part of my cinema experience: in the row before me, two French yuppies didn’t like the film and continued to use their sophisticated mobile phones. A slight noise every time they got another sms, the screen lighting up when they were writing another message (and the sound of them tapping)… highly irritating. The girl next to them and I made a couple of remarks and if they wouldn’t have left the theatre (after one hour of occasional annoyance) I would’ve left myself to find some security who’d kick them out.
The vital issue here is that with other Lynch movies you occasionally see on tv whilst channelhopping, most of them look so amazing you’re instantly drawn into the Lynchian world. INLAND EMPIRE didn’t have that: every time I was disturbed, it took me a few moments to adjust again.
Jeremy Irons directs, or does he? (image: Lynch definitely knew what he was doing: take the scene with the tea pouring. The camera focuses on the cups and the direction throws you off your senses, but Lynch never made a directing mistake in this scene and all was carefully thought of before it was shot. Everything that is somewhat normal is shown in this movie in such an odd light that even the normal becomes abnormal in INLAND EMPIRE.

I could’ve offered you my ideas on how the movie is constructed here, but I’ll leave such discussions to the forum. I’ll honour David Lynch leaving you to have your own experience. Especially since I found that INLAND EMPIRE to be Lynch’s most difficult movie to understand: I found Mulholland Dr. relatively easy to understand, I could make sense of Lost Highway when I saw the film, but INLAND EMPIRE is a hard nut to crack – not in the least because there’s so much more film and therefore more loose scenes you’ll have to reckon with.

INLAND EMPIRE is a good movie, which definitely deserves my 8/10. It’s one of the better movies of 2007, but I would not mention this in my favourite Lynch movies. People who have never seen a Lynch movie (or those who have only seen The Straight Story and/or The Elephant Man) should stay away from INLAND EMPIRE. This is a movie David Lynch made for fans (and especially die-hard) fans of David Lynch. The non-seasoned moviegoer will only waste his money on three hours of head-scratching, something that David Lynch probably won’t mind either…


One thought on “INLAND EMPIRE, or Lynch doesn’t notice CAPS LOCK is on

  1. Kurtodrome July 23, 2008 / 20:46

    Well, it’s not really true that this didn’t get a comment at the time. If you want to read all of them, follow this link to DV:


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