Since its wildly anticipated debut screening at this October's New York Film Festival, David Lynch's three-hour, digital-video freefall "Inland Empire" has been both castigated and commended for the same things: its jaggedness, its refusal to give up its secrets, and its merrily incongruous jigsawing of Lynch odds and ends, both new and previously produced. It's become clear in the past decade, at least, that the term "Lynchian" can't be used as a boilerplate; it doesn't dredge up any one image or consistency, and those merits that make a film so directly a Lynch product are as evident in the G-rated morning-in-America of ""The Straight Story"" as in S&M terror of "Blue Velvet." That "Inland Empire" goes further, and more unapologetically, into its filmmaker's headspace than ever grants it that tag of "incomprehensibility" that the laziest of critics use to brush it off. The truth is that "Inland Empire," though teeming with Lynch's little fetishes and regurgitations, is not "Blue Velvet," "Mulholland Drive," or "Twin Peaks." The daring narrative schisms in "Lost Highway" echo as child's play compared to this, and even "Eraserhead" now seems a model of storytelling restraint.
None of this is inherently good or bad; just a way of preparing the uninitiated for an entirely new experience: Lynch's first-time use of DV conveys both the ardor and waywardness of a kid toying with his first camera and the measured skill of an old pro. To capture this endlessly refracted, nightmarish tale of an actress, Nikki (Laura Dern), cast in an allegedly cursed movie role, who ends up shifting identities like a snake shedding its skin over and over, Lynch displays the greatest strengths and limitations of the digital medium: no high-def this, "Inland Empire" looks muddy, unwashed, ghastly, and expressive. Its tangibility seems to know no bounds, whether moving in to Dern's face for frighteningly awkward close-ups (Dern is so malleable here, her face often seems to be melting before our eyes) or wandering through looping, dimly lit dreamscapes--for long passages of time, we can barely see the outlines of furniture and bodies. Often it seems as though "Inland Empire" is beckoning us closer to the screen (at least four times, I found myself craning my neck towards the image and squinting into the darkness).
But what are we trying to find? That's open for interpretation, but there are discrete segments in "Inland Empire" that rank with Lynch's best: he's increasingly becoming an episodic filmmaker (as seen in his two recent films, especially, which had moments -- Rebekah del Rio in "Mulholland," the death of the deer in "Straight Story" -- one would look forward to like favorite CD tracks). Dern's journey into her own mind, and an increasingly fragmented movie world, brings her into a series of inexplicably contrapuntal situations and personae. It's another through-the-looking-glass construction, but in the opposite trajectory from "Mulholland," which branched off for its final third into a Mr. Hyde version of itself: in "Inland," an odd-hour of linearity gives way to the dream world of the remaining two hours. For those not on his wavelength (here he refuses to add those little crowd-pleasing gambits and guffaws he often strews about his films), "Inland Empire" can be a trial, but it's worth sticking out: some moments are the most penetrating and rich of his entire career, and one especially, involving a seriously wounded Dern, gurgling blood on a sidewalk, as two eloquently oblivious homeless women exchange tragically mundane words next to her, is simply transcendent. Even when Lynch burrows ever further, he always manages to crawl back to the surface for gulps of air.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]