Criterion Review: INLAND EMPIRE

A singular and surreal work by auteur David Lynch

Auteur is often thrown around rather casually when describing a filmmaker and his work. But in the case of Lynch and it’s entirely apt. Especially in the case of Inland Empire. His first foray into digital film-making, Lynch took on the role of director, writer, producer, editor, and cinematographer, while also tackling the score and sound design. Lynch’s fingerprints and psyche pervade all aspects of the film, making for a potent and indelible work.

The film’s tagline “A Woman in Trouble” is a simple summation of the feature, one that belies its complexity and construction. Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, an actress whose latest project takes a turn after she discovers it is an adaptation of an abandoned Polish film project. One that was shut down after its leads all died. The inspiration for both coming from a old folk tale, one rooted in a dark series of deaths that seem to have created a curse attached to the tale. Haunted by this discovery, Nikki begins to lose her grip on reality as the filming continues. Parts of the set bleed into the past or other realities. Horrors cross over into her everyday life, and even innocuous elements take on an abstract, unhinged tint. Inland Empire is a nightmarish psychological thriller that ventures into the dark corners of this woman’s psyche, and by extension, Lynch’s too.

Inland Empire serves as a companion of sorts to Mulholland Drive, a film widely viewed as Lynch’s best. Beyond the setting in California, it centers around identity, perception, and even cinema itself. We glimpse the backdrop and backlot of Hollywood itself, and the seedy underbelly of LA. The competitive and cutthroat nature of the business, and also how weird it is in general. These portals facing Nikki blur the lines between what is real and what is fake, the past and the present. Something actors and filmmakers do routinely. Lynch unfurls this mystery thriller in between this clash between actuality and artifice. Character actors, including Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton, Grace Zabriskie, and Diane Ladd, are leveraged perfectly to flesh out this chaotic tale. But it’s an engrossing, intense performance from Laura Dern that roots the story as something intensely personal, even as it burgeons with a wider idea of the universe itself being the verge of collapse. Lynch’s foray into digital is fascinating in itself, the handheld camera fueling a murky aesthetic, and entering the personal space of this cast with convex closeups to build an invasive and unnerving atmosphere. Complex, confounding, and classic Lynch.

The Package

Criterion continue their 4K UHD release with another impressive transfer, one supervised and approved by David Lynch. The source footage being in standard definition likely posed some limitations in terms of restoration, but that is not apparent in what you see. Colors feel more developed, well represented while looking natural. Depth of image and detail is a real step up from the DVD that has been doing the rounds the last few years. It’s a very well executed restoration, that feels true to the visuals of the film, while refining the quality as far as it’ll go. The extra features are all included on the Blu-ray disc

  • Two films from 2007, LYNCH (one) and LYNCH2, by blackANDwhite, the makers of David Lynch: The Art Life: These comprise behind the scenes footage shot during the production of Inland Empire, compiled over years, to offer a window into Lynch’s process and approach on set. It’s a fascinating watch and while insightful at times, it still does much to embellish the enigma that surrounds this filmmaker
  • (New) A conversation between actors Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan: Running around 30 minutes, this is a rather charming bit of banter between the pair, as they reflect on their various collaborations together, working under Lynch. They actually get into a rather interesting analysis/interpretation of Inland Empire
  • More Things That Happened, seventy-five minutes of extra scenes: Basically, if the main film didn’t confound you enough, here’s more. Extended and cut sequences from the film, some do add context, others add to the beguiling nature of the piece
  • Ballerina, a 2007 short film by Lynch: An atmospheric piece with Lynch filming a young woman dance
  • Reading by Lynch of excerpts from Room to Dream, his 2018 book with critic Kristine McKenna:
  • Trailer:
  • PLUS: Excerpts from Richard A. Barney’s book David Lynch: Interviews
  • New cover based on an original theatrical poster

The Bottom Line

Criterion’s 4K offering of Inland Empire does applaudable work of restoring and refining the film’s appearance, without sacrificing its distinct and crucial aesthetic. The extra features also impress, adding more layers and appreciation to the feature itself. A superb release for one of David Lynch’s most singular and surreal works.

Inland Empire is available via Criterion from March 21st

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