Everyone is for artistic freedom as a theoretical principle, but sometimes artists do their best work when someone, or something, is putting on the brakes. The story behind David Lynch's largely self-financed and self-distributed Inland Empire—the product of two and a half years of filming—is one of a resourceful filmmaker taking the means of production into his own hands and doing exactly what he liked. Hurrah. Too bad the finished film doesn't say much in favor of that approach.
Not that it looks like anything other than a Lynch film. All the old obsessions come out to play here: '50s décor, willfully naïve notions of good and evil, curtains, classic Hollywood, ominous ambient music, pop songs turned to sinister purposes, multiple identities, and violence against beautiful women wearing bright red lipstick. (What? No lumberjacks, you say? Stick around for the closing credits.) It's all Lynch, all the time, but there's no room for anything else to breathe.
Tenaciously committed to her ever-shifting role, Laura Dern stars as an actress happy to land a part in a southern melodrama called On High In Blue Tomorrows. Gossip about her lothario co-star (Justin Theroux)—fanned, in a hilarious early scene, by a catty TV hostess played by Diane Ladd—begins before they've shot a frame, but director Jeremy Irons warns them of a potentially greater threat. Turns out On High is a remake of a film left unfinished due to the murder of its stars. These early scenes return Lynch to the dark wit of Mulholland Dr. But then something happens. The easiest way to put it is to say the film goes off the rails, but most of Inland suggests the rails were just an illusion anyway.
It's a bit like watching the final 40 minutes of Mulholland stretched to three hours and filmed with digital-video cameras available at a Circuit City near you. While the technology works with some images (rooms glowing with candles, the streets of Poland at night), other applications—like, say, keeping two characters in focus at the same time—stretch its limits. Inland Empire is still a Lynch film and still filled with incredible sequences. Viewers won't soon forget a strange sitcom featuring actors in bunny suits, or a Greek chorus of Suicide Girl wannabes. But whatever strings it all together never makes it from Lynch's head to the screen.