Inland Empire review – David Lynch’s nightmare fuel masterpiece returns to stalk cinemas
Few other films have ventured as far down the rabbit hole as this three-hour long avant-garde headtrip, now restored in gorgeous 4K
“Look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before,” asks Laura Dern at one point to two strangers, in perhaps the single line that most sums up the nightmarish uncanny valley effect of watching Inland Empire. Some decade-and-a-bit since release it remains perhaps Lynch’s single greatest piece of media. And, as it looks increasingly likely this will be his final feature film (notwithstanding debates about whether Twin Peaks: The Return is film or television), one only has to marvel at what an achievement this film is: a miracle of production and innovation, existing on the border between the avant-garde and, well, some form of mainstream (any film starring Laura Dern and featuring Jeremy Irons, Harry Dean Stanton, Justin Theroux, Diane Ladd and William H. Macy is not exactly consigned to the obscure).
Coming back to it anew, Inland Empire now offers something of the unrealised potential of digital cinematography. Shooting on standard-definition hand-held Sony cameras, Lynch utilises their innate harshness and flatness; white-out contrast from natural sunlight butts against the shallow blacks and the chintzy, tacky production design of the Hollywood house in which Dern’s protagonist(s?) lives in. Compared to the opulent designs of Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet, it’s a shock, but in this anti-film style Lynch found something new and terrifying. Shooting day-by-day, writing the script as he went along, he found a liberating freedom in digital cinema, allowing him to move quickly and imagine day-by-day.
It stands in stark contrast to the form that digital cinema has taken since it replaced traditional 35mm film as the principal way in which movies are shot, where the primary focus has been on making digital look as much like 35mm as possible, on increasingly hi-res and hard-drive gobbling formats. But to what end? The future of digital was right here, in high-speed, semi-improvised filmmaking modes, with Lynch the leading light of one of a vanishingly small number of artists to recognise its potential, all of which makes the director-approved 4K restoration (upscaled from standard-def) an interesting beast. It’s hard to detect any obvious rise in sharpness or clarity comparing my decade-old Blu-ray against the version provided for review. You can’t invent pixels that aren’t there!
That doesn’t detract from the film, though: what counts is Lynch’s ability to construct a particular mood and atmosphere that seems to reach right into the soul. We can break it down, bit by bit – look how he holds a shot for a few seconds of silence in a shot/reverse-shot dialogue scene to heighten the sense of unease, or how he uses needle drops with a seemingly preternatural knack for nostalgia – and that still doesn’t do justice to how it makes me feel every time I watch it: uneasy, anxious, frightened, curious, drugged.
With Inland Empire, Lynch dropped straight into the endless ocean of Hollywood’s dream machine, upturning it into a ghoulish terrifying nightmare. In this sense, it shares plenty of the same DNA as many of Lynch’s other masterworks, particularly Mulholland Drive, but in its digital distortions, it finds something corrupted and evil. An undefinable classic.
Inland Empire is re-released in UK cinemas on 26 May.Where to watch