Words fail David Lynch. The filmmaker’s blunt, sometimes playful refusals to clarify the more opaque elements of his work are frequently lampooned, but they come from an earnest place. He withholds not to antagonize audiences, but because no explanation could possibly suffice. A painter by trade, Lynch shapes the worlds of his films primarily around mood and atmosphere, less interested in verbal storytelling than he is in evoking intimate, electrifying emotions while defying conventional description. And 2006’s Inland Empire is easily his most free-associative, temporally unmoored work. With a new 4K remaster and theatrical re-release courtesy of Janus Films, the film surfaces now as a renewed challenge for first-time viewers and ardent fans alike.
Initially conceived as a monologue written for Laura Dern, shot on a standard definition Sony PD-150 camera (which by that point had become a consumer-grade model), Inland Empire ballooned into a feature when, as Lynch put it, “more ideas started coming, revealing a story.” The project never switched to professional equipment, nor did it have a proper shooting script, with Lynch opting instead to write isolated scenes and bring them to set each day. The result is discombobulated and unnerving. Inland Empire reads as a direct feed from the murkiest byways of its protagonist’s subconscious, darting suddenly between disparate characters, locales, eras, and endlessly recursive stories. Detailing its plot is nearly impossible; the most useful précis comes from Lynch himself: “A woman in trouble.”
That woman is (at first) Dern’s Nikki Grace, a Hollywood hopeful on the cusp of her big break. After she lands the lead role in a romantic drama alongside the roguish Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), the boundaries separating fiction from reality rupture, and she splinters into multiple personae. This is supposedly the byproduct of a “curse” on the production, which is a remake of a Polish film that went unfinished after its leads were inexplicably murdered. “They found something inside the story,” mumbles director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) shortly after a mysterious disturbance on an empty sound stage rattles the cast and crew.
Lynch often traffics in stories about tortured, uneasy characters whose waking lives are indistinguishable from — indeed, often commingled with — nightmares. In the late ’90s, after over two decades of troubled productions, meddling studios, and dismissive critics, he began placing this suffering directly in the context of art, from the emasculated jazz musician of Lost Highway to Mulholland Drive’s doomed actresses. This culminated with Inland Empire, in which an artist’s craft consumes her so utterly that her identity is endangered and creative failure becomes synonymous with death. The performers in the abandoned Polish film are seemingly ensnared in limbo, doomed to relive its events in perpetuity. As this same artistic putrefaction threatens to undo all Nikki has worked for, the movie grows darker, queasier, more urgent. It becomes a sort of eulogy for unmade films, with Nikki an embodiment of artists for whom art constitutes a potential hemorrhaging of the self.
It’s been said that much of Lynch’s work is co-authored by his leading women — a sentiment he enthusiastically shares. In this regard, Inland Empire is particularly demanding. Dern plays at least three, possibly more distinct characters. With her extraordinary ability to channel both vulnerability and ferocity in equal measure (sometimes simultaneously), she has always been uniquely attuned to Lynch’s oneiric wavelength. Undercurrents of evil generate friction with his (often female) characters’ perceived innocence, until that innocence yields to something more honest. Here Dern will go from confusedly eyeing a ketchup stain on her husband’s shirt in one scene to recounting the grisly details of an attempted assault in the next. At points this tension becomes too great for words, and Dern contorts her remarkably elastic mouth into a taut rictus so striking that it seems to transcend the circumference of her face. In a film so concerned with interrogating what it means to act, Dern’s performance is a thesis unto itself — she inhabits myriad complex identities without surrendering her own.
Inland Empire’s low-fi DV format simultaneously clarifies and mangles the viewer’s understanding of it. The velvety celluloid veneer that often blankets Lynch’s work has been stripped away, revealing a grimy, noisy aesthetic deeply at odds with the cheeriness of the characters. By no means does it look ugly, but it thoroughly reconfigures one’s understanding of what can look “good.” The blown-out lights, blurred backgrounds, and sickly colors conjure spaces that feel tangible and immediate, even as the narrative slips further into inscrutability. Yet the more it reveals, the more it also obfuscates, with the format’s chunky, fuzzy quality granting Lynch enough aesthetic headroom to reach new heights of surreality. Information becomes lost in digital fog, rendering some shots almost wholly illegible, mirroring and amplifying Nikki’s mounting struggle with unrecognizability. Lynch long ago perfected his ability to manifest pervasive ambient dread, and here the texture of the film itself is treacherous; anything could emerge from the undulating waves of digital artifacts.
Inland Empire was a capstone to a brief but fascinating window of high-profile filmmakers (including the likes of Thomas Vinterberg, Agnès Varda, and Abbas Kiarostami) experimenting with miniDV. And the movie remains baffling and formally audacious even in the way it’s preserved. A lack of established protocol for miniDV exhibition means that any transfer will present its own unique snarls. The 4K remaster was accomplished via a process so bizarre it could have only come from Lynch: the original footage was first downscaled to standard definition to discard “false detail,” then converted to 4K using an AI upscaling algorithm. Rather than attempt to recreate the film’s original appearance 1:1, Lynch has seemingly embraced the idea of the film being a continually evolving composition, one that doggedly resists categorization, interpretation, and polish. The further cinema moves into an all-digital landscape, the more salient — and revolutionary — it seems.
The remaster of Inland Empire opens in select theaters April 8, with a national rollout to follow.