"I can't tell if it's yesterday or tomorrow and it's a real mind f---"
This single quote from Laura Dern sums the movie up fairly well. It is also one of the self- referential moments of the film that explores the audiences very thoughts while providing some comic relief.
Lynch's new film, INLAND EMPIRE, is similar to his other work, but unlike anything he's ever done, or I've ever seen before. As one reviewer aptly put it, it is a double reference to Hollywood and the inner workings of the human brain. Before I discuss the substance of the film I will briefly review the technical aspects.
First of all, the movie is not unwatchable (because of clarity purposes) as some critics had said, although I did see it at the Lincoln Center which has a beautiful theater and top quality facilities. The digital camera works well for this film. It lose some of the cinematic flourish of film, but also brings a more realistic, gritty feel to it that is appropriate for the theme. The lighting and production were top quality as usual for a Lynch film and the score sets every scene brilliantly. Often times we can't tell if the sound is diegetic or non-diegetic, but it makes no difference.
Lynch said that he used the digital camera to give him freedom. You can see much more movement in this film than his others, giving an almost voyeuristic feel. He also uses many close shots, and as always, obscure framing allowing ambiguity and confusion. Lynch really explores the freedom of movement and editing that is available with digital, and you can feel his energy and zest in the new medium. The moments of suspense and terror are so well done - there are several scenes that will literally make you jump - that I found a Hitcockian brilliance of using subtlety, indirectness, and sound to convey emotion rather than expensive special effects. Of course, there are other scenes that would qualify as downright freaky.
The movie is completely carried by Laura Dern, and not because she is in 90-95% of the scenes. Her character(s) morph and change so often in identity and time that it is hard to believe it is her in every role. Her range and ability to work consistently over so many years and under the conditions of this film is mind blowing. It is one of the finest performances I've seen by an actress or actor.
The film itself is hard to summarize. Most of you know the basic plot, but this really means nothing about the film. It has no type of linear story line and the converging and diverging plot lines are connected by only the most simple threads, time, location, memory ("Do I look familiar? Have you seen me before?") identity, and people who are good with animals. It would be a disservice to this film to try to find meaning or symbolism as I see some people already are. It is not a mystery to be solved, as Mulholland Dr. was (though that film never will be solved either). It is a movie that plays off of ideas, color, mood, it presents intangible emotions that we feel and internalize rather than think about and solve. Film doesn't need a solution to make sense, but it is typical for us to want solve things, to have closure. This film is better if you just let it wash over you and surrender the urge to find meaning.
The three hour running time makes no difference because the movie moves in and out of itself with no regard for time. Using so many scenes allows time to effect the viewer much as the characters themselves. As the characters question time and reality, the audience does too. As the scenes slowly build up, giving us reference, we start to wonder where we saw that character, who said that line before, what location fits into what part of the sequence and how, leading up to the Laura Dern quote I used before. It doesn't ask us to think, but to feel, and it does this better than any film I've seen. It plays on our emotions with intense sound and cinematography, grasping fragments from dreams, sliding in and out of reality, exploring nightmares, and asking us what time and reality really are. The film is also very self-conscious as I said before, and also makes many subtle (and not so) pokes at the audience. It also has some truly surreal moments of Lynch humor.
Explaining all this doesn't really matter because you will have to see it and take your own idea from it. I would recommend that you see it in a theater though, as it could never have the same impact anywhere else. I was skeptical going into this movie after what I had read, thinking Lynch had gone off the deep end. However, I realized nothing you read about it will make a difference once you see it, and that Lynch is in better form than ever. Ebert said that Mulholland Dr. was the one experiment where Lynch didn't break the test-tube. With INLAND EMPIRE he throws the lab equipment out the window. His freedom in making this movie, both with medium and artistic control, is unparalleled in anything he's done. He finally made a movie for himself and his vision, without any kind of apology or pretense.