It's already ten years ago that David Lynch made his final feature film. Back then nothing really pointed at Lynch's departure from cinema, though looking back at it now it probably wasn't that big of a surprise. While rewatching my old Lynch favorites it became quite clear that his films, while still intriguing, don't age all that well. It's not that they've turned sour all of a sudden, but they do lack a certain finish I've come to expect from more recent films. Inland Empire is a prime example.
When Inland Empire was just released it didn't feel anything like a swan song, on the contrary even. After finishing up Mulholland Dr. Lynch started experimenting with DV, resulting in some shorts and short series. Feeling confident enough, he saw the time fit to take DV into feature film territory, with Inland Empire as a result. Back then I remember thinking Lynch had rebooted himself, ready to start a new path in his career as a film maker. As it turned out though, it were merely the final twitches of a dying director.
To be fair, very few of those early DV films aged well. Back then the tech simply wasn't there yet. Even so, some of those films showed a clear promise of what the future would hold, looking back at Inland Empire though there's just none of that. It's a real shame because it's far from a bad film, especially when you're into Lynch. In many ways the film is a culmination of his entire career, just let down by some mediocre camera tech and the inability to do something worthwhile with it.
Storywise Inland Empire is pretty vague, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. Just like Mulholland Dr. the first hour isn't that convoluted (for the most part at least), although there are already a couple of scenes that foreshadow the mystery let loose during the second half. The film follows Nikki, an actress who is just starting out as the lead of a new film. While she tries to bond with her co-star, her husband is watching her every move, clearly not comfortable with the situation. When Nikki falls down the proverbial rabbit hole though, you'll be grasping at straws to make sense of it all.
Visually it's all rather drab, but not because of lack of good intentions. Lynch was clearly exploring the possibilities of DV, sometimes with good result too, but in the end it's just too ugly overall. The visuals are way too grainy, lack proper contrast and the crude, harsh lighting doesn't help things along either. Add Lynch' somewhat poor editing capabilities and it's just not good enough. When I first watched the film I was a bit more forgiving (DV was still new and exciting back then), but 10 years later I've come to expect more.
It's not all doom and gloom though, stylistically speaking. The soundtrack is up to par, which means a lot of mystery and atmosphere can be drawn from it. Lynch has always had a knack for incorporating music in his films (after all, he is also a musician on the side) and it definitely pays off. Where the visuals are lacking, the soundtrack steps in and provides ample grip for those slipping away in this mysterious nightmare.
As for the acting, that's a bit tougher to judge. It doesn't help that I'm not a big fan of Laura Dern, nor does it help that Lynch sticks his camera in everyone's noses. Even so, while most actors do a decent enough job, there's no one that truly sticks out. Performances are okay, but none of them is very memorable or inspiring. Except for maybe the rabbits, but that could be attributed to the mysterious nature of the suit rather than the actual performance of the actors.
Inland Empire is a strange beast, even for a Lynch film. Not only did Lynch include parts of Rabbits, he also expanded on the series a little. And where a film like Mulholland Dr. merely turned its whole plot upside down around the halfway mark, Inland Empire makes a complete thematic and narrative U-turn. As a viewer, you're left with the choice to just experience the mysterious nature of the film as is, or to scour the internet for clues and to deconstruct the film in an effort to find coherence. I prefer the former, but there's more than enough leeway for both approaches.
Inland Empire is still a pretty interesting film and if you've enjoyed Lynch's older films it won't be too much of a disappointment. But expect crappy video quality and less than preferable visuals. It's really a shame this is Lynch's final film, as it's not the swan song he deserves. Hopefully he'll be able to return to feature film cinema once more to right this wrong, but as it stands now you can't help but feel a little disappointed, if only because you know the man can do better.