Abandon all hope of logic, ye who enter here. David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE (he insists the letters be capitalized), shot with a consumer digicam (the Sony PD-150), is three hours of mesmerizing (often infuriating) incoherence, a puzzle whose pieces you’ll keep trying to put together in your head long after you leave the theater. Some filmmakers work outside the box, but Lynch — the maker of surreal masterpieces (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive) — never fit in any box to begin with. A painter before he ever shot a frame of film, this Montana avant-gardist (Mel Brooks once called him “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”) and longtime practicer of transcendental meditation treats the screen as a canvas on which he can shape abstract ideas. Lynch’s canvases always spill over. You watch his films — INLAND EMPIRE is arguably his most ambitious mind-bender yet — in a futile effort to grasp what’s there and what isn’t. In a multiplex world that can be summed up with the mind-numbing words Big Momma’s House 2, I find this a good thing.
As for the alleged plot of INLAND EMPIRE , here’s as far as I’ll go: Laura Dern, in a monumental performance that holds the line of humanism even as reality and illusion blur, plays Nikki, an actress signed to star in a new movie, directed by Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) and co-starring the womanizing Devon (Justin Theroux). A neighbor, played with freakish intensity by Grace Zabriskie, warns Nikki about the role. As well she should. The film, based on a gypsy curse, is actually a remake, shot before in Poland but never released because the original stars were brutally murdered. Soon Nikki can’t tell herself from her character, Sue. And viewers must deal with the appearance of giant rabbits (voiced by Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey), hookers who sing “The Loco-Motion” and scene shifts from the Lüdz ghetto to Hollywood Boulevard. My advice, in the face of such hallucinatory brilliance, is that you hang on. Don’t peg Lynch as an elitist — this is a guy who recently parked himself and a live cow at a Los Angeles intersection to tout Dern for an Oscar. See him for what he is: an artist following his own maverick instincts and inviting us to jump with him into the wild blue.