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Wages of sin

David Lynch returns to the dark side with Inland Empire

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At 61, David Lynch remains one of the most original, befuddling, visually astounding and structurally perverse directors around, as his recent foray into digital video, Inland Empire, proves.

In Lynch's films -- from his feature debut, Eraserhead, to his most famous collision of innocence and evil, Blue Velvet -- watch out when characters start wandering down shadow-streaked hallways, opening doors and peering into strange, unfamiliar rooms. That is when the already precarious world Lynch has established bottoms out and some new surreality emerges.

With Lynch, those womb-like rooms stand in for the hidden recesses of his characters' minds; the dark places inaccessible to conscious thought. Lynch's films show us how different the world can be -- how foreboding and scary -- when we're tainted by human sin.

Lanky and wholesome, Laura Dern previously showed in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart why she is the perfect Lynch vehicle for psychological horror. Her sunny innocence reassures us that things can't be all that bad, until she begins to plummet into the sewer system of Lynch's extraordinarily imaginative vision of a corrupt world.

Dern portrays Nikki Grace, an actress who has just taken on a challenging new role in an improbably titled film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, and is warned early on by a neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) with a thick Polish accent and a sneer that there may be danger in Nikki's "tomorrow."

In 2001's Mulholland Drive, Lynch dipped his toes into the corruption and layers of deceit in Hollywood, but in Inland Empire his view on the Dream Factory has degenerated even further. For Nikki, as with the heroines of Mulholland, it's the Nightmare Factory, a place where her bearings and morality falter.

Sitting in a cavernous studio to run her lines, Nikki, co-star Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) and director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) are startled by a stranger lurking in the shadows. Kingsley mentions a gypsy curse that marred the film's previous Polish production, thus explaining the scenes of a beautiful young Polish woman that bifurcate Inland Empire's own consciousness. But as Nikki delves deeper into her role as an adulterous vamp, she's haunted by the specter of make-believe -- the disorientation that occurs when an actor plays a role, imagining illicit acts and flirting with her own dark side.

Aware of her co-star's reputation for philandering and her husband's zero-tolerance policy on hanky-panky, Nikki nevertheless succumbs, as if predestined, to Devon's bad-boy charms.

And that's where Inland Empire -- which already has been threatening with its jumps from Poland to Hollywood to lose its grip on reality -- lets go.

Trading a mansion for a grubby tract home and a debonair husband for an oaf, Inland Empire suggests a woman whose consciousness has become scrambled. Nikki now spends a great deal of her time with a group of slinky, younger girls who flash their breasts and talk about sex. It becomes clear that in sleeping with Devon, she has joined the ranks of these discarded women.

The inherent schizophrenia of playing a role that can easily bleed into one's life makes Inland Empire feel like an examination of the pitfalls of acting. But it also suggests that Nikki's consciousness split in half the moment she entered another man's bed, and that it is deception that has caused her to essentially become two people. In some ways, the film offers the clearest indication yet of Lynch's moral code, and the way sin in his films tends to make a bright and sunny world into a dark and treacherous one.

Despite its nearly three-hour length, Inland Empire feels like one of the more thematically focused of Lynch's recent films. Though it moves about in space and time, and may often leave viewers unsure about whether we are watching real events or their film dramatization, what it says about the dangers of pretending are fairly clear: Deceive at your own risk.

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