I think David Lynch, at his best, is one of the most gifted and audacious of filmmakers, but he began to lose me around the time of "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me." His greatest and most profoundly unsettling films, "Eraserhead," "Blue Velvet," and the more conventional "The Elephant Man," issued from deep inside his anguished psyche. Lynch makes his nightmares our own.
Over time, though, with films such as "Lost Highway" and, to a lesser extent, "Mulholland Drive," Lynch's movies became less personal and more private. Whatever he is working out in his new film, "Inland Empire," it's beyond the reach of all but his idolators.
Lynch always has been an imagist rather than a conventional storyteller; his visual fantasias spring from his subconscious in ways that, while common enough in the avant-garde experimental realm, rarely surface in the commercial cinema. This is one reason why I still admire him, even though I have trouble making it through his movies. He is reso- lutely antimainstream and I am convinced nowadays that no great art will come from any filmmaker who isn't.
But even in the rarified realms of the avant-garde, there is good art and bad art. "Inland Empire," which clocks in at almost three hours, is a long sit. You can lean back and let the movie wash over you – which is what audiences also seem to be doing at "The Fountain," that head-trip movie for the multiplexes – but the experience is far more exasperating than exhilarating.
Lynch's movies are notoriously plot deficient, and never more so than "Inland Empire," which has something to do with an actress, played by Laura Dern, who is cast in a remake of a Polish movie that was shut down after its lead actors mysteriously expired. Dern's costar, played by Justin Theroux, is a roué who is not fond of the accursed atmosphere on the set. Jeremy Irons, as their director, enunciates "Action" and "Cut" with great precision.
This narrative thread rapidly unravels as we are regaled with Polish gangsters, doppelgangers, Hollywood Boulevard streetwalkers, phantasmagoric flashbacks, flashforwards, and flash- inbetweens – for starters. Lynch has admitted that he wrote each scene just before filming it, and it shows.
Shot over a period of five years in high-definition video, the aptly named "Inland Empire" may seem startling to audiences who never have seen a David Lynch movie before. But, in fact, it recycles many visual, aural, and thematic tropes from his earlier films – the only thing missing are the dancing dwarves. Or did I miss them?
Lynch's attempts to make the psychic atmosphere of a movie mimic the mind-set of its characters also is not exactly revolutionary. This ploy goes at least as far back as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919).
He even plugs in snippets from his old website of giant talking rabbits performing in a sitcom with a laugh track. These images, however, are supremely disturbing in ways I can't fathom. Even at his weirdest, Lynch can't be laughed off or explained away. What he puts on the screen issues from too cavernous an abyss to be dismissed (however much we might like to do so).
But "Inland Empire," in the end, is a great big puzzle movie that even Lynch appears not to have figured out. Maybe he doesn't need to. Maybe it all makes sense a second time. I really doubt it, though. The obsessive fans who went to work on the arty obfuscations in "Twin Peaks" will once again have their hands full, and it is for them that this movie seems most designed. Grade: C
• Rated R for language, some violence, and sexuality/nudity.