There is a scene in David Lynch’s Inland Empire in which a character played by Laura Dern, breathless from having climbed a flight of stairs, sits before a chubby man with crooked glasses in a dank little room and tells a story. The precise narrative of the story, like so much of Lynch’s self-produced, self-distributed, hand-shot new movie, is nearly impossible to determine: It’s something about a woman having been beaten and raped, and then turning on her abuser — “he been a-reapin’ what he been sowin’,” she drawls — and the intent of the “meeting upstairs,” as Dern calls the scene, remains a mystery even to the actor herself.
But one thing does emerge clearly from this: a study of a woman, both familiar and strange, who survives by striking certain necessary deals, on the street and in compromised relationships with men, who claws her relentless way through to a future that always fails her, and who, despite all the hard luck and meanness, never for a moment considers herself pitiable. By the Band-Aid on her neck and the sneer on her face, one might judge her to have lived her better days in a trailer, but in Dern’s portrayal of her, she also comes off as a woman in sincere pursuit of answers to the puzzle of life. This is classic Dern: As with the glue-sniffer in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, you ultimately stop trying to figure out what she thinks she’s doing and simply appreciate who she is.
Dern says her character is “the core of the movie,” a movie that began with a 14-page monologue Dern memorized overnight and delivered the next day to an astonished Lynch, who touted her on a panel at the New York Film Festival as one of the great actors of her generation. Most who watch her performance in Inland Empire will find it difficult to dispute that.
After 33 years as a professional actress, Dern, who turns 40 in February, has at long last established herself as what every fan of hers knew she was long ago: that rare actor who can transfer a thoughtful interpretation of a life and a character to the screen without ever letting on that she’s making you think. Lynch’s new film, she says, is like a visit to a museum of abstract paintings: No two readings of it are alike, and none are wrong. But at least one of its threads traces a fretful line through Dern’s unusual career, from the sexually precocious teen in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985) through her two previous turns in Lynch movies, as the wide-eyed Sandy in Blue Velvet (1986) and the indomitable Lula in Wild at Heart (1989), and on into her sober portrayal of paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Satler — the moral voice of reason in a world gone mad — in Jurassic Parks one and three. She has suffered, vexed, fought, escaped and died, and she has probably spent a greater proportion of her screen time with her face twisted in pained confusion than any other actor alive. In Inland Empire, when a creature with long, blond locks and a heavily lipsticked tragedy-mask mouth pursues Dern’s fragmented movie star through sets and streets, the vision seems to have come straight out of the nightmares of an actor who has spent too many of her days running from dinosaurs.
“I’ve had a lot of fun getting all of my anguish out,” she says. “I don’t feel that I live my life in torment at all, so there’s probably something to be said for having an outlet to explore the drama, and minimize it in your own life.”
At this point in the early life of Lynch’s confounding opus, it’s clear that dozens of people have already asked Dern to answer for the film, which is at once maddening and rewarding, not least because of Dern’s startlingly clear performance through a muddle of surrealism. And when she shows up at the California Pizza Kitchen just downstairs from Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, ebullient and gracious in her unpretentious flowy blue dress and long, blond curls, it seems uncharitable, not to mention boring, to press the issue too hard. At home nearby, there is a 2-year-old daughter, Jaya, with an ear infection to worry about. Jaya is the youngest of the two children (son Ellery is 5) Dern has with musician Ben Harper, whom she married last fall after five years of living together and raising a family. (“To actually take your vows when you’re staring at someone and you know it all,” she says, “I recommend it highly.”) Upstairs, in the Sunset 5, there is a question-and-answer period scheduled after the screening of Inland Empire currently in progress. Presently, the subject that seems most engaging to Dern is not the trajectory of her own career, or the various meanings early viewers have assigned to Inland Empire, but Lynch himself: her mentor, her friend, and the director who in some ways has defined her career.