Left wide open to interpretation and maddening deadening effect INLAND EMPIRE (purposely in all caps) is an organic work of art that sparks thought and debate. It’s not a story of anyone or anything in particular—and the movie experience is as frustrating as that sounds. But we’ll attempt to explain anyway: Four or five unconnected plotlines revolve around Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) a troubled actress in love. Nikki is shooting a film costarring Devon (Justin Theroux) and directed by Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Nikki’s schizophrenic tortured reality seems to blur her personal identity with that of her movie character Susan Blue. Dern screams she’s in love with her Billy the character Devon is playing in the movie while those around her seem confused. We too in the audience are left unaware of what world Dern is in. A psychedelic series of interludes focuses on a family of brown rabbits with upright ears (one voiced by Naomi Watts) framed coldly in a living room with a 1950’s-style TV laugh-track. Another recurrent series of images is a Polish subtitled film aborted when its stars are killed. With INLAND EMPIRE we’re left to guess what Lynch is thinking. Is it Nikki’s internal self--or could it be ourselves? Whatever it is it’s big and mysterious. INLAND EMPIRE is essentially a Dern marathon one-woman showing her ability to play grizzled upset crazy frightening smiling and folksy all with a tarnished luster. She’s a Lynch three-time collaborator after Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet. If INLAND EMPIRE were a better more logical movie Dern may have been touted for an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination. But alas the performance is too parsed and incomplete to register an emotional resonance with most audiences. Dern has several powerful scenes in which she’s vulnerable wounded and pathologically driven for violence – and one of those all-important crying scenes. But under Lynch’s directing Nikki/Susan is like a photographic scrapbook of vignettes not a complete character. Numerous recognizable cameos (William H. Macy Mary Steenburgen Watts) add to Lynch’s credibility while Harry Dean Stanton (in his fourth Lynch film) has a funny befuddled turn as a director’s assistant. Irons is strong--if under-used--as director Kingsley. He chomps his scenes playing the Hollywood conventions of a larger-than-life helmer to delicious effect. INLAND EMPIRE is a baffling statement of artistic entitlement. Its Lynch’s first film since Mulholland Dr. which garnered the pop provocateur an Oscar nomination for Best Director but its a fussy follow-up a long-winded Terry Gilliam-like descent into dementia. At three hours confusion is the collective effect as though the film has been conceived on some kind of altered drug-induced state. The intention seems to evoke an emotional response instead of an intellectual one but it’s mostly one of distress. The audience’s only option is to follow along through black-and-brown-lighted visions of nothing. Lynch described in INLAND EMPIRE press materials as “Eagle Scout Missoula Montana ” financed this avant-garde film himself and plans to promote it in person with a live cow. If that makes sense to you buy a ticket.
September 12, 2003 11:43am EST
New grads Paul (Rider Strong) Karen (Jordan Ladd) Jeff (Joey Kern) Marcy (Cerina Vincent) and Bert (James Debello) head off to a cabin in the woods to let off some post-college steam before entering the working world. They are a pretty likeable bunch except for Bert who gets drunk and starts shooting at squirrels with a rifle--and then accidentally shoots a stranger in the woods. Bert keeps mum about the incident until the man projectile vomiting blood and looking like he's been skinned alive shows up at the cabin and tries to take their truck. While trying to stop him Paul unintentionally sets him on fire and the gang watches as he runs ablaze into the woods. What they don't know however is that he had a contagious flesh-eating virus. When his charred body falls into the local water reservoir everyone becomes vulnerable. The first to gulp down a glass of water filled with strange chunky particles is Karen whom they forcibly quarantine in a shed behind the cabin when she begins to show signs of the disease. Before long the fear of contagion turns the remaining four against one another. What's more a local lynch mob has formed in order to track down and kill anyone who may have come in contact with the virus which has apparently threatened this small town before. Cabin Fever is definitely a rollicking ride; it will scare you gross you out and make you laugh.
Like most low-budget horror films Cabin Fever's cast isn't exactly stellar yet the young actors and actresses really elevate the material. The most refreshing thing about the characters is that they react to what is happening to them in a way you and I probably would as opposed to the typical slasher-flick way: Instead of banding together against the common enemy they bicker act like cowards and put themselves first. Strong who last appeared in My Giant but is probably better known as Shawn from the TV series Boy Meets World emerges as a capable lead as Paul the most sensible of the group. Although his character comes across as somewhat brighter and more sensitive than the rest he is still immature enough to try to cop a feel when his love interest Karen is sleeping and feeling under the weather. Karen meanwhile is played by Ladd who has had small roles in several movies including The Specials and Never Been Kissed. Her character is the most compassionate of the gang and Karen reacts more intensely to events than the others. Kern as cocky know-it-all Jeff Vincent as slutty tough chick Marcy and Debello as party boy Bert perfectly round out the diverse cast of characters.
Because of its gruesome subject matter it is difficult to describe such a vile movie as being good or even well made but this one really is. In his feature directorial debut helmer Eli Roth delivers a truly disturbing horror picture. While most pics of this genre tend to look cold and gritty Roth saturates his sets with golden ambient lighting that brightly contrasts the film's dark dismal subject matter. And dismal is putting it mildly: Cabin Fever shows viewers things that most movies don't because they would be considered too disturbing. Case in point: When the intoxicated Bert drives off for help in his pickup and hits a deer the animal doesn't just die on impact but struggles in pain its hind legs flailing through the windshield. Such disturbing imagery escalates by degrees until the very end when the film takes on a weird surreal quality. For example the scenes of Paul being pushed through a hospital on a gurney have a dreamlike feel bound to make moviegoers question if what is happening is real. The film's score also has all sorts of unusual instrumental influences including a Twin Peaks-inspired number when a sheriff comes to investigate the cabin and a Deliverance-type banjo ditty to accompany the locals folk in front of the general store which adds a touch of humor at the most unlikely moment.