The best defense I can muster for David Lynch's Inland Empire, a three-hour, shot-on-video head-trip experiment in how to leave an audience baffled to the point of numbness, is that there's no director I'd rather watch disappear up his own posterior. That said, it's not a pretty sight. At first, you think you're seeing Laura Dern as a faded actress, cast in a melodrama of Southern infidelity, whose screen role opposite a Hollywood stud (Justin Theroux) starts to bleed into her real life. But that's just the fragmented tip of the avant-garde rabbit hole. The movie they're filming, On High in Blue Tomorrows, is a remake of a film that was never finished sort of like Mulholland Drive (which began life as a failed TV pilot), making this a meta comment on a meta movie. Then, suddenly, Dern isn't her ''real'' self or her movie self she has slipped the gears of identity, becoming...who? A woman with a bruised mouth in a shabby apartment. Who may be a prostitute. Who wanders down hallways, across empty stages, through a snowy road in Poland, forever gawking, searching, trying to solve the mystery of...what?
Lynch, who photographed Inland Empire on consumer-grade DV, is trying for the same rottingly beautiful, lamplight-in-hell atmospherics he achieved in Blue Velvet and more or less every film since. To a degree, he succeeds: The harsher grain of video can't wash away his mastery of the lure of decay. There are spooky images, like a gang of zombie sexpots dancing to ''The Loco-Motion'' (Lynch's comment on the fashion generation?) or Dern's mouth smeared into a nightmare rictus. And Lynch, of course, unpacks his bag of tropes: the roars on the soundtrack, the stucco rooms darkened by the secrets of their inhabitants. The trope he's now obsessed with, though, is that of characters split in two, standing outside themselves, staring at the life they're dreaming. What this comes down to is that we have no idea who anybody in the movie is. They're not characters, they're figments, skulking through a Lynchian maze of mounting, patched-together discombobulation. Inland Empire is so locked up in David Lynch's brain that it never burrows its way into ours.