Not that we usually place much stock in the year-end choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (thanks for the dis on A Lion in the House, fuckwits. Blindsight, anyone?), but it’s blindingly obvious that a few billion folks who aren’t us do, which is why it is occasionally worth lobbying, at least in a small way, for a favored long shot contender.
So here’s my vote, cast for one of the most breathtaking, daring, scary, and dexterous performances of the year: Laura Dern in Inland Empire. Long past her early nineties heyday of visibility (Wild at Heart, Rambling Rose, and Jurassic Park), Dern’s credits throughout the early aughts have thinned out a fair piece. While she’s taken roles in films like Happy Endings, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, and The Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio, it’s presumable that few took much notice as this batch floated in and out of theatres. With Inland she’s reunited with the director who gave her what’s perhaps her archetypal role (at least for me: Lula in Wild at Heart), and delivered an indescribably great performance in the face of a nearly inexplicable film.
Which begs the question: Will anyone spare the time in this crowded holiday/awards season to watch it? Inland Empire’s nearly three hours long, wildly experimental and ditches linear narrative convention fairly early in for a long stretch of subjective, dreamlike connections. It’s a film that dwells in incoherence while teasing audiences with the possibility of “answers,” yet somehow builds to a redemptive, emotional climax, without audiences ever really being able to grasp the stakes. This is due in many respects to Dern, who flits between characters, accents, and affects, following Lynch as he plumbs deeper and deeper into the multiverse that is his latest film. What other actress would agree to sign onto a project without a script shot on “toy cameras” (Lynch’s words) over a period of years with the possibility that no end product might ever result? Kudos for that, but what of an actress who pushes herself through a range of characters, a gurgling bloody death sequence, long stretches where she’s required to perform all the different shades of confusion, and, most horrifyingly for any performer, allowing her own face to be stretched and distorted into a kind of funhouse death mask at the film’s terrifying conclusion?
Dedication to craft abounds in Inland Empire, and not to knock current Academy frontrunner, Helen Mirren, whose performance in The Queen is another kind of lesson in chops, but I’ve always held a bit more admiration for those who cut memorable performances out of whole cloth than those working from a real-life base. (This is why Heath Ledger received my vote for 2005.) What’s miraculous about this supremely special, unique performance is that there’s no anchor in sight for Dern’s Nikka Grace except Dern herself.