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MOVIE REVIEW

Lynch pushes further than ever into surreal territory

"Inland Empire" may be the most aggressively surreal feature film ever released to movie theaters in this country, and it's possibly close to the movie David Lynch carries around in his head.

It consists of three hours of exhausting nonlinear nightmare held together by Laura Dern's staggering performance as four (or five) different women -- they may be facets of the same woman; I'm still parsing that one. If you thought Lynch's last movie, "Mulholland Drive ," didn't make sense, by all that is holy stay away from this one.

If you were able to pick the lock of "Mulholland," however, and understand that it's actually one of the director's most logical works -- well, you'll still be baffled by "Inland Empire." It's useless to judge the new movie as a movie when in fact it's cubism, relentlessly applied to celluloid like thick smears of oil on a canvas. Lynch is an action director the way Jackson Pollock was an action painter.

No coincidence Lynch began his career as a visual artist before short films led to his 1977 debut "Eraserhead." Our collective "inland empire" -- the murky, often terrifying landscape of the subconscious -- has been his enduring subject. In this film he pushes further than ever before, intent on fully mapping the territory. The legend should read "Here be monsters."

Pressed to describe "Inland Empire," Lynch has said it's about "a woman in trouble," which is like saying "Jaws" is about a fish. After a few eerie false starts, the movie settles into the tale of Nikki Grace (Dern), a genteel, slightly faded movie star cast as the lead in a purple romance called "On High in Blue Tomorrows." Her director is a chipper Brit named Kingsley (Jeremy Irons); her costar a known ladies' man named Devon (Justin Theroux) playing "Billy" to her "Sue." Their banter is banal and vaguely threatening; we're in Lynch-ville, all right.

Nikki has already had an inkling of disaster from a creepy neighbor (Grace Zabriskie ), who visits bearing old-wives' tales. ("Ees eet about marriage?" she wonders about the movie. Why, yes, maybe it is.) Then it turns out the production is cursed, and that the lead actors in an aborted earlier version were murdered. Then Nikki appears to give in to Devon's advances, despite her marriage to a lethally jealous husband (Peter J. Lucas ).

And then? Then "Inland Empire" and its central character come unmoored, as Nikki seemingly morphs into Sue and a host of other women, wandering down roaring hallways and ill-advisedly opening doors onto more and more and more personas: a lost soul in a motel room full of Devon's cast-off girlfriends; a blue-collar housewife; a battered streetwalker on Hollywood Boulevard.

The film doesn't travel in circles so much as constantly open up onto different angles of itself. Each of Dern's characters is a window into the next, and their anxiety, confusion, anger, and fear progress exponentially through the film. "Inland Empire" is a harrowing experience -- the woman sitting next to me whimpered in abject fear at times -- and it goes so deeply into issues of identity, abandonment, and vulnerability that it touches a baseline nerve. This isn't about "a woman in trouble" so much as women in trouble: a Rorschach blot for an entire gender.

Lynch is shooting on high-definition video, and he pushes the light so that it bleeds queasily over the edges of things; at other times, he plunges us into near-complete darkness. The score is intentionally assaultive until Beck's "Black Tambourine" pops up and gives the film a delirious late-inning boost.

For all the freak-out randomness, though -- have I mentioned the weeping Polish prostitute watching Nikki's story on TV? No? How about the apartment full of humanoid rabbits? Or Julia Ormond as a woman with a screwdriver sticking out of her stomach? -- "Inland Empire" feels both exploratory and controlled, and it rolls toward a remarkably soul-affirming resolution. The pieces converge.

There are transcendent moments on the way there: a rama-lama group rendition of "The Locomotion" for one, and a street-corner death that's frightening in its anonymous finality. There are just as many dull patches and infuriating long u eurs. And there is Dern playing the three faces of Eve and then some, digging deeper into the meat of the female psyche with each new scene. They don't give Oscars for the places she takes us, and perhaps that's just as well. It's still a performance of Olympian proportions.

"Inland Empire" isn't interested in coherence. There's no symbolism, and you'll drive yourself crazy if you go looking for it. This may be hard for literalists to understand -- and moviegoers can be the most literal audiences of all -- but the film is nevertheless a work of profound, unnerving impact. The way to watch it is to skip uneasily along its surface and steel yourself for those moments when Lynch pulls you into the vortex. More than any working filmmaker, he knows the dreamlike power of undertow.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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