David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE is in some ways the ultimate expression of a story he’s been writing for decades. Shot on digital video, Lynch (who’s said he’d never work with film again) was free to explore the subconscious of himself and his characters without regard to things like the cost of film stock or the unwieldiness of large cameras and lighting setups. INLAND EMPIRE was shot without a script, and out of order, with Lynch hoping that it would somehow come together in the end. For him, it did. It’s that process of putting the puzzle together that seems to fascinate him as a filmmaker.

This process is not necessarily apparent to his actors – Justin Theroux proclaimed in a Village Voice interview, “I couldn’t possibly tell you what the film’s about, and at this point I don’t know that he could. It’s become sort of a pastime – Laura (Dern) and I sit around on set trying to figure out what’s going on.” As is the case for all of his films, though, Lynch refuses to give away its secrets, saying only, “It’s about a woman in trouble, and it’s a mystery, and that’s all I want to say about it.”

Of course, INLAND EMPIRE is a long, long film. Lynch has never been known for his brevity, and shooting on more economical digital video allowed him to throw in everything and the kitchen sink. The film features a plot convention used in at least three different David Lynch films to date (not to mention Twin Peaks): an “other world” populated by doppelgangers who may or may not be facets of the same fragmented person. INLAND EMPIRE shifts back and forth between worlds at will, without warning, so as a viewer you’re left disoriented and confused. Sound a lot like MULHOLLAND DR. or LOST HIGHWAY? Well, imagine how you felt watching those films – and then add in the wrinkle that you don’t know when any given scene is taking place either. (Yep: time-shifting.) That’s INLAND EMPIRE.

Most Lynch films come down to one simple device that unlocks the entire plot, and that “Eureka!” moment that comes on a second or third viewing is part of the enjoyment in watching – and thinking about – his films. We won’t spoil any of his previous films here (amazingly, not everybody has figured out MULHOLLAND DR. yet!), except to say that if such a device exists in INLAND EMPIRE, it’s a lot better hidden. It’s possible that there is no such device, given the fragmented way the film was created, with a coherent plot only forming late in production in the director’s mind. That could make INLAND EMPIRE one of the most cryptic and mysterious David Lynch films yet.