"The thing is, I don't know what's before or after," says Laura Dern in David Lynch's new puzzlebox, "Inland Empire. " She's not alone;...

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“The thing is, I don’t know what’s before or after,” says Laura Dern in David Lynch’s new puzzlebox, “Inland Empire.” She’s not alone; even the most avid Lynch fans may struggle to find clarity in this collage-of-images drama, a funhouse mirror image of his last film, “Mulholland Drive.” (Imagine that the final third of “Mulholland Drive” exploded, and you’ll be close.) Taking place — some of it, anyway — in the world of Hollywood filmmaking, “Inland Empire” whooshes from reality to fantasy, from film-within-the-film to film-within-the-film-within-the-film (I think), from musical dream sequences (“The Loco-Motion” is featured) to a gritty death on a sidewalk. It’s never less than intriguing but often close to inaccessible.

Repeat viewings help unveil some of the film’s secrets, as they did for “Mulholland Drive.” The second time through, “Inland Empire” struck me as an icy-dark “Alice in Wonderland” tale, with its blond heroine wandering through endless dark hallways and rabbitholes (almost literally, giant rabbits, borrowed from Lynch’s 2002 short film “Rabbits,” turn up), mutating and changing on her way to an unknown fate. But while “Mulholland Drive,” a tale of a starry-eyed actress lost in the City of Dreams, left me eager to watch it again and comb out its twisty threads, my response to “Inland Empire” was somewhat cooler. It’s as if Lynch has walked off a cliff, wondering who will follow.

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

“Inland Empire,” with Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux, Grace Zabriskie, Julia Ormond, Harry Dean Stanton. Written and directed by David Lynch. 179 minutes. Rated R for language, some violence and sexuality/nudity. Neptune.

At the center of “Inland Empire,” though, is something to see. Just as Naomi Watts’ performance lit up “Mulholland Drive,” so Laura Dern takes hold of “Inland Empire.” Dern, the innocent Sandy in “Blue Velvet,” has grown up on screen, and her range here is startling. Her changeable face, with its long jaw and melting mouth, can be a vision of patrician beauty or a twisted, ravaged blur, and Dern is unafraid to show us both — and everything in between. She plays Nikki Grace, an actress in a film called “On High in Blue Tomorrows” (directed by a grinning, preening Jeremy Irons); a character in that film called Susan Blue; and, I think, several others. Nikki and Susan dissolve into each other as the movie’s worlds overlap: Nikki isn’t always sure whether or not she’s Susan, or whether she’s in a movie, and neither are we.

As the film’s many images (shot, by Lynch and others, on gritty digital video) whiz by, punctuated by close-ups so tight the actors’ faces become harrowingly distorted, the filmmaker’s trademarks pop up: the oddly eerie giant bunnies, the coffee (à la “Twin Peaks”), the cameos by Lynch veterans. The great Grace Zabriskie (“Twin Peaks,” “Wild at Heart”) turns up early as Nikki’s odd neighbor; she’s rather terrifyingly filmed, in extreme closeup with her eyes catching a sort of zombie light. “Actions do have consequences,” she spits to Nikki, who looks horrified and confused. (It’s a hint of a theme, which the film’s various flashbacks and flash-forwards illustrate.)

“Inland Empire” is essentially a journey inside Lynch’s mind, sometimes burrowing very deep indeed. Nobody else could have made this film; nobody else should try. After three hours, as Dern sits serenely on a couch in an Alice-blue dress for a bizarrely exhilarating credit sequence (she’s earned a rest, surely), you’re likely to be fascinated or numbed — or maybe both.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com