So, as I’ve stated elsewhere here, I kinda really love Inland Empire – it’s one of those films that really gets at the heart of why I love movies in spite of being as close to an anti-movie as a major director has ever likely gotten. Thus, in spite of my David Lynch posts not being terribly popular, I’m going to launch into a tentative interpretation of what makes the film tick.
(So what I’m saying is you should probably just skip this post and wait for my next rant about JRPGs or whatever.)
Inland Empire is a story about stories and their history, using Hollywood storytelling as a launching point. It looks at both their illusory nature, but also how stories also encode more fundamental truths within them. It’s also, in a sense, a ghost story, although like Kubrick’s take on The Shining the supernatural element is pretty difficult to parse, and perhaps even not the point.
Anyway, the first thing we see in the movie is a movie projector turning on and illuminating the title, Inland Empire. Which is about as blatant as you can get in underlining how what we’re watching isn’t real, but are merely images displayed on a screen. And throughout the film there are a few shots from the perspective of the movie screen looking back towards the theatre (the effect of this is probably much stronger if you’re actually watching this in a theatre). So right off the bat the fourth wall is removed and we’re into a meta-fictional acknowledgement that everything we’re seeing is fiction. In a way, this picks up where Lynch’s previous film, Mulholland Drive, left off – that film spends most of its run-time gradually making the audience aware of its own artifice; but it also is a narrative where some events “really happened” while others are just fantasy. In Inland Empire, that distinction no longer obtains: everything is equally real within this fantasy world unfolding upon the screen.
So this kicks off a seemingly oblique prologue that actually does a decent job establishing things when unpacked. We next see a phonograph playing and hear a voice announce Axxon N, the longest running radio drama in the world. He begins describing the setting, but the visuals take over, and we watch a prostitute identified as the Lost Girl go to a client’s apartment. This is the first scene we have in what I’ll call the Polish story, since it’s set in 1930s Poland.
But the thing is that the Lost Girl is actually two characters, and we cut to the other one, who seemingly exists in the present day. Since this is a movie whose different narrative threads are actually just different permutations or retellings of the same story, some characters are more than one character, or are played by more than one actor. But the salient point here is that present day Lost Girl is in some sort of distress, and is watching footage from Inland Empire on her TV. This sets up the first narrative layer, wherein most of the movie’s content is actually a movie within a movie.
So the first scene in Inland Empire proper is our introduction to the sitcom about three anthropomorphic rabbits who speak in non-sequiturs to canned laughter. This thread is honestly the most difficult to parse, but I have at least a theory now as to what they’re doing here. One of the first lines in the sitcom is, “what time is it?” and a lot of the lines have something to do with time and change. Now, a narrative at its most fundamental level is an attempt to provide a meaningful structure or teleology to a sequence of events occurring in time. Given that the end of the movie suggests that the rabbits exist in the very “core” of Inland Empire, it may be that they represent this bedrock level of storytelling. And, since all their “dialogue” consists of various sentences that otherwise have no relation tho each other, perhaps it goes back even further, reflecting the even more basic narrative bedrock of grammar itself.
And here’s where a comparison with The Shining may be helpful. The Overlook hotel in that film is a haunted place, and Kubrick uses all sorts of tricks to emphasize its otherworldly nature, such as its architecture being nonsensical, and deliberate discontinuities in between shots. The movie has a very intentionally unreal sense of place. But Inland Empire will reveal itself to be about a haunted story, and the basic axis of storytelling here is time: so Lynch perhaps deliberately tampers with chronology and causality in order to convey that otherworldly quality to the audience.
The last thing in this prologue is our villain, the Phantom (no, not that one). This is the dude who’s doing the haunting, though whether he really is a malevolent supernatural entity or just a representation of human evil is up for grabs. He claims he’s looking for an opening, but we otherwise lack a context to what’s going on with him.
But then we begin the Nikki Grace narrative which dominates much of the first hour. It’s the most conventional part of the film, though not free from typical Lynchian menace and quirky humor. Nikki Grace is an actor who has just landed one of the lead roles in the film, “On High in Blue Tomorrows. She lives in this ornate mansion with her husband Pyotr, who gives off a creepy, “I hope I catch my wife having an adulterous affair so that I can have an excuse to murder her” sort of vibe.
Anyway, the movie she’s in with co-star Devon Berk is about two people who have an adulterous affair that may or may not end in murder. Also it turns out its secretly a remake of an unfinished German film called 47 where the leads were murdered. And 47 itself is based on an old Polish gypsy folk tale. The folks behind 47 “discovered something” in the script which led to their demise. And it seems that that something has passed onto Nikki’s movie, as she’s increasingly unable to tell the difference between her real life and Sue, the character she plays as.
But before any of this really gets off the ground, Nikki is visited by an older woman who claims to be a new neighbour. This is a pretty great Hitchcockian scene where the seemingly benign and banal conversation between the two of them gradually picks up a sinister quality. But the most important point is that the visitor tells Nikki two variations of an old Polish folk tale: a little boy goes into the world and creates a reflection, from which evil is born; a little girl gets lost in the marketplace and discovers a palace. So we have the original archetype of Inland Empire: some sort of original sin is committed by a man, which plunges a woman into distress, although she finds something in the end. All the various plot threads of the film are seemingly different iterations and retellings of this basic dramatic movement.
So by the time we enter the second hour we have all these stories, stories about stories and stories within stories being related. And this is where things get serious. Nikki accidentally wanders onto the set of her movie, which becomes real, and she herself becomes Sue, and the movie we’re watching (or, more precisely, the movie we’re watching the Lost Girl watching) is now effectively the movie she was making, “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” with the whole Nikki narrative seemingly abandoned. As this transformation happens, we see the Phantom in a reflection, suggesting that he has found the opening into Nikki’s narrative that he was looking for (and also suggesting that he is indeed the primal evil brought into the world in the folk tale.
But, because this is a haunted story, it’s told out of chronological order, and mixed with the Polish story, which plays out as roughly the same story in 1930s Poland (alternate take: the sequence of the narrative is actually the sequence of its shooting schedule, which for films is rarely done in chronological order). The gist of it is this: Sue, who has a history of abusive relationships with men (N.B: this history isn’t shown to us but is rather told as a story by Sue in a strange “interview”). She has a rather dour marriage with a man named Smithy, who she winds up cheating on with the debonair Billy (Devon in the Nikki story). Smithy finds out about her infidelity and leaves her for a circus troupe(whose retinue includes the phantom). Sue has a child with Nikki (who may or may not get killed by Smithy at some point) who dies. Her hard luck leads her to homelessness and prostitution, and eventually death by the hands of Billy’s wife, who has been hypnotized by the Phantom. The Polish story hits similar beats, with the Lost Girl as the Sue character and the Phantom as her husband, except the Lost Girl herself murders her lover’s spouse, and the Phantom murders her lover.
“Actions have consequences” is a phrase that gets repeated a lot, and indeed here we have situations where evil is not just an isolated thing, but a force that affects and infects others. A husband’s abusiveness fuels a wife’s adulterous affair, which in turn leads to murder and prostitution. Depending on how you read the Phantom, he either is this corrosive evil, or a malevolent entity taking advantage of this situation.
But when Sue dies on the streets, the camera pulls out and suddenly we’re on a set in the Nikki narrative again. Having learned from her experiences as Sue, Nikki realizes that she herself is a character in a narrative being watched by the Lost Girl, and that the Phantom is out to get her. She seemingly wanders outside of the bounds of her narrative and confronts the Phantom outside a door marked 47 (the German movie). Here she defeats the Phantom (who transforms into an incredibly disturbing reflection of Nikki) and opens the door, which turns out to lead to the rabbit sitcom room. Nikki has broken the story’s curse and has achieved the happy ending (the palace?) that the other stories were unable to achieve.
But since she is a fictional character who has arrived at the end of her story, she fades out of existence. Nevertheless, the Lost Girl is so moved by this that she has seemingly gotten over whatever was troubling her, and runs downstairs to embrace her family in Inland Empire’s one scene of domestic bliss. The final shot is Nikki sitting on her couch looking rather beatific and compassionate. Then, as the credits roll, the characters have a dance party to Nina Simone’s cover of Sinner Man while a lumberjack saws a log to the beat.
For all its avant-garde pyrotechnics, the whole affair boils down to a fairly traditional fall and redemption narrative, with the twist that the narrative itself is affected by the fall in question. You could almost even see its kaleidoscopic refractions of the same story in monomythic, Campbellian terms (weird thought: imagine a Star Wars or Zelda entry that did something like this). It’s also a very romantic, sanguine view of the ability of art and storytelling to have a transformative effect on us, reaching across long distances of time, space and culture to touch us. It would be almost “gee whiz!” in its effect if this wasn’t presented in the weirdest way possible (and even then, the Lost Girl ending is almost too on the nose in this regard).
There are a lot of details I’ve skimmed over, some of which are still quite baffling (like Axxon N). But like any good movie, I do think there’s a method to its madness.