Inland Empire, sometimes styled as INLAND EMPIRE, is a 2006 mystery film written and directed by David Lynch. It was his first feature-length film since 2001’s Mulholland Drive, and shares many similarities with that film. It premiered in Italy at the Venice Film Festival on September 6, 2006. The feature took two and a half years to complete, and was Lynch’s first film to have been shot entirely in standard definition digital video. The film is a co-production of France, Poland, and the United States.
The cast includes such Lynch regulars as Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton and Grace Zabriskie, as well as Jeremy Irons and Diane Ladd. There are also very brief appearances by Nastassja Kinski, William H. Macy, Laura Harring, Terry Crews, Mary Steenburgen, and Ben Harper. The voices of Harring, Naomi Watts, and Scott Coffey are included in excerpts from Lynch’s Rabbits website project.
The film opens to the sound of a gramophone playing Axxon N, “the longest-running radio play in history”. Meanwhile, a young prostitute, identified in the credits as the “Lost Girl”, cries while watching television in a hotel room, following an unpleasant encounter with her client. The Lost Girl’s television displays a family of surreal anthropomorphic rabbits who speak in cryptic statements. These three elements become recurring motifs throughout Inland Empire.
The majority of the first act takes place in Los Angeles. A local actress named Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) has applied for a comeback role in a film entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows. The day before the audition, Nikki is visited by an enigmatic old woman from Poland (Grace Zabriskie) who claims to be her neighbour. The old woman insists that Nikki has won the role, and recounts two Polish folk tales. One tells of a boy who, sparking a reflection after passing through a doorway, “caused evil to be born”. The other tells of a girl who, wandering through an alleyway behind a marketplace, “discovers a palace”. The old woman presses Nikki for details on her new film, asking whether the story is about marriage and involves murder. Nikki denies both, but her neighbour violently insists that she is wrong. Disregarding Nikki’s troubled response, the old woman comments on the confusion of time, claiming that were this tomorrow, Nikki would be sitting on a couch adjacent to them. The film then pans to where the neighbour is pointing, and we see Nikki and two girlfriends sitting on the couch. Her butler walks into the living room – where the old woman no longer reclines – with a phone call from her agent, announcing that she has won the role. Ecstatic, Nikki and her friends celebrate while her husband Piotrek (Peter J. Lucas) ominously surveys them from atop a nearby stairwell.
Some time later, Nikki and her co-star Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) receive an interview on a talk show called The Marilyn Levees Show. The host (Diane Ladd) asks both actors whether they are having an affair, to which each of them respond negatively. Devon has been warned by his entourage that Nikki is out-of-bounds, due to her husband’s power and influence. Later, on the set being built for the film, Nikki and Devon rehearse a scene with the director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons). They are interrupted by a disturbance, but Devon finds nothing upon investigation. Shaken by the event, Kingsley confesses that they are shooting a remake of a German feature entitled 47. Production was abandoned after both leads were murdered, creating rumours of the film being cursed due to its roots in an old Polish folk tale.
Immersed in her character “Sue”, Nikki appears to begin an affair with Devon – under the guise of his own character “Billy”. While filming a scene in which her character buys groceries, Nikki notices a door in the alley marked Axxon N, and enters. It leads to a room behind the studio, where she can see herself rehearsing her lines weeks earlier. When Devon is sent to find who’s lurking backstage, Nikki realizes that she was the disturbance, causing her to flee among the half-built backgrounds and into the house of another character named Smithy. Despite the set being merely a wooden facade, Nikki enters to find an illuminated suburban house inside. Devon looks through the windows, but sees only darkness.
At this point, the film takes a drastic stylistic turn. Various plotlines and scenes begin to entwine and complement each other. The chronological order is often confused or nonexistent. Inside the house, Nikki finds her husband in bed. Hiding from him, she encounters a troupe of prostitutes. One of the women advises her to “gaze through a burn hole in the silk”. Nikki complies and witnesses several strange happenings – many of which seem to revolve around her, or an alternate version of herself.
The woman who plays Doris Side – Billy’s wife in the film (Julia Ormond), tells a policeman that she has been hypnotized to murder someone with a screwdriver – but finds the screwdriver embedded in her own side. A mysterious organization claims to have captives from Inland Empire. In the past, Polish prostitutes are confronted by strange pimps while murder permeates their city. Nikki, having become one of the prostitutes in the present, wanders the streets while her companions directly ask the audience “Who is she?” Both Nikki and her prostitutes frequently ask people to look at them, and say whether “you’ve known me before”. In a parallel plotline, Sue climbs the dark staircase behind a nightclub to deliver a long monologue to a police detective named Mr. K – which touches upon her childhood molestations, disastrous relationships and revenge missions. Her husband Smithy seems to be connected with both the pimps and the organization – and is said to be good with animals, hence his job with a circus from Poland. There is much talk of The Phantom, an elusive hypnotist. Convinced she’s being stalked by a red-lipped man, Sue arms herself with a screwdriver.
Finally, Sue walks down Hollywood Boulevard, and is startled to see her doppelgänger across the street. Before Sue can investigate, Doris arrives and attempts to kill her, having been hypnotized by The Phantom. Sue is brutally stabbed in the stomach with her own screwdriver, causing her to stagger down the street and eventually collapse next to some homeless people on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. An Afro-American woman remarks that Sue is dying, then proceeds to debate with another, younger homeless woman about taking a bus to Pomona. Her companion talks at length about a friend named Niko – the prostitute whose blond wig makes her look like a movie star, thus allowing her to walk through the rich district without drawing attention. The Afro-American woman comforts Sue by holding a lighter in front of her face, until she finally dies, “having no more blue tomorrows”. Off-camera, Kingsley yells “cut”, and the camera pans back to show this has merely been a film scene.
As the actors and film crew wrap for the next scene, Sue slowly arises, Nikki once more. Kingsley announces that her scenes for the film are complete. In a daze, Nikki wanders off set and into a nearby cinema, where she sees not only On High in Blue Tomorrows – encompassing some of the subplots of the film – but events that are currently occurring. She wanders to the projection room, but finds an apartment building marked *Axxon N*. Eventually, Nikki confronts the red-lipped man from earlier, now known to be The Phantom. She shoots him, which causes his face to morph first into a distorted copy of Nikki’s own face, but then into something resembling a foetus bleeding from its mouth.
Nikki flees into a nearby room – Room 47, which houses the rabbits on television, though she fails to see them. Elsewhere in the building, Nikki finds The Lost Girl, who has been watching and crying all along. The two women kiss, before Nikki fades away into the light along with the rabbits. The Lost Girl runs out of the hotel and into Smithy’s house, where she happily embraces a man and child.
Nikki is then seen back home, triumphantly smiling at the old woman from the beginning of the film. The concluding scene takes place at her house, where she sits with many other people, among them Laura Harring, Nastassja Kinski and Ben Harper. A one-legged woman who was mentioned in Sue’s monologue looks around and says, “Sweet!” Niko, the girl with the blonde wig and monkey, can also be seen. The end credits roll over a group of women dancing to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” while a lumberjack saws a log to the beat.
Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found in this film: