The enigmatic, often inscrutable Inland Empire intentionally defies, if not outright demolishes, traditional narratives at every turn. Instead of a single, linear story, we have four, almost circular primary threads. The making of the film in the first place also prompts a lot of questions, something of a mystery in and of itself. Ultimately, this is a mad genius at work with a digital camera.
David Lynch’s influence continues to loom large over the prestige television landscape more than 30 years after the premier of Twin Peaks, but much of the surreal director’s other films remain obscure and inaccessible. Perhaps nothing typifies this phenomenon more than 2006’s Inland Empire, one of his most daring and experimental works. The film intentionally defies, if not outright demolishes, traditional narratives at every turn. Instead of a single, linear story, we have four, almost circular primary threads. A young actress lands a huge role, a mystery in Poland revolving around a prostitute, another group of prostitutes in Los Angeles, and a woman in a strange, abusive relationship with an inscrutable husband. That three of the four are centered around different aspects of the same woman causes the stories themselves to intersect at points, dissolving from one to another, separating and connecting, overlapping and diverging. In addition to the main woman, other characters take on different roles at different points of the film, confused about who they are, making it unclear to the viewer who they’re watching at times.
The making of the film in the first place also prompts a lot of questions, something of a mystery in and of itself: What would possess an accomplished filmmaker, recognized by critics as one of the world’s few true auteurs, to spend three years making a movie on low resolution digital video on a camera that cost less than $4,000 without even having a script? Even if you assume using what was then a new medium and approaching it without a solid story was a good idea, why would he ultimately craft a film that runs close to three hours, includes lengthy segments in Polish, takes place in at least two, perhaps three or more time periods, and even features talking humanoid rabbits on some weird parody of a sitcom? Even stranger still, several plot points and themes seem picked up straight from his earlier work, primarily Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, as if he were intentionally recycling his own ideas or perhaps parodying himself?
Mr. Lynch, of course, isn’t likely to explain any of this personally, remaining as cryptic as ever on the subject. The only aspect he’s commented on in any detail is the choice to shoot on digital video, saying, “Digital video is so beautiful. It’s lightweight, modern, and it’s only getting better. It’s put film into the La Brea Tar Pits.” Digital “makes a difference, because you’ve got a 40-minute take rather than a 10-minute take, so you can just keep on rolling. In my last couple of films, I’ve started talking to the actors while we’re shooting, which is not the smartest thing to do in a way. (Laughs). Because you’re goofing up the soundtrack. But I like to talk, and with DV, it’s not like millions of dollars are flying through the camera every second. It’s a different kind of feeling. You can get into a mood and stay there without breaking it because you have to stop and reload. This is money in the bank. This is getting in there, and it’s very beautiful and important.”
Mr. Lynch would ultimately be proven right in this regard, but not for another decade. At the time, digital video couldn’t remotely compare to film in terms of the overall quality and feel. The result is a movie that looks disconcertingly like an odd combination of a newscast, a soap opera, and home video. There is almost none of the depth of field we’ve come to expect from cinema. Instead, the backgrounds are in almost as sharp a focus as the subjects, giving the film a uniquely flat look, as if the characters and action are no more important than the setting. The low resolution also yields to pixilation, especially on a modern, 4K television set, and the extensive use of handheld adds to the avant-garde feel, most of it was actually photographed by Mr. Lynch himself. All together, Inland Empire is like nothing you would expect to see from a legendary filmmaker and unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a movie with an all star cast including Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons, Harry Dean Stanton, and more. It’s edgy and unique, but also decidedly low-budget, like Mr. Lynch was teaching a film school class, as though he were an instructor on the basics of the art instead of a master of the craft.
In a sense, this serves the underlying thematic purpose and ultimately inverts it, for Inland Empire is a film about film shot without film. The underlying subject of both the primary story arc and the overall film itself is the making of movies, the act of watching them, and their nature in general. The title might be intended to refer to a region in California itself, though there is another odd reference to something else later in the film. Throughout, the viewer is transformed into a voyeur, as if they were secretly recording the events onscreen, an invisible watcher in the room. This is made obvious from the opening shot, albeit obliquely. There is a gramophone and a voiceover tells us about Axxon N, “the longest running radio play in history.” No explanation is provided as to its relevance when we witness an encounter with a Polish prostitute, “doing what whores do,” in subtitles. Next, there is a woman in tears on a bed watching television. The television set flips quickly through different images, as if she were channel surfing, though she doesn’t have a remote. One of the snippets is of an older woman walking down the street, before settling into a sitcom where the characters are humanoid rabbits and speak in odd non-sequiturs.
This older woman is the gateway to the central storyline, around which the others rotate and intersect. We return to her walking down the street, suggesting that we’re actually watching a film of a film. She approaches a mansion, rings the bell, and we are introduced to Nikki Grace, a young actress, intensely and powerfully portrayed by Laura Dern, awaiting word on whether or not she is cast in the part of her dreams. The woman, played by Twin Peaks alum Grace Zabriskie, is Polish, a tantalizing yet tangential connection to the previous scenes, but her primary purpose here is to inform Nikki that she will ultimately land the part. In fact, she’s seen her celebrating in this same room with her friends the very next day. “I suppose if it was 9:45, I’d think it was after midnight. For instance, if today was tomorrow, you wouldn’t even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill.”
We soon cut to this celebration, and begin to follow the movie’s production. During rehearsals, Nikki and her more established co-star Devon are interrupted by a strange noise on the set, but when Devon goes to investigate, he can’t find anyone responsible, an event which will prove pivotal in time. The director, Kingsley, is unnerved and tells his stars that isn’t the first time On High in Blue Tomorrows was attempted on screen. They are actually working on a remake of a German film from some unspecified year, titled 47, but the original was never completed because the two leads were killed during production, leading some to conclude the project was cursed. There is danger in the current adaptation as well. Nikki’s husband, Piotrek is powerful, mysterious and very jealous. He is also Polish, another tantalizing connection. As sparks fly between Nikki and Devon, played by Justin Theroux, he threatens the actor, informing him calmly yet menacingly that there will be consequences if the two have an affair, and those consequences will not fall exclusively on Nikki.
Soon, we learn of yet another complication: Nikki is becoming increasingly confused about her true identity. At times, she believes she’s actually her character in the film, Sue, not her real self. Lost in a scene, she remarks, “Damn! This sounds like dialogue from our script!” Overall, Inland Empire is most effective in these sequences. This storyline is accessible and engaging, rounded out with Lynchian touches like an assistant director, Harry Dean Stanton, literally begging everyone on the set for money, as the mystery increases the more Nikki and Sue become one. Events climax when Sue and Billy, or perhaps Nikki and Devon are in bed together, under the covers with Piotrek or Smithy, Sue’s husband in the film played by the same actor, watching, unseen. Sue tells Billy about a “story that happened yesterday, but I know that it’s tomorrow,” referencing the strange conversation with her neighbor. Breaking character, she mentions that she filmed a scene of her getting groceries in his car. She was parked in an alley and saw writing on a wall, “this whole thing starts floodin’ in…this whole memory. I start to remember.” She screams, “It’s me, Devon! It’s me, Nikki!” but her co-star only laughs at her.
We cut to what we believe is the next day with the car in the alley. Nikki, playing the Sue character, sees Axxon N written on a wall with an arrow pointing towards a door. She enters. There is a moment of darkness before Nikki is back at rehearsal, only this time she is the cause of the disturbance, creating a time loop and suggesting things are about to get a lot stranger as we move into the second act. She watches Devon investigate the source of the sound and screams “Billy,” but he cannot hear her and she hides in one of the houses on the set. Even though the house is just a facade, the inside is real and she takes shelter there, trapping her in the film world, which we soon learn is actually at least two different worlds, each somehow intersected with the other. From there, the film reveals two new, also circular and self referential storylines, which will ultimately bring us back to the original crying woman. In one, Sue is part of a group of young women, presumably prostitutes though American. In another, she is married to Smithy, living in the house on set. In one of them, it is difficult to tell which, the crying girl informs her that she can look between worlds by wearing a certain watch, and using a cigarette to burn a whole through a piece of silk, then peering through.
The circular nature of the entire edifice begins to reveal itself. Nikki and Sue can be seen as trapped between three of the circles, but Lynch also implicates the audience itself. Sue looks through the silk out onto a Polish street, watching the world we were led to believe was the real one, turning the time loop into a reality loop, as each story reflects back on the other. In one of these new worlds, Sue’s relationship with Smithy is decidedly strange and abusive. We see them in bed together. We see her cooking breakfast. We see him lurking when she returns home. He complains of cheap beer and is shocked when she informs him she is pregnant. In a later sequence, he beats her savagely. Ultimately, they are at a bizarre BBQ where the ketchup bottle explodes on Smithy’s chest, making it look like he was covered in blood. A troupe of strange men arrive, a circus from Eastern Europe. Smithy joins them and leaves Sue, telling her he knows the baby can’t be his. Inexplicably, these sequences are intercut with scenes of Sue/Nikki and the group of prostitutes, including a musical number where they perform “The Locomotion.” Another plot line is introduced as well, Nikki meets with a mysterious man in a beat up old office who she believes can help her. She tells him how she was raped at 15 years old and gouged the man’s eyes out. At one point, she makes a phone call and the phone rings in the rabbit’s sitcom, suggesting yet another circular connection. She also tracks down Billy and confronts him in front of his family, opening up yet another circle: We have seen his wife Doris before. In a previously unexplained interlude, a woman in a police station informs a detective she is going to kill a person with a screwdriver, though she doesn’t know who or when, only that she’s been “hypnotized or somethin’.” She pulls up her shirt, revealing that she herself has been stabbed with a screwdriver.
Nikki/Sue will meet Doris again later in the film, completing the circle. At that point, they are both prostitutes on the streets of Los Angeles. In one sequence, Nikki crosses the street, looks back and sees herself. In another, Doris stabs Sue with a screwdriver, fulfilling her confession to the police from earlier. Sue then stumbles off and encounters three homeless people before puking up a lot of blood and dying. “I’ll show you the light now. It burns bright forever. No more blue tomorrows. You on high now, love,” one of the homeless people says. The scene lingers for another moment, but then the camera pans out and they are back on set filming On High Blue Tomorrows as if we never left that storyline, completing another great circle, perhaps suggesting that most of what we saw was actually the film itself and not another reality at all. Nikki wanders off, silent, enters a movie theater and sees herself on screen. She continues wandering around until finding a doorway marked 47, the same as the original German film. Nikki enters the room and sees the crying woman from the opening, the longest circle of all now connected, the one who also told her about looking through the hole in the silk. She kisses her, and Nikki disappears, making us consider that they might be the same person. The girl leaves the room and returns to Smithy’s house, only this time with a son. We return to Nikki in the home of the rabbits. There is applause, but then she is back at her home at the start of the film, as if none of this happened at all, more circles inside of circles.
As the credits roll over another musical sequence, the viewer is left equal parts exhausted and confused. Somewhere in there, is a remarkable, thought provoking commentary on the self-referential nature of filmmaking and the dissociative nature of madness, though even that interpretation remains murky. We are the watchers, but we are also ourselves being watched, represented by the sequences where multiple characters see themselves on screen, both on TV, in an actual movie theater, and one actually watching themselves from across the street. Films are a reflection of life, and we see ourselves reflected in them. There is also more than a hint of madness: It remains unclear, but by one interpretation Nikki is the drug addicted prostitute the entire time. Beaten and brain addled, she imagines this better life only to regress back to reality at some point. At the end, she either realizes this and is released, or actually dies, perhaps so that another may live and reunite with her family. We will, of course, never know for sure. Inland Empire seems intentionally designed to defy any rational, coherent explanation, spinning endless circles, but those that lie beyond accurate description, as if segments remained lost in a mist.
There is a mad genius at work. We can find threads of logic and connections, the title of the film and the number on the door, the Axxon N signs, the different Polish characters, and more, but they overlap in too many ways, leap from one to another so frequently, and are interspersed with such odd non sequiturs, they will only get you so far in navigating the film. Ultimately, you have to trust Mr. Lynch and take it on faith. Alas, he is asking you to take quite a leap in that regard: At close to three hours, the film is overstuffed in my opinion, and overly confusing, though segments are at turns funny, disturbing, powerful, and haunting. It is not for the faint of heart. My wife insists I only submit to watching it in the first place because it was directed by David Lynch and there is a lot of truth to that: This is the man that directed The Elephant Man and The Straight Story. If he has something to say, I want to listen. At the same time, it’s difficult to interpret this particular statement as anything other than a massive middle finger to the entire industry. Mulholland Drive, as acclaimed a film as it turned out to be, was originally conceived as the pilot for a return to television. The network ultimately passed on the series. It’s not difficult to imagine Mr. Lynch was devastated as a result and, in response, he made his most experimental work since his first film Eraserhead, as if to say I can do what I want and I dare you to figure it out. Go ahead and try!