David Lynch, 2000
David Lynch likes abstract ideas. He claims he doesn’t always know what they mean, but in the course of making a film they become clearer. He also says that this understanding is strictly his, and viewers must be free to use their intuition to discover meaning for themselves. He wants them to trust their own judgment, and encourages an active (rather than passive) approach to film viewing. He never explains his films because to do so would rob the viewer of discovery and (crucially) a personal connection with the work. All he will say about INLAND EMPIRE, is that it’s a mystery about a woman in trouble.
Inland Empire is a place (just as Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive are places), located in an inland region of southern California. But that tells us nothing about the film or its title except that some of the characters might live there – or a place that resembles it. Laura Dern (who plays the central protagonist) mentioned the place one afternoon, and Lynch thought it would make a great title for his film. This anecdote reveals something elemental about Lynch’s methodology: that it is essentially (perhaps even profoundly) intuitive, and most likely associative. This also hints at how viewers might best approach the work.
From the very beginning of Inland Empire, Lynch invites us to interpret – to make our own associations as we piece the film together. This is, in fact, key to approaching virtually all David Lynch films. The film opens with a burst of light from a spotlight that resembles the beam from a film projector. As the beam retracts, the words INLAND EMPIRE gradually appear then dissolve, suggesting that we are not just about to watch a movie, but a projection illuminated by (and emanating from) the controlling hand of David Lynch. We cut to a gramophone playing a record that tells us we are about to listen to (watch) an episode of “Axxon N, the longest radio-play in history."
Axxon N, Dumbland, and Rabbits were online projects that (as far as I know) weren’t fully realised. Sequences from Rabbits are used in Inland Empire, and possibly elements from Axxon N. The gramophone might mirror the low-tech Sony PD150 digital camera used to shoot the film, and the radio-play recalls episodic film and TV serials (another possible touchstone). We then fade to a typically murky Lynchian hallway, where a couple (their faces obscured) search for their room keys. This motif of mystery and hidden information reflects the cryptic nature of Lynch’s work, as well as what viewers are expected to do: find the right key for the right door.
Lynch often utilises the ‘absent cause’ (which he may have gleaned from Dreyer’s Vampyr , a film that might have had a strong influence on him), a formal device by which causal information is withheld and only consequences (rather than the impetus of events) is shown. Inland Empire is a large elliptical arc consisting of numerous smaller ellipses. Some are resolved, but many are left teasingly in limbo. Various narrative and sub-narrative threads to woven together, but regardless of where the story and plot take us the ultimate point of the film is entirely speculative.
The couple enter the room and the woman asks, “What’s wrong with me?” The question goes unanswered, but those familiar with Lynchian dream-logic intuitively know that the question has more implicit value than the answer. It’s one of many questions that resonate throughout the film, and eventually out of the theatre into the street. The man then says, “This is the room”, as if it was a clue to a mystery yet to unfold. Lynch often toys with narrative expectations (and illusions) in this way, and in Inland Empire he does so with unfettered relish. The man tells the woman to undress, “You know what whores do?” he says. “Yes” she says. This exchange will echo later in the film as prostitution gradually becomes integral to its thematic focus, but at this end of the narrative arc it’s one of many comments we simply have to store away till later. Next, we see a young woman (credited as 'the lost girl’) sitting on the end of a bed watching TV and crying. We morph into the TV (signalling parallel realities ahead) to an excerpt from Lynch’s Rabbits, a sitcom-pastiche featuring people with rabbit heads. This unsettling scene hints at social, psychic, and political stasis/collapse – some of the themes Inland Empire will explore. Lynch often uses the iconography and symbology of Americana to suggest an estranged, consumerist society experiencing the loss of propriety, self-respect, and sanity, themes that are at the very heart of Inland Empire.
After a Kubrick-esque transition featuring a man we will later come to know as ‘the phantom’, we meet the main protagonist of the film. Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is an out-of-work Hollywood actress anxiously to hear if she has a role in a film (shades of Lynch-favourite Sunset Boulevard and a reminder of Mulholland Drive). We’re barely a few minutes into this three-hour film, but already there has been plenty to indicate that this densely layered work will demand our full attention – and then some. In this first scene a rather menacing stranger claiming to be a neighbour (wonderfully played by Grace Zabriskie) pays Nikki a visit. She speaks in a vaguely European accent, and talks cryptically about the emergence of evil and impending chaos (echoes of Transylvanian horror and classic noir). She says, “If today was tomorrow, you wouldn’t even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences.” As she leaves she murmurs, “They never like to hear the truth.” References to ‘unpaid bills’, ‘actions having consequences’, and “they” never liking to ‘hear the truth’ strongly allude to political subtexts. This is further emphasised when characters talk about being hypnotised into murder, of being coaxed into enacting ‘cursed scripts’, of losing their bearings and failing to distinguish between fact and fiction, or reality and fantasy. Set in the contemporary reality of post-Iraq Invasion America, one can easily read Inland Empire as an angry metaphor about misinformation and wilful deception.
As the film progresses, we follow Nikki as she starts work on the film within the film, a remake of an old German movie that was never finished because the leads were murdered (the original folk tale apparently had a curse on it). We meet her possessive and threatening husband, Piotrek Król (Peter J. Lucas); her director, Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons); his assistant, Freddie Howard (Harry Dean Stanton), and her co-star Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), a man with a reputation for womanising. Characters in Lynch’s work often embody societal dysfunction: fear, guilt, greed, etc. Nikki is the emotional and psychological heart of the Inland Empire. She is under-siege from all directions: the hollow rhetoric of her not-so-talented director and his Rumsfeld-like assistant; her indifferent husband; her self-serving co-star/lover; but the biggest threat is her increasingly tenuous hold on reality.
Inland Empire is a typical Lynchian puzzle-piece. The narrative obfuscation and highly aestheticised low-tech imagery will appeal to those with a taste for bizarre and subversive cinematic pleasures. The descent into hell will be no surprise to Lynch-fans, but the ‘real-world’ implications are more pointed than ever. The guilt, denial, self-destruction, self-loathing and psychological fragility depicted throughout the film inform the anger implicit in a subtext that suggests a nation (a world) that has been traumatised and deceived, where notions such as “moral certainty” are not only questionable but increasingly meaningless. Inland Empire virtually haunts itself. Passing dialogue such as, “You know what whores do?” resonate with a greater political specificity by the end of the film, and even the innocuous and amusing heaven-bound imagery in the title of the film within the film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, is imbued with disturbing fundamentalist overtones. Likewise, Dern’s superb monologue about a potential rapist who “gets to reap what he’s been a-sowin’” literally drips with subtext, although viewers may not initially twig to it given the compelling intensity of her extraordinary delivery.
Inland Empire is certainly challenging. Everything about the film, from its fractured narrative to being shot on low-tech video, demands a response or an adjustment from the viewer. One cannot merely sit and wait to be entertained, which is not to say that it isn’t entertaining for those prepared to engage with what is arguably Lynch’s most ambitious and ambiguous work to date. Whether it’s a masterpiece or not is hard to say, but it is a striking and satisfying realisation of the poetic aspirations Carl Dreyer held for the medium when he made Vampyr. If Lynch follows through on his claim that he intends to continue in this vain, a masterpiece is certainly imminent ... if it isn’t already here.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader