Inland Empire is a experimental thriller film from 2006, written and directed by David Lynch (in what is, as of 2023, his most recent feature length film).
In Poland, a prostitute and her customer (their faces blurred) talk in a hotel room. In the same room years later, a woman cries and watches a sitcom starring three rabbits. An actress in LA, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), gets a visit from her neighbor and the next day gets the part in a movie, On High In Blue Tomorrows, which turns out to be a remake of a German film based on a Polish Romani folk tale called 47 whose lead actors were murdered. Nine prostitutes lounge around a house. There's a murder, a mystery, and a woman in trouble.
Possibly Lynch's most incomprehensible and terrifying film since Eraserhead. Its production was unusual: Lynch shot the film in bits and pieces, without a complete screenplay. He would simply hand the actors new pages each day. When asked what it was about, Lynch (who never explains his films) simply quoted from the Aitareya Upanishad: "We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe."
In 2022 the film was restored by Janus Films, supervised by Lynch, and released in select theaters that April. It was released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection the following March.
The film provides examples of:
- All Just a Dream: A possibility if one goes with what Lynch has to say about the movie.
- Arc Words: Several, including "the horse to the well" and "look at me and tell me if you've known me before". They can be hard to spot, though, since they're often mumbled or spoken in Polish.
- Armor-Piercing Question: "Were you, in fact, seeing another man?" All the more effective given that it comes from The Quiet One.
- Anachronic Order: The film isn't linear, and ends up seeming more like a fever dream than anything else because of it.
- As You Know: During rehearsal, Devon's character Billy says this. He said some things last night. As you know. And he wants to apologize.
- Ax-Crazy: Nikki's husband and Nikki/Susan herself begin to show shades of this late in the film.
- Bilingual Dialogue: Some dialogue is in Polish. Not all of it is subtitled.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall:
- After the killer with the screwdriver appears onscreen, one of the Valley Girls makes eye contact with the audience and asks "Who is she?"
- Nikki watches Inland Empire in an empty theater to figure out what to do next.
- Central Theme: Identities are an important part of the story since most of the important players have at least two identities throughout the movie. Some, such as Nikki and Devon, are actors that slowly become their characters. Others, such as the Rabbits and the Phantom, are outright Shape Shifters.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- In her first encounter with the Phantom, Sue picks up a screwdriver to defend herself. Later, Doris, who was hypnotized by the Phantom to kill Sue with a screwdriver, grabs it from Sue's hand and stabs Sue.
- The Polish men hand Smithy a gun to kill the Phantom. Nikki gets ahold of it and kills the Phantom after several shots.
- Chiaroscuro: Used very effectively.
- The Chosen One: A possible interpretation of Nikki, who is guided by lots of supernatural entities to defeat the Phantom. She also just happens to be married to the man (or an incarnation of him) that The Lost Girl cheated on The Phantom with. And note that Nikki's costar, Devon, has hardly anything to do with any of this.
- Cloudcuckoolander: An example:Nikki: Are you enjoying yourself, Freddie?
Freddie Howard: Well... There is a vast network, right? An ocean of possibilities. I like dogs. I used to raise rabbits. I've always loved animals. Their nature. How they think. I have seen dogs reason their way out of problems. Watched them think through the trickiest situations. Do you have a couple of bucks I could borrow? I've got this damn landlord.
- Crazy Jealous Guy:
- The Phantom is the abusive husband of The Lost Girl. He somehow obtained supernatural powers to trap her in a hotel room for eternity, all because she got fed up with him and had an affair with a kinder man.
- Nikki's husband has elements of this, as seen in his rather threatening exchange with Devon, although he seems to be Properly Paranoid.
- Creator Cameo: Bucky, the lighting technician Kingsley was yelling at, is the voice of David Lynch.
- Dance Party Ending: The movie ends with the characters dancing to Nina Simone's "Sinnerman".
- Dark Is Not Evil: The Rabbits and the Valley Girls have strange dialogue and appear dangerous, but they are helping Nikki/Sue and Smithy defeat the Phantom and rescue the Lost Girl to end the curse.
- Double-Meaning Title:
- The film's theme revolves around Hollywood but borrows its title from Inland Empire, an actual Southern California residential area that is not too far from Hollywood. Furthermore, Hollywood is known as the largest film industry, making it an empire of sorts. Reportedly, David Lynch liked the implied contradiction in the name - an empire is, by definition, expansionist, while 'inland' implies insularity.
- It's implied that Sue and Smithy live in Inland Empire since the Phantom becomes Sue's next-door neighbor after a Polish man tells Smithy that the Phantom is going to Inland Empire.
- Dream Sequence: It's possible that nearly the entire damn thing is inside Nikki's (or Sue's) head.
- David Lynch wrote it as he went, without knowing where he was going with it to see what would happen. As in, he pretty much let his subconscious direct a movie. Naturally, the result is probably the closest a movie will ever come to emulating a dream.
- Drone of Dread: A majority of the movie's score, with the exception of some weird choices, and in one case a Scare Chord manages to hang around through half of Beck's Black Tambourine.
- Early-Bird Cameo: The ballerina dancer seen at the end shows up again in Lynch's short film Absurda, and the lone shot from that movie looks remarkably similar to one used near the end of this one.
- Film Noir: Parts of the film mimic the genre, especially since the beginning foreshadows the murder of the two leads with a screwdriver.
- Five-Second Foreshadowing: While Sue is dying, one of the hoboes pays her respects to her and says "No more blue tomorrows" foreshadowing that Sue and the hoboes are actually on the movie set of On High in Blue Tomorrows.
- A Form You Are Comfortable With: The Rabbits transform into Polish men when conversing with the Lost Girl and Smithy. Jack, one of the Rabbits, also changes into a bespectacled man that listens to Sue rant.
- Fourth Wall Psych: Nikki stares at the fourth wall at one point...to look at the Lost Girl observing her.
- Gainax Ending: The Other Wiki's description of the ending: "The concluding scene of the film takes place in Nikki's house, where she sits with many other people, among them Laura Elena Harring, Nastassja Kinski and Ben Harper. A one-legged woman who was mentioned in Sue's monologue looks around and says, 'Sweet!' Niko, the Japanese girl with a blonde wig and a monkey, is also present. The end credits roll over a group of women dancing and lip-synching to Nina Simone's 'Sinnerman' while a lumberjack saws a log to the beat."
- Girl in the Tower: The goal is to rescue the Lost Girl from the hotel room she's been locked in by the Phantom for eternity. Not quite a tower, but it's in that spirit.
- Greek Chorus: The troupe of prostitutes that show up throughout the film, some of whom give (cryptic) comments related to Nikki's predicament.
- Hair-Raising Hare: The Show Within a Show Rabbits has these as its characters. The humanoid rabbit characters usually deal with surreal events that are occasionally terrifying.
- Horrible Hollywood: In the beginning of the film, Nikki and Devon have to deal with a gossipy interviewer trying to create tabloid news (played, ironically, by Laura Dern's real mother, Diane Ladd). Later, it is revealed that their movie, On High in Blue Tomorrows, is actually a remake, demonstrating Hollywood's unoriginality. There's also the fact that the mysterious (and, from the way Kingsley talks about them, malevolent) producers never told him, Nikki, or Devon about The Production Curse on their movie, and he only found out by a fluke.
- Lost in Character: This happens to Nikki on several occasions before she falls completely into Axxon N.'s reality.
- Magic Kiss: Nikki enters the room where the Lost Girl is kept in, walks up to her and they kiss. Nikki then disappears, while the Lost Girl is free to leave her confinement.
- Magic Realism: While terrified of certain characters and other surreal events, Nikki hardly questions her new reality and is more interested in escaping it.
- Manly Tears: The wealthy Polish character played by the same actor as The Phantom has these in one scene. It's implied that he's just killed his wife's lover, the original incarnation of Nikki's husband.
- Mind Screw: There are multiple scenes that seem like Non Sequiturs, only to be revealed to be important subplots to the main story. It's very easy to get confused as Sue lampshades.Sue: I don't know what's happened first, and it's kinda laying a mindfuck on me.
- Mockstery Tale: In the beginning, it has elements of the detective/mystery genre (including a number of murders and several noir-style scenes), but it quickly turns into pure Mind Screw. A popular interpretation is that beneath it all there is actually a psychological drama story.
- Mystical Hollywood: The plot revolves around a cursed Hollywood movie and the surreal events surrounding it. There's a fairy tale-like quality to it, since breaking the curse entails rescuing a distressed damsel from her imprisonment by the villain.
- Mythology Gag: A handful towards earlier Lynch works.
- The Rabbits, who are important characters in this film, appeared four years earlier in Lynch's series of short films aptly named Rabbits.
- The main character is an actress with multiple identities. The Dance Party Ending features an appearance by Laura Elena Harring, apparently in character as Rita.
- Before Sue talks to Jack Rabbit, a familiar red curtain appears.
- The conversation between the homeless black woman and the Asian girl is a reference to Lynch's short film Darkened Room.
- The second twisted face that shows up in the climax is reminiscent of Henry's baby.
- Nightmare Face: The Phantom makes a face only a mother could love in the climax. (Immediately followed by another one that looks like a fetus bleeding from the mouth.) The rest of the film does this to several characters using lighting tricks.
- No Plot? No Problem!: This movie was produced without a script. Very frequently Lynch would just show up on the set and gave people their lines, clearly having written them no more than a few hours before. When people would ask him what the film was supposed to be about, he would respond with a cryptic poem. While this suggests there is no real plot, the recurring motifs, characters, and subplots are consistent enough that one can piece together a (mostly) logical story.
- Nothing Is Scarier: This film will give you nightmares just from buildup alone. You see its runtime? About two-thirds of that is soul-crushing buildup and atmosphere.Nikki: Damn! This sounds like dialogue from our script!
- Plot-Inciting Infidelity: The entire curse can be traced back to when The Lost Girl cheated on The Phantom with another man, leading The Phantom to punish her.
- Precision F-Strike: BRUTAL FAUGHKING MURDER!
- Predatory Prostitute: The main character Sue is pursued by some creepy Los Angeles prostitutes (a.k.a. the Valley Girls) who appear to her both in the streets and in her own house, often behaving in a mocking or subtly threatening way and asking her "Look at us and tell us if you've known us before". While they're not outright malevolent (a common interpretation is that they actually want to HELP Nicky/Sue), there is a definite air of eeriness around them.
- The Production Curse: In-Universe. On High in Blue Tomorrows is a remake of a film that was never completed because the leads were murdered, leading to rumors that the whole project is cursed. As Nikki finds out by immersing herself more and more in the role of Sue, the curse turns out to be very real, being tied to The Phantom and The Lost Girl. By destroying The Phantom and saving The Lost Girl, Nikki manages to break the curse.
- Proscenium Reveal: When Sue dies, a movie camera slowly comes into view, revealing that everything that happened was part of On High in Blue Tomorrows. However, this is subverted when Nikki discovers that her experiences in the alternative reality was not a dream.
- Rule of Cool: Why the film is titled "Inland Empire". Lynch has stated he heard Laura Dern mention her husband is from the Inland Empire and Lynch liked the sound of those words together.
- Same Content, Different Rating: The home video release is rated 15 in the UK, and 18 in Ireland.
- Show Within a Show: Deconstructed in a very strange way. Initially, this is played straight with Rabbits and On High in Blue Tomorrows, both of which are fictional works In-Universe. However, this becomes less true after Nikki, an actress, turns into her character Sue since the equally fictional characters from On High in Blue Tomorrows and Rabbits are able to interact with her from that point forward. Eventually, Sue returns to the real world as Nikki, but Nikki soon finds a recording of Inland Empire playing in a theater and realizes that the bizarre reality from which she escaped is just as authentic as the "real world".
- Spiritual Successor:
- It is one to Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway, David Lynch's previous films, although it is more similar to the former because they both offer commentary on Hollywood and have titles that reference real California locations close to Hollywood. Like the aforementioned films, Inland Empire has the protagonist switch between multiple identities while exploring an altered environment that is heavily implied to be All Just a Dream. However, it is somewhat subverted as while the protagonists in the aforementioned films willingly adapt different identities and indulge in personal fantasies to avoid the harshness of reality, the protagonist of Inland Empire is forced into her new identity and is trying to escape a nightmarish Dream Sequence.
- It also is one to Eraserhead, another David Lynch film, in that both films have heavier focus on the Surreal Horror element.
- Finally, there are similarities to Perfect Blue. Both films have rapid dreamlike scene shifts, some of which are fakeouts involving a Show Within a Show and share the same theme of Horrible Hollywood. Both have killers stalking the main protagonists, and the protagonists themselves are very similar as they are both actresses undergoing identity crises.
- Stable Time Loop: The noise that Kingsley and Devon heard turns out to be Nikki (as Sue) time-traveling back to the past into the reality of Axonn N.
- Subverted Sitcom: The Show Within a Show Rabbits is a domestic sitcom set in a family kitchen, with a Laugh Track, where a Nuclear Family of rabbits are increasingly menaced by eerie phrases and the sense that something is coming for them.
- Sudden Musical Ending: Nikki, the Valley Girls, and some other characters dance to some music at the end.
- Surprisingly Happy Ending: While Nikki does resemble previous Lynch protagonists afflicted with Split Personalities—such as Fred Madison and Diane Selwyn, Nikki is able to achieve a happy ending unlike her predecessors by defeating the Phantom and breaking the film's curse. As far as The Lost Girl is concerned, she is freed from torture that may very well have been eternal if not for Nikki's interference and gets to reunite with her loved ones to boot.
- Surreal Horror: The whole film has an uncanny, menacing tone that is hard to put into words.
- The Rabbits are uncannily humanoid rabbits who speak articulately but speak only in Cryptic Conversation. Sometimes, they conduct strange rituals of carrying ghost lights.
- The Phantom has several dreamlike powers including the ability to hypnotize people, put curses on his enemies, and even shift his shape into nightmarish forms.
- Surreal Humor:
- During a barbecue, Smithy spills a whole ton of ketchup on himself.
- While the Phantom is The Dreaded, he, at one point, is standing around with a lightbulb in his mouth.
- While Nikki bleeds out, the hoboes near her have a Seinfeldian Conversation with one hobo talking about her friend Nico, who has a monkey that shits everywhere.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: In one scene, a pair of homeless women discuss taking a bus to Pomona while Nikki lies bleeding to death in the street next to them.
- The Quiet One: The bespectacled interviewer, who spends most of his scenes mutely staring at Nikki/Sue. He speaks only twice during the entire film.
- Wham Line:Neighbor: Is there a... murder... in your film?
Nikki: Um, no, that's not part of the story.
Neighbor: I think you are wrong about that.
Neighbor: BRUTAL FUCKING MURDER.
- World of Symbolism: Possibly David Lynch's favorite setting.