Inland Empire, David Lynch

The Unreality of Identity in David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’

Now that we’re awash in time loops and other realities, filmgoers are primed for three hours of David Lynch’s reality and identity-questioning film, Inland Empire.

Inland Empire
David Lynch
21 March 2023

“We were in 120 theatres, and for a three-hour picture that nobody understands, that’s damn good.” So states David Lynch in an interview included in Criterion’s Blu-ray of Inland Empire, a personal and adventurous 2006 epic that he shot on digital video before that was a thing. More a product of inspiration and tinkering than any advance plan, the film slowly coalesced around scenes, ideas, and improvisations as they occurred to Lynch.

At first glance, Inland Empire sounds like it must be one of his most baffling and daunting works, but that turns out not to be so. What’s revealed on Criterion’s disc, fresh from the film’s 2022 remastering and theatrical re-release, is that while it’s sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, and always bizarre, Inland Empires is a gripping study in the recursive narrative tricks about identity that we expect from Lynch. Today we’re awash in films about wormholes, time loops, and alternate realities, so we’re primed for films that, in the past, seemed baffling.

The Lynch-pin, as it were, is star and co-producer Laura Dern, who made herself available over the course of three years to do all these scenes on faith, without having a clue whether she was always playing the same woman. In a bonus interview with actor Kyle MacLachlan, she mentions that at one point, she asked Lynch if her character was the same as before and why she was holding a screwdriver. She imitates the nasal twang of his response: “Why so many questions?” MacLachlan laughs and says he knew that would be Lynch’s answer.

Inland Empire opens with the black rectangle of its screen, and a faint light emerges from high up on the right side, like a film projecting in a theatre – you know, the old-fashioned technique. Speaking of old-fashioned technique, we next see the black and white closeup of a heavy old gramophone needle in the thick groove of a vinyl record. We hear a faint voice announcing real-life long-running radio drama (does anyone remember those?) Axxon N, setting a scene in a Balkan hotel on a grey winter night. References to Axxon N will recur.

So everything we’re about to experience is already labeled as some kind of fabrication for our entertainment. Later, the story concerns itself with Hollywood films, television sitcoms, and even the circus, all media in which people play roles.

The first scene of Inland Empire (or the first scene of Axxon N), still in black and white, is set in the hotel and features a man and woman entering from the long corridor (one of so many long corridors in this film), with their faces obscured and smudged. They speak in Polish, as will many other characters because Lynch partly filmed in Poland when he happened to be attending festivals. The unidentified, almost invisible couple seems to be a client and a sex worker because prostitution and its proximity to acting and fantasy, even in high-class films, is a major theme.

Now we switch to color as a woman identified in the credits only as “Lost Girl” (Karolina Gruszka) sits silently weeping on a hotel bed as she stares at the static on an old-fashioned television. Is she crying because of what she sees, or is her sorrow generating what she sees? We’ll occasionally come back to her as she seems to observe the unfolding film.

If you haven’t guessed, the “meta” references in Inland Empire never stop; they only double down. Men’s bad and brutal treatment of women is another defining theme keying into the general sense of sorrow and foreboding. This treatment feels more blunt in Poland and among Polish men, while it’s more genteel among the Hollywood set. Lynch told Dern her character, if it’s a single character, was “a woman in trouble”.

Before the project was anything called Inland Empire, it was a 14-page handwritten monologue that Lynch asked Dern to perform with very little preparation. They shot it, and this 90 minutes of footage forms the narrative spine; parts that aren’t used can be seen in the extras. Her monologue to a mostly silent and impassive listener who might be some kind of detective (or de facto therapist) recounts anecdotes when she had to defend herself violently against men’s attacks.

She comes across as a hardbitten, self-reliant survivor. She’s had some kind of fight with her husband, who went to work in Europe with a Polish circus. She’s freaked out because, at one point, she entered a Hollywood soundstage from the alley by following a mysterious sign and found herself watching an alternate version of herself. She no longer remembers the proper order of things. Her most amazing announcement is that she was 41 years old in 1960, and since then, she isn’t sure of anything. Does that mean this whole film is set in the ’60s? Or only certain parts of it? Or has she traveled from the past?

If she’s way ahead of herself, so are we. Going back to the beginning of Inland Empire, the first solid piece of narrative is the introduction of Visitor #1. Played by the always brilliant and disorienting Grace Zabriskie, who’s probably best known as Laura Palmer’s mother in Twin Peaks, this visitor claims (in a Polish accent) to be a new neighbor from “just down the way” in a brick house in the woods. She sounds like someone from a fairy tale.

In this scene, Dern plays Nikki Grace, a famous actor in a fabulous mansion, and she’s up for an important role. This visitor from another side of reality drops bizarre comments that relate to details later in Inland Empire. She says Nikki’s already gotten the part and asks if the film is about marriage, if her husband is involved, and if there’s a murder. That’s enough foreshadowing for anybody, but then she says something about an old folk tale of a little girl who “enters the palace” through the alley in back behind “the marketplace”.

Obviously, this line foreshadows the weird doppelganger-loop moment we’ve already described, and which we’ll first experience from Nikki’s angle as she’s rehearsing her film. That’s when her director (Jeremy Irons) reveals to Nikki and her co-star, Devon (Justin Theroux), that this script, On High in Blue Tomorrows, had previously been attempted as a German film called Four Seven but the lead actors were murdered when they discovered “something inside the story”. At a couple of later points, Dern’s character will suddenly experience a fugue of confusion over whether she’s Nikki or the fictional Susan Blue. This confusion is exacerbated whenever a scene ends with the revelation of the camera and director.

Viewers, too, experience a fugue of confusion. Is Susan Blue the woman delivering the monologue to which we periodically return? That woman lives in a small home with her husband (Peter J. Lucas), who left for the circus, while Nikki’s Polish husband (played by the same actor) is some kind of gangster. Susan’s monologue, if it’s Susan, echoes an earlier brief interview with a police detective by Doris Side (Julia Ormond), the wife of the Theroux’s fictional movie character. She claims she’s been hypnotized to kill someone with a screwdriver.

Right after we saw the woman in the hotel room watching television, the first segment about a rabbit sitcom led to one of the rabbits entering a lavishly appointed room and vanishing, and then the room is occupied by a small man sitting in quiet power; the credits call him Janek (Jan Hencz) and he seems to be the boss who hires Susan’s husband. The man with him is the hypnotist called Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak), who says he’s looking for an entrance; he will hypnotize Ormond’s character. This implies that, like the characters in the White Lodge/Black Lodge/Red Room in Twin Peaks, supernatural figures from the Other Side come to perform mysterious rites and obstructions in our lives.

As this highly inadequate summary makes clear, any attempt to impose a linear logic on the events in Inland Empire is doomed to leave the viewer wandering in circles of Hell or layers of metafiction. Oh yeah, there’s that sitcom in which human-sized rabbits are voiced by Naomi Watts and Laura Herring, who starred in Lynch’s 2001 Hollywood identity-switching puzzler Mulholland Drive. That film echoed identity-switching in 1997’s Lost Highway, Lynch’s first significant play with the unreality of identity.

Such forerunners could make Inland Empire seem like a rehash, but it’s more an apotheosis of these obsessions, which would show up again in the final season of Twin Peaks with Dern and MacLachlan. These obsessions derive partly from Lynch’s practice of Transcendental Meditation as learned from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Criterion’s Blu-ray booklet contains excerpts from a 2008 interview in which Lynch discusses this:

What is kind of incredible is that there are, like quantum physics now states, ten dimensions of space and one dimension of time . . There’s a field of relativity; it has a surface, and it has depths. There are like, like they say, worlds within worlds within worlds, just unbelievable stuff going on in the field of relativity. And that’s all real interesting, but as the Maharishi says, that’s only ‘the marketplace’ …There are lots and lots of chances to get waylaid and even go backwards and get lost, get in trouble. Maharishi always says capture the fort, and then all territories are yours – so get to the palace … ‘Get to the palace’ means transcend, get to the deepest level.

That’s as explicit a key as you’ll find to Inland Empire and a bunch of Lynch’s films, and to the scene where Zabriskie’s Visitor babbles to Dern’s Nikki, and which is echoed in a later scene with Visitor #2 (Mary Steenburgen). Zabriskie’s Visitor says she no longer knows what time she’s in (an assertion echoed in Susan’s long monologue), but she points across the room to another couch and says Nikki will be there tomorrow. Nikki has a vision of receiving the news of her getting the role. At the very end of Inland Empire, we’re back in the encounter between Visitor #1 and Nikki, as though the entire intervening film has been a hypnagogic vision, and now Dern (Nikki? Susan? another?) sits in serene stillness in a blue dress.

This is no spoiler because nothing can be spoiled. Heck, we can argue that nothing even happens. Inland Empire is an exercise in its own construction, telling us that movies are just movies and reality and identity are only conditional. That implies a movie’s reality is as valid as any reality. After all, the movie exists, but can you be so certain of your own existence?

Along the way, we get cameos from Diane Lane (Dern’s mother), William H. Macy, Nastassja Kinski, and Harry Dean Stanton. Special kudos to Helena Chase and Nae, who play homeless women. We get rumbling musical excerpts from Krzysztof Penderecki (whose “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” dominates an episode of Twin Peaks) and some of Lynch’s own song compositions. Lynch shot and edited the film himself.

Dern’s performance is as demanding and remarkable as Sheryl Lee’s Oscar-worthy turn as Laura Palmer in 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Predictably and sadly, both were ignored by the Academy. Lee was at least playing a relatively coherent personality, while the process of incubating Inland Empire meant that even Dern couldn’t know whom she was playing in a conventional way. She reports that this liberated her acting because she received nothing but validation and encouragement from Lynch.

To prevent us from thinking Lynch is merely self-referential and lost in his own maze, I wish to acknowledge a point by critic Jim Emerson in his review “Go Inland, Young Woman!” While listing other films with which Inland Empire resonates, he notes that Lynch has acknowledged Maya Deren’s classic avant-garde short, 1943’s Meshes of the Afternoon, as a favorite film. Yes, that study of dream and female fragmented identity is surely an Ur-film here and would make a great introduction to Lynch. Indeed, if you never see Lynch films, you should see Deren’s hypnotic film many times. Also important is critic Mathew Downward’s analysis of how Inland Empire works as science fiction in The SF Encyclopedia.

The best way to watch Inland Empire is to liberate yourself from any expectation of making sense of it. Any such attempt will plunge you down a rabbit hole, and it won’t be a straight story.