The David Lynch Challenge: Decoding Inland Empire (Part 1)

Welcome to The David Lynch Challenge, a random series of posts in which I will challenge myself to crack and try to come up with theories to help understand some of the most confusing creations that have come out of the mind of David Lynch.

Episode One: Decoding Inland Empire (Part 1)

Of all the confusing, strange, intricate and oddly compelling masterpieces David Lynch has created, Inland Empire (or INLAND EMPIRE, as he prefers to spell it) may be the most confusing, inaccessible one yet. But… it happens to be one of my favourite Lynch films ever. Many people think of it as a sister piece to his much more popular Mulholland Dr. Indeed, the two films are similar, in thematic elements and general plot feel. Both films seem to be about failure in the bustling industry of Hollywood. Both films are about actresses, one who is new and naive, and the other who is growing old, experienced and has seen too much. Inland Empire is about Nikki Grace, who seems to be a mixture of both. She is played by Laura Dern, who plays her character like never before. Her performance is undeniably one of the most shocking and realistic acting performances of the decade, the female equivalent of Christian Bale in American Psycho or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.


Her character Nikki Grace is an actress who has just won a part in a new film called On High In Blue Tomorrows, which is an enigmatic movie which seems to be about a married man having an affair with a loose but wise woman. Nikki is visited near the start of the film by her new Polish neighbour (Grace Zabriskie, who you may remember from Twin Peaks (she played Laura Palmer’s mother)) who tells her a Polish folk tale, which in several ways, predicts important aspects of the plot to come: she tells of a boy who passed through a doorway, inadvertantly giving birth to ‘evil’ which followed him for the rest of his life, and a variation: a girl walked through the marketplace, passed through an alley and into a palace. The old woman then reveals through personal revelations that the story we are about to witness will not be in chronological order. The first hour of the film following this seems to be pretty linear and simple, as Nikki begins to work on the film with her co-star (Justin Theroux, from Mulholland Dr.). They are soon told by the director (Jeremy Irons) that the film is actually a remake of a Polish film called 47 that was abandoned in production due to a ‘curse’ and the murder of the two leads. Earlier, the Polish woman asked Nikki if there was a “brutal fucking murder” in her film. Nikki replied, “no.” Is this the murder the psychic old woman was referring to? After watching this movie a good eight times, I’ve picked up a few incredibly tiny things, so hopefully they can help. Filming begins, and Nikki begins to sink into her role of “Susan Blue.” The film takes a strange and confusing non-linear turn which takes a lot, a lot of thinking to figure out. The whole scenes are like anagrams… letters (scenes) in a word (movie) that are in the wrong order and need rearranged. Don’t be too confused, some scenes are linear. Nikki is sharing an intimate moment with co-star Devon, and begins to get close. She doesn’t realize that they are actually filming a scene and all the intimacy is part of their characters. This is an early sign that she is beginning to lose it.

Also shown throughout the film at random parts are scenes featuring Polish characters. Are these scenes from the original Polish project 47 that was abandoned? Most likely. The Polish scenes and the scenes with Nikki/Susan are eerily similar but uniquely different.

Nikki’s character Sue seems to be some sort of reflection of her emotions as a ‘failed’ actress. It’s hard to figure out all the details of her character, but here’s what I think: her character is a battered ex-prostitute whose husband discovers she is cheating on him when she reveals she’s pregnant but he says he’s infertile. She reveals many secrets of her earlier life and relationship with men in powerfully coarse monologues with a strange, silent man with glasses who observes and rarely speaks. Susan used to be a prostitute, but she has grown too old to do it anymore and most people have forgotten about her. She hangs around in the shadow of much younger women who are probably prostitutes, and listens to their sexual conversations and picks up on details of their lives that she remembers used to be part of her life. Nikki had high hopes of being an actress, but (like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr.) she discovers that Hollywood is a very fickle place, and that even when she does get her big break in a part in this great movie, the part ends up ruining her and taking her over as she begins to lose control and slip deeper into Susan.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but eventually I’ll post a second part to this post with more thoughts on the movie, including the mysterious presence of the ‘rabbits’ and the chillingly recurring AXXON N, as well as other things. If you haven’t seen Inland Empire, you shouldn’t really be reading this, but if you are, I encourage you to watch it closely and attentively, and then mull it over for a few days.

If you’ve seen it, leave a comment with what you thought of my thoughts, and stay tuned for the second part to this post.

NOW UP! Read Part 2 of this explanation/review here.

Thanks for reading.


About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on May 4, 2011, in Filmmakers, Movie Reviews, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Wow great idea for a post. If only I would be able to finish that movie, I never thought I would be left so perplexed and dumbfounded by a movie.

  2. Excellent film, excellent review. If anyone’s interested, I’ve got a David Lynch Corner too! Here’s the link to my short piece on INLAND EMPIRE:

    I’m currently completing my thesis on the film, quite a handful!

  3. New eBook reveals Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE for the first time! Old World Politics, New World Prophecy: Understanding David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE available now at and Here is the link:

  1. Pingback: The David Lynch Challenge: Decoding Inland Empire (Part 2) « Southern Vision: A Blog About Movies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: