The David Lynch Challenge: Decoding Inland Empire (Part 2)

Episode Two: Decoding Inland Empire (Part 2)

If you have not read the first part of this post, read it by clicking here. If you haven’t seen David Lynch’s terrific film Inland Empire, watch it NOW before reading ahead, and remember to keep an open mind. A very open mind. If, after watching it, you have questions, hopefully I can put together something resembling an answer.

Many of you, after seeing this film, may be asking… what’s with the rabbits? They pose the most stumping question of them all, perhaps, and hopefully I can shed some light on the issue. The scenes with the rabbits are directly taken out of a 45-minute short film Lynch directed in 2002, aptly named Rabbits. It consists of these rabbits, sitting around and occasionally moving, saying disconnected phrases in a completely random order. It’s like we’re hearing parts of a conversation, except all the lines are mixed and jumbled up, like an anagram. It’s a puzzling and perplexing feature, but an interesting and thought-provoking one as well. So why has Lynch put these short clips in his feature film? It’s my understanding that he’s reinforcing an important statement about the film that is touched upon many times: that there really is no timeline, and that time itself cannot be trusted. The rabbits are in a type of purgatory, from which they cannot escape, and time for them is running short. They are unaware of their situation, but can sense that something is very wrong. This is similar to the way Inland Empire makes the viewer feel, and that important non-linear storyline is just being reminded to us by using these rabbits. It helps if you watch Lynch’s short film, which was originally released as a short series of episodes. You can watch Rabbits on Google Video by clicking here. Warning: If you’re going to watch it, do not skip ahead. Please. It’s important to sit down and listen very carefully to everything that’s being said. This is a test of both your attention span and your memory span.

Anyway, back to IE. Another enigmatic detail which recurringly pops up throughout the film is the appearance of the letters “AXXON N” on a wall, with an arrow pointing through a doorway:

If you were a Lynch fan in 2002 (which I, surprisingly was not. Well… I was fifteen.), you may have known that he was going to release a short series on his website called Axxon N. It never got released, as Lynch was busy developing the basic plotline into Inland Empire. Anyway… at the beginning of the movie, a record is seen playing. The voiceover says it is playing “Axxon N,” the longest running radio play in history. Then we cut to a blurred scene of a man summoning a prostitute to his room. This prostitute is the Lost Girl, who we see at various times throughout the film watching the movie’s entire events in the hotel room on a TV. She seems to be new at the prostitution game, and is perhaps a much younger, more naive and inexperienced version of the now Hellish, world-weary Susan Blue. Back to Axxon N… The explanation, once thought about, appears to be fairly simple. Axxon N marks a doorway to a different place… a different TIME, perhaps even a different parallel universe. It reflects what the old Polish lady said to Nikki near the beginning of the film… remember. “A boy passed through a doorway and evil was born. A girl passed through an alley to a “palace,” and yadda yadda.” This is a reflection of that. The entire film from Nikki’s first appearance seems to be relatively chronological until we see AXXON N on a wall as Nikki/Sue is walking to her car with groceries. Nikki (or Sue) also tells us that when she saw this “writing” on the wall, she remembered something. Axxon N seems to be almost definitely a gateway, a deux ex machina (did I use that right?) that is extremely dangerous if tampered with. Axxon N also reappears much later on through the movie as the name of a nightclub that Susan (or Nikki???) enters to go to see the Man with Glasses — a police detective — and tell her ‘monologue.’

Now… the film’s tagline is “A Woman In Trouble.” What is the trouble? It could be various things, but one that keeps coming to mind is the unresolved issue of the Phantom. He seems to be a “hypnotist,” and a very dangerous person. In the monologue, Nikki/Sue tells of Billy, her lover with whom she is cheating on her husband and to whom she falls pregnant. She mentions he is good with animals (so, too, seem to be various characters, including Harry Dean Stanton’s Freddie) and acquired a job at a Polish circus from his skill. Nikki talks of a man at the circus, called The Phantom, who could easily trick people and disappear quickly. He is a hypnotist, as I mentioned, and he is out to get Nikki/Sue. He hypnotises a woman, “Billy’s” wife, to stab Nikki with a screwdriver and kill her, but this only kills her “character,” Susan. The real Nikki is still alive and at the end of the movie goes to get revenge on the phantom by shooting him, before passing through a door marked “47” (the name of the unfinished Polish production) and finding the Lost Girl in her hotel room, freeing her, and herself.

So there. That’s much of the movie explained, but certainly not all of it. The rest, including some of the Polish scenes which I’m just now beginning to grasp, shall be left to your imaginations, which are stronger than any singular man’s opinion. Hopefully this was of some benefit to you however, and hopefully it will prompt you to re-watch this fantastic, misunderstood movie.

So… what did you think of my opinion? Leave a comment with your thoughts below.

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 10, 2011, in Filmmakers, Movie Reviews, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. After finally watching this movie, it was apparent that this movie is simply about the correlation between the paranoid schizophrenic(ps) and an actress, who must play so many parts, in life to be successful. Many ps hear voices and watch snow on tv. They also perceive people in life as monsters, signified by the close camera angles. Her friends were decorations and she was consumed by men in her life. This point is further driven by the use of mirrors and windows, which invoke hallucinations in ps. Everytime in a scene, it changes. Furthermore, I think that she is both Billy’s wife and the actress and the prostitutes. Sometimes in control, hence the dance party. Sometimes not. I also think that when she finished filming, she killed the actress. This signifies the prestigious personality. Life’s significance. After this has left her life, she is too hurt to continue with life and kills ‘the master’, ie the head personality and herself entirely. Freeing all of her souls. Also, I think the charachter with the glasses is the therapist, trying to help her without the ability to breakthrough the mental illness.

  2. Great post, Tyler. But, for the record, the Rabbits scenes from the short were not just added into INLAND EMPIRE. A stage was built, actors put into costumes and it was recreated for IE. I was there and filmed the whole thing.

  3. Well, you did a lot of describing, but not much explaining it seems. Though you did motivate me to finish writing a bit of my own explanation:

  4. I have to admit even with an armchair director’s PhD in Lynchian symbolism, INLAND EMPIRE puzzled me the most. To me it seems best appreciated as an abstract work (not unlike most David Lynch films) upon first viewing… Nevermind the chronology, dual characters or their cryptic dialogue- just step outside your conscious self and be a tourist, enjoying the ominous tones, red lampshades and quasi-American doomscape aesthetic, letting the story be secondary to a broader vision and the script a subconscious half-narrative of the characters’ brain activity. Forget your movie-detective sensibilities and remember that David Lynch accidentally fell into this profession from a background as a painter. Only after you get to experience the sum without attempting to quantify the parts should any effort be made to decipher it. Course, I’d say the same thing about Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr. or almost anything by Lynch- but doubly so for this one. Mainly because it’ll confuse the fuck out of you and tarnish its brilliance if you let it. Now, here I am five or so viewings later and ready to understand a few things, ready to pass through that red curtain and into the Black Lodge. God bless the internet.

  5. You’ve expressed some interesting theories, but i think you’ve confused one essential element, and that is that it’s the character of Nikki is who is stabbed and dies on the street. Nikki dies and then the director says cut, and the other actors in the scene rise up and walk away while Susan, who has been completely consumed by her character, Nikki, eventually rises and disoriented and groggy she makes her way to the what at first appears to be the same stairs that took her to that dark room where we witnessed Nikki/Susan speaking to a silent bespeckled man, but instead she is returning to the what seems to be the film set that is Nikki’s home. There Susan encounters the mysterious threatening man and shoots him and she sees the horrific image of her face on his body but her face is distorted and painted into that of a clown. She sees herself, it seems, as a freakish side show character, a demonically comical entity, which in a way is what actors are. Apparently Susan has symbolically destroyed the evil male presence that has been haunting her, possessing her. Is the male presence someone she knows? Is it her husband who has been described as very powerful and dangerous? Is it the director of the film? Is it ALL men who dominate and terrorize women? Good questions, but what’s for sure is that we are witnessing Susan, the actress, backing herself out of the very confining, tight fitting skin of her character Nikki. Susan must extricate herself from her role, psychologically free herself from the confines of her subservient, weak, vulnerable character, and reclaim her identity as a strong, powerful, independent woman in the world, which is what we soon see as she sits so contentedly and serenely upon her luxurious sofa in her palatial home surrounded by admiring, adoring fans and acquaintances. And in case we’re not sure that this is a good old fashioned Hollywood movie David Lynch closes out the show with a rousing, soul stirring song and dance number where all the characters make a very welcome curtain call as all sorts of curiosities and oddities which were mentioned in the film make appearances including the girl with one leg and the blond wig. There’s even a lumberjack sawing a log which is a very clever double joke referring to David Lynch’s exercise in serial TV melodrama, Twin Peaks, and also reminds us that everything we’ve just witnessed may very well all be scenes from a dream. ZZZZZ zzzzzz zzzzzz zzzzz…

  6. I try not to think too much about the logic of David Lynch’s narratives, although MH did make perfect sense as a woman’s last dream before a bullet ends her life. For the most part, I look at them as various dreams Lynch has had realized as scenes stitched together into a film. My first thought as to what IE was about was a husband discovering his wife is a prostitute, and after being beaten, she watches (or visualizes, since the TV is initially static) Axxon N playing on the radio. The rest is largely imagery, although there’s an undercurrent of method acting in there taking over reality that leads me to suspect Lynch might be saying something about The Method as well. Maybe he was struck by a lack of identity in people who get lost in their roles. Honestly, though, I haven’t though nearly as much about what is really happening in IE as I did with MH, so I’m probably seeing something completely different from Lynch, but that’s part of the magic of his art!

  7. Great review! Helped me a lot to get a better grasp on the meaning of the film.

  8. Actually it just occured to me that Axxonn is the sound of “Action”. So everything, symbols and riddles are related to film and the ability of this media to modify time, space, play with plots…

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

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