Adam C. Walter
s much as any film in modern cinema, David Lynch’s Inland Empire demands careful interpretation by its audience. And while this essay offers such an interpretation, it is not exhaustive. It does not try to nail down every question in the film. That is, the purpose is not to hunt down, kill, and gut the film and then mount its head on a wall. Rather, the goal here is to pursue this beautiful but nightmarish creation with non-threatening instruments and, after a brief period of study, release it again, unharmed, into the night.
In what follows, all information pertaining specifically to Inland Empire is dealt with at the bottom of each section, after the general discussion of Lynch’s methods. This approach has two advantages. First, this concentrates the application of ideas about the film after a more wide-ranging inquiry has been made. Second, it allows the paper to be used as either a primer for watching the film or as a reflection-piece for reading after one has already seen it. Therefore, readers who have not seen the film can benefit from the paper even if they choose to pass over information specific to Inland Empire.
In 1891 Ambrose Bierce published the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bierce’s story is set during the U.S. Civil War and begins with a captured saboteur being prepared for hanging on a bridge. However, when he is dropped from the bridge with the noose around his neck, the rope breaks, and over the course of several hours he flees from his pursuers through the surrounding countryside. As the story ends, he finally reaches what has been his goal all along, a large, beautiful home—his home—and a radiant woman runs from the house to greet him. Before the two reach each other, though, the story is brought to a sudden end. The noose constricts around the condemned man’s neck. He dies hanging from the bridge, and the entire escape episode is revealed to be an elaborate fantasy, a flight from reality carried out inside the man’s mind in the moment of his execution.
A few side notes on this story: 1) In an odd twist of biography, the time, place, and cause of Bierce’s own death is not known; at 70 years of age the author, a Union Army veteran and career journalist, journeyed to Mexico during a period of revolution, became involved with the hostilities, and was never heard from again. 2) Associations can be made between this story and a film that David Lynch has repeatedly named as one of his favorites: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., a film about Hollywood and self-delusion that is narrated by a corpse. 3) A short but superb adaptation of “Owl Creek Bridge” was filmed by French director Robert Enrico in 1962 and presented as an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
“Owl Creek Bridge” shares a number of similarities with some of Lynch’s films: the literary concept of the “unreliable narrator,” the idea that under certain conditions the human mind escapes from the usual flow and limitations of time, and the challenge for an audience to pick and choose the more solid, more real parts of a narrative and piece them together as if they were a kind of puzzle.
If taken as a triptych, Lynch’s films Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire can all be seen as variations on a theme, with a basic structure resembling Bierce’s story. In this view, Lost Highway may be interpreted as a story about a jealous man who murders his wife and then, while on death row, endures a series of “headaches” that ends with his sudden disappearance from his prison cell. He is replaced there, very mysteriously, by an innocent young man who is quickly released to his parents and returns to his, at first, relatively idyllic life. In the end, however, this second persona disappears, Fred re-emerges, and the film ends with a terrifying image of Fred’s face rocked by a bizarre seizure and greatly distorted—just the sort of thing that might occur, in fact, with an execution by electric chair.
Mulholland Dr. can be viewed as almost the very same type of story, but in reverse. In this film we get the “real” story late in the film. Diane Selwyn, a lesbian who is struggling for bit-parts as an actor in Hollywood, is abandoned for a man by her lover Camilla. Diane, in the grip of intense jealousy, hires a hitman to kill Camilla. Afterward, Diane falls prey to delirium, a product of her guilty conscience, and in her torment she shoots herself. Her period of delirium hatches a strange fantasy that occurs in the moment of Diane’s death. In this fantasy, she is Betty Elms, an utterly innocent young woman who has just arrived in Hollywood, hoping to make it big as an actress. Betty has great and sudden success in an audition, but she also uncovers a mystery when she meets a beautiful, amnesiac woman who calls herself Rita (though she looks exactly like Camilla). After surviving a murder attempt, Rita takes refuge in a house that turns out to be Betty’s new home. As Betty helps Rita try to recover her identity and her memory, the two fall in love. This storyline, however, suddenly dissolves after the two of them attend a surreal magic show late one night. Suddenly ejected from her fantasy bubble, Diane helplessly allows her true story to unfold, and finally we witness her suicide.
Lynch has labeled this film as being the story of “a woman in trouble,” a recurring theme for his films. The film consistently pursues this theme via images and episodes that build a mounting sense of crisis for the woman, Nikki Grace. The film is one of Lynch’s most disorienting works, a work comparable in this way to Eraserhead; his live, stage-production, Industrial Symphony No. 1; and his early short film, “The Grandmother.” Like these works, Inland Empire is unconventional in not settling on one of the usual narrative templates for a film: that is, it is neither plot-driven nor character-driven. Rather, avoiding the traditional strictures of storytelling, Lynch here opts for a theme-driven film. (As such, a case might be made that Inland Empire is not a “story film” at all, that its aesthetic is not narrative-based, or that its use of narrative is marginal at best, handling story simply as any stage performer—say a singer or a magician—might incorporate a series of anecdotes with his or her “act.”) As noted, Lynch’s theme is “a woman in trouble,” and here the trouble consists of infidelity, domestic violence, and retribution exacted by a wronged spouse. While the film is disorienting in the frequent leaps it makes between different settings and characters, it continues to develop its theme relentlessly.
Interpreting this film in light of the “Owl Creek Bridge” structure, we might say that, like Mulholland Dr., Inland Empire begins with the main character’s fantasy already underway, and it is not until relatively late in the film that we get the true story. Inland Empire tells of a woman, Nikki Grace, who cheats on her husband. One night, a dark-haired woman runs up to Nikki on the street and stabs her with a screwdriver. Perhaps this woman is the wife of Nikki’s lover, or perhaps she is a woman hypnotized by the mysterious “Phantom” at the bidding of Nikki’s cuckolded husband. After she is stabbed, Nikki staggers away and collapses among a small group of homeless people. In the last minutes of her life, these people sometimes comfort her, but at other moments they ignore her and continue with their own conversation. Finally Nikki dies, but then a very strange thing happens. We see a movie camera over the scene. It pulls back. Slowly other sounds and cues intrude. And we are told that we’ve just viewed a death scene being filmed on a movie set. Thus the dying Nikki fantasizes one of several narrative layers that allow her to escape her squalid, ignominious death. In this fantasy she is a successful movie star embarking simultaneously on both a love affair and a new film project that, she learns, is “haunted” by a previous, failed attempt to film the script she is working on. The film is called On High in Blue Tomorrows and is also the story of a love affair. Together, Nikki’s affair and the haunting motif form a gateway into escalating layers of fantasy, and divergent storylines multiply without a moment’s notice. One such storyline is set in Poland, and in the past. Here other strange events and at least one murder occur. Is it possible that this “Polish storyline” corresponds with that earlier attempt to film On High in Blue Tomorrows? Possibly, but this is a mere suggestion—and that is all Nikki needs to continue building her fantasy, desperately multiplying her interior worlds in an attempt to survive.
And yet, as we will see below, it may very well be that Nikki herself—and her entire, complex, metaphysical dilemma—is subordinate to another, and even more mysterious, story that frames the film. After all, throughout the film Nikki is being watched by another woman.
Psychology has provided many fascinating methods for interpreting stories. One such method, with much potential for examining a Lynch film, comes from Jungian psychology and the study of fairy tales. In the work of Jungian writer Marie-Louise von Franz, for example, one encounters the concept of the fairy tale as a single, sealed psyche in which every character, setting, and object corresponds to some aspect of the psyche’s function. Unfortunately, applying such an interpretation in a rigorous manner may result in a reductive, laborious reading which attempts to view a story as simply a psychological allegory. On the other hand, just taking this Jungian idea and keeping it in mind as one approaches a fairy tale, or a Lynch film, can greatly enhance the experience.
If we interpret a particular Lynch film largely as a fantasy, then many of the events and characters can be viewed as aspects of a dream that is playing inside the “consciousness” that is the film—inside the psyche that is Fred Madison, Diane Selwyn, or Nikki Grace. Because of this, certain recognizable, and psychologically-significant, character types will be seen to intrude from time to time. I will address several of these below.
The central character in each of these films can be taken as an unreliable narrator. Both Fred Madison and Diane Selwyn want to escape from their guilty consciences into a fantasy where they are innocent and beautiful people. These dreamers are liars.
Nikki Grace, in her moment of death, imagines her death scene as occurring on a movie set where she is a successful film star.
In psychology, the shadow is the part of the unconscious that swallows threatening information and experiences that a conscious mind cannot hold onto and, at the same time, remain functional. However, a periodic confrontation with the shadow is necessary for a healthy psyche. In a Lynch film it is often the job of some sort of rule-maker, interrogator, or detective to engineer just such a confrontation. These detective types set boundaries on a film’s fantasy narrative and try to steer the main character back to the truth. In earlier Lynch films, one can clearly see the interplay of liars, shadows-characters and detectives. In Blue Velvet it is Frank Booth who, as the shadow, wears disguises and has multiplied his identity, and young Jeffrey Beaumont is the amateur detective who unmasks him. However, in confronting Frank, a degree of shadow is absorbed into Jeffrey’s previously innocent self. In Twin Peaks, the shadow migrates at times from person to person; it is known as “Bob.” When in Fire Walk with Me Philip Jeffries, an FBI agent gone AWOL, escapes briefly from the Black Lodge (a place, it should be noted, where time flows differently), he mistakes Agent Cooper for Cooper’s future self, who has been imprisoned in the Black Lodge by Bob. Jeffries attempts to expose Cooper with a cryptic but telling line addressed to Gordon Cole: “Who do you think this is there?” Thus the shifting roles of detective and shadow become increasingly complex.
The function of a detective is to force the liar to admit the truth. In Lost Highway Fred Madison is stalked by the “Mystery Man,” who sends Fred video recordings made of Fred’s own home, warns him that he’s being watched, and ultimately records an event that Fred wants to forget: Fred’s murder of his wife. Later, the Mystery Man follows Fred into his fantasy world and chases him with a camera, demanding that he own up to the truth. When Fred re-emerges from Pete Dayton, his young fantasy alter ego, he asks the Mystery Man where Alice—the fantasy woman who looks like his dead wife, Renee—has disappeared to. The Mystery Man responds: “Alice who? Her name is Renee! If she's told you her name is Alice, she's lying.” Then the Mystery Man shouts at him: “And your name? What the fuck is your name?” In this film, the Mystery Man shadow-character has taken on the role of detective in rebellion against the controlling ego-character, Fred, who is in complete denial.
In Mulholland Dr. a less menacing character known as “the Cowboy” sets the rules and finally forces Diane out of her fantasy with the simple line: “Hey, pretty girl. Time to wake up.”
Here the detective and shadow roles, like most things in the film, are fractured. In part Nikki is confronted with the truth by her husband. Nikki’s husband is certainly a rule-maker and demonstrates this in the early scene between himself and Devon Berk when he suspects Devon of being infatuated with Nikki; in fact, this whole scene is reminiscent in tone of the scene between the Cowboy and Adam Kesher in Mulholland Dr. (The similarity is made all the more striking for the fact that both Adam and Devon are played by Justin Theroux). In Inland Empire, there is also a quiet man in a small, dingy office at the top of a steep set of stairs whom Nikki visits and to whom she confesses certain episodes from her past. And perhaps strangest of all is the Phantom, a shadow-character Nikki meets a few times and eventually finds herself trying to kill. (It is usually a bad idea to attempt killing one’s shadow.) In a telling piece of imagery, the first time Nikki encounters the Phantom, he seems to be eating a light bulb.
In some of Lynch’s films, the detectives or shadow-characters also double as oracles, giving small, mysterious hints that will help the main character solve a mystery. This is certainly true of the Mystery Man and the Cowboy. But just as often, the role of oracle is unique and filled by a character separate from the detectives and shadow-selves. In Twin Peaks, there is more than one oracle; these include the Man from Another Place, the Giant, and the Log Lady.
The most obvious oracle in Inland Empire is the foreign woman who visits Nikki very early in the film, telling her a couple of strange parables, making cryptic comments on the topics of time and memory, and talking about a “new role” Nikki has to play and about “an unpaid bill.”
In a Lynch film, it is worthwhile to note any talk of doors, openings, windows, alleys, or corridors—or even the physical representation of them onscreen. These motifs are often loaded with suggestion, symbolism, and double meaning. The same holds true for any directions that a character is given or any descriptions of a “path” to take. The secret meaning here may deal with subjects that the conscious mind, the central, controlling ego character, is avoiding. Or these meanings may refer to the strange and difficult routes that must be taken in order to access such information—that is, to move such information from the dark (the subconscious-mind) into the light (the conscious-mind). The physical characteristics of any significant opening, particularly the size and shape of the opening, may suggest much about the ease with which vital psychological information will be able to flow.
In The Elephant Man, at one point the camera actively explores the hood that John Merrick—a greatly damaged, but childlike and innocent man—wears over his face, a hood with nothing more than a small slit for an eyehole to provide his window on the world. The bedroom Merrick is given at the hospital also features a window, an ungenerous little rectangle shaped precisely like this eyehole, and it is just above the bed where Merrick dies. Lost Highway is a film obsessed with dark corridors, and Fred Madison is a jealous man with very limited vision. The windows on Fred’s house are tiny, constricting, Merrick-like slits in the walls.
There is one episode in the Poland storyline which contains a very suggestive discussion in which two men talk about searching for “an opening.” Also, the foreign woman who visits Nikki at the beginning of the film tells her that they are neighbors and then describes her own house, which is “tucked back in the small woods” and difficult to see “from the road.” This is very reminiscent of—in Twin Peaks—the place “above a convenience store,” the “Chalfont” trailer, and various other locations that cannot be accessed by ordinary routes. A few times in Inland Empire, Nikki climbs a tall set of stairs to reach a man to whom she talks about her past, and one of the first lines she addresses to this man is: “That’s one hell of a fuckin’ climb, gettin’ up here.”
Lynch often mentions the “ocean of ideas” where an artist may “fish” for beautiful abstractions—that is, pre-existing ideas that are available and waiting for those who know how to look for them. In part this idea can be traced to Plato, but in a more immediate sense it is associated with Lynch’s practice of Transcendental Meditation. One also sees this theme mirrored in his films. After all, Fred Madison, Diane Selwyn, and Nikki Grace are characters who, in a moment of extreme crisis, have somehow reached a place where they must swim in this ocean of ideas and, as dreaming liars, construct whole new worlds from the ideas they encounter. Thus, Lynch uses the ocean of ideas as a governing metaphor both for metaphysical and aesthetic purposes.
When Nikki, on the film set of Blue Tomorrows, asks the director’s elderly friend Freddie if he’s enjoying himself, Freddie gets a far-away look in his face and says: “Well, there’s a vast network, right? An ocean of possibilities.” After this he tells about his love for dogs, about how intelligent they are, and how he has seen them “reason their way out of problems, watched them think through the trickiest situations.” One can’t help but wonder if, here, the fantasizing Nikki isn’t one such “tricky dog” herself.
If the divided psyche, represented by the many characters in each film, can be seen as its own “ocean” for the central character, the viewpoint ego, in which to swim—then one is confronted not only with the relationship of each character to the ego, but of the ego to the entire mass of them, the big, oceanic Other. In many of Lynch’s films, the main characters find themselves at a party with a threatening atmosphere or are confronted by a mob-like gang of characters. In part, these mobs convey the simple idea of “multiplicity,” and this is something that the main characters—with their penchant for masking themselves (that is, falsely multiplying themselves)—find uncomfortable when displayed openly. However, this may also be seen as the depiction of a tormented Self alienated from the Other, alienated from that vital environment: “the inner circle.” John Merrick in The Elephant Man is made a spectacle before mobs of all sorts. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey is at the mercy of Frank Booth’s gang. In Fire Walk with Me, the relationship between Laura and Donna is suddenly warped when they visit a hellish nightclub together. In Lost Highway, Fred Madison is uncomfortable at a party his wife takes him to; later, in his fantasy episode, he constructs nightmarish visions of a nefarious pornography ring that seems to surround him. And it is at a dinner party in Mulholland Dr. that Diane Selwyn learns that her lover has not only left her, but is getting married—thus leaving her forever.
The second hour of this film features several episodes in an odd storyline where Nikki sits in a room with a number of younger women who talk about men and sex. There have been similar scenes with young women in other Lynch projects, notably Twin Peaks, but in this film there is a noted lack of innocence in the “girl talk.” Nikki’s relationship to the girls is ambiguous; in the beginning she seems a mere observer. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that the girls are prostitutes, and when Nikki finally encounters them on the streets, she associates with them as a fellow whore and becomes suddenly hysterical at this development.
At the moment of their deaths, or in the episodes leading up to death, the various main characters in certain Lynch films hear or see things that they latch onto and later use as material for their fantasies. In interviews, Lynch has often remarked that just about anything—a phrase (whether read or heard), a piece of music, a brief image, a feeling—can send him off into a surreally creative moment. It’s little wonder, then, that his characters behave in a similar way. The mysterious message “Dick Laurent is dead” was delivered to Lynch by an unknown person one day via his home intercom, and he incorporated this into the beginning of Lost Highway. Near the end of the film, Fred Madison concocts both this man, Dick Laurent, and Dick’s death episode out of pure fantasy. Both Fred and Diane Selwyn take minor characters and overheard phrases—in Diane’s case, several of these things are gleaned in the Mulholland Dr. dinner party scene—and imbue them with new significance in their fantasies.
Interpreting the film in light of the “Owl Creak Bridge” structure, Nikki’s death scene may be interpreted as the most solid and significant moment for the character. While dying she overhears a conversation between two homeless women, and this strange conversation evokes nearly every major motif in the film. Both women speak English but have strong accents; one is African American, and one is Asian. (The idea of “foreignness” is prominent in Nikki’s fantasies.) The two women argue over whether it is possible to get a “bus to Pomona” from where they are. (Hence the several directional issues in the film.) The Asian woman talks about her drug-addicted, prostitute friend, Niko, who wears a blonde wig and looks like a movie star; everyone falls in love with Niko. (Here it becomes possible that Nikki is truly a mere cipher. What is her actual name, if “Nikki” has simply been plagiarized from “Niko”?) However, Niko is dying; she has a hole between her vagina wall and her intestine. (A murdered character in the Poland storyline has an intestine come out through a wound in her side. And of course, Nikki herself is stabbed in the gut with a screwdriver.) The Asian woman also tells of Niko’s pet monkey and how she lets it defecate everywhere. And yet, she says, “there are those who are good with animals.” (This line is echoed by the character Freddie and by Nikki’s husband. Also, the line may be the single fragment Nikki needed to construct her most bizarre fantasy—the “rabbits” television sitcom.) In Nikki’s final moments of life, the African American woman shows Nikki the flame of a cigarette lighter. (A number of intrusive lights feature in the film—lights over a film stage, bright reflections off of a camera lens, etc.) And finally the African American woman performs a sort of deathbed ritual with Nikki, holding a lit cigarette lighter before her face and telling her: “I show you light now. It burns bright forever. No more blue tomorrows. You’re on high now, love.”
It is also worth noting that when Lynch was traveling with Inland Empire and personally opening the film’s run in a city, he would begin the evening with the following quote 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.”
Perhaps representative of a “higher self,” some Lynch films include a sort of “designated mourner” character who observes the crimes and tragedies of the central character’s life and then grants a sort of absolution, imparting consolation and forgiveness. Fire Walk with Me has an episode like this between the Log Lady and Laura, just before Laura goes one night to engage in prostitution, but the film also ends with a scene in which Laura, dead now, meets an angel while she is with Agent Cooper in the Red Room. While there is no mourner in Mulholland Dr., the film does end with a moment of grace, when Betty and Rita are pictured together in a final, eternal moment of joy. Lost Highway, however, is notable for its lack of any mourner or absolution; one comes away from this film with the sense that Fred, for his crime, is thoroughly and irredeemably damned.
Throughout the film, the audience sees brief sequences of a young woman sitting on a bed and crying as she watches, on her television, various episodes from Inland Empire. In the end, Nikki walks into the young woman’s room, they kiss briefly, and Nikki disappears. After this, the woman runs out of her hotel room, through a by-now-familiar corridor, and into the front room of the house that Nikki disappeared into so mysteriously mid-way through the film. Here the weeping woman greets what appear to be her husband and son, returning home at night. However, the man is the one we’ve come to know as Nikki’s husband. And suddenly a new possibility emerges from the world of Inland Empire, something that has much to imply about the function of celebrity and the function of film-based or television-based drama. The suggestion here is that there is no real Nikki at all, that she is merely what psychology calls a “scapegoat.” That is, perhaps Nikki is merely an archetype that exists on the other side of the television screen, forever a “woman in trouble,” a fictional victim who suffers in a public medium so that another women (or even other women) may, in watching her, shed an inner compulsion to suffer tragically. (It could be argued that Laura Palmer represented just such a scapegoat for the world of Twin Peaks.) Thus in watching Nikki, the anonymous woman here projects certain things onto Nikki and her story (the woman’s husband, for example), then weeps whole-heartedly for Nikki’s troubles, and finally experiences a profound sense of catharsis, finding herself reconciled to her own peaceful, if ordinary and unremarkable, life.
This moment leads into what is probably the most ecstatic, grace-filled ending of any Lynch film. As the film’s credit’s play, a great crowd of people—mostly women, some of them familiar faces and some appearing in the film for the first time—congregate happily and begin to sing and dance while a mood of authentic joy pervades. Here the “interior mob” has been redeemed in toto, surpassing even the ecstatic sentiment that comes at the end of Wild at Heart.
Here it may be worth noting something that Lynch said in an interview with Chris Rodley for the book Lynch on Lynch. Lynch began by talking about the darkness in his paintings:
Lynch: But ultimately, I guess the central idea is, you know, life in darkness and confusion—and I’m certainly there: lost in darkness and confusion.
You know what dogs are like in a room? They really look like they’re having fun. They’re bouncing this ball around and chewing on stuff and they’re kind of panting and happy. Human beings are supposed to be like that. We should be pretty happy. And I don’t know why we aren’t.
Rodley: Does the darkness and confusion ever abate, or does it get worse? And is it actually necessary to your work?
Lynch: It does go away. And it will go away for everyone. I really believe this isn’t the way it’s going to be for ever.
On a side note, one consideration that should never be forgotten when watching a David Lynch film is that the man started out his artistic career as a painter, and he remains one to this day. Lynch first began working in cinema when he animated a short film out of a desire to add sound and movement to a painting. Because of this background, Lynch’s audience must prepare itself to experience films that follow an unusual aesthetic. And one can see the influence of some of Lynch’s favorite painters in his films. Throughout Lynch’s body of work, the gorgeous, moody paintings of Edward Hopper are a reference point, with characters moving in and out of static, idealized moments. At other times, it is the terrifying, existential feel of a Francis Bacon painting that we sense, capturing the oppressive sight of a human body which seems to be stationary yet also somehow tearing itself apart with great energy—as in the final shot of Fred in Lost Highway. Lynch need not apologize for his refusal, in Inland Empire, to settle for a conventional narrative format. Yet some viewers will argue that, in turning his emphasis from character and plot to an emphasis on an abstract theme, the all-important Lynch “mood” has suffered in this film. If true, this is this sort of consideration that may cause Lynch, eventually, to pause and reassess his new method of filmmaking. However, as long as the mood remains intact, the film is a valid artistic achievement.
The final tool in this toolbox is the most powerful of all: the veto. As Lynch often says, each viewer must make whatever private sense they can of a film. So feel free to veto any or all of the above. Most importantly, though—don’t give up on the film. Find some way to appreciate it, both the pieces and the whole.