WARNING: It would be impossible to effect this analysis without giving away some spoilers. Please consider this if you have not yet seen this film.

Cinema is a magical medium. Through it, the audience can be transported back in time, to alien planets, inside a protagonist's head, or literally anywhere that can be imagined. We are deeply connected to characters' motivations through the wizardry of the movies: their ups, their downs, their sadness, their mirth, and so much more.

Yet, through every point of the cinematic journey, we always know that what we are seeing is fake. It is an illusion, a mirage, a lie. Despite this, the best stories allow for us to suspend our disbelief and connect with the characters even though they are imaginary. This suspension of disbelief produces real feelings that are a catalyst for real emotional change in the audience. The characters and their stories become a part of us because each individual projects individual traits and idiosyncrasies on to them.

There is something very real and tangible in the magic artificiality of cinematic suspension of disbelief. David Lynch masterfully exploits our willingness to knowingly believe the cinematic lie in his brilliantly experimental noir thriller Inland Empire (2006).

Before delving into an analysis of the seemingly impenetrable surrealist concrete wall that is Inland Empire (the film is less than a minute under three hours, but oh so satisfying to watch), a few things need to be said. First, like Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001), there will be a whole plethora of individual interpretations of the film. All will indeed be correct, for the person, for precisely the reason given above. Yet, none will reign supreme over others until and if Lynch himself gives an analysis. This will likely never happen, however, because Lynch does not believe in giving such interpretative aid to his art. He believes individual pieces stand firmly on their own without need of explanation.



Second, Lynch affected his grand statement on cinematic suspension of disbelief, and also the story of the main actress's (Laura Dern) descent into psychosis, through the use of a literary technique called stream-of-consciousness writing. This was a technique that was popularised in the literary work of Marcel ProustVirginia WoolfJames JoyceWilliam FaulknerJ.D. Salinger, and the poets and writers of the Beat Generation, like Jack Kerouac and Gregory CorsoThe technique involves long, seemingly unedited, and often punctuation-less passages usually in a novel, that are meant to represent the interior life of a character. Stream-of-consciousness was first really put to use in film with Federico Fellini’s more light-hearted surrealist piece 8 1/2 (1963), about a director with a creative block who has made essentially 8 1/2 films. Fellini's film was very influential on David Lynch and is very popular among many directors. It is also much more interesting to watch than the other film he is most famous for: La Strada (1954).

8 1/2 (1963).

LA STRADA (1954).

It is due to the psychologically expository nature of the technique that it also finds a home in surrealism, where it lives quite comfortably. As can be seen in my other analyses of Lynch's work (linked above with the two film names), this brand of surrealism also lives quite comfortably in noir.

Where the technique is so prominent in Inland Empire is primarily in the fact that Lynch did the film basically without a working screenplay. He would get inspired by an idea, write and shoot the individual scene, and then weave all the scenes together on the editing room floor.

Third, there is a second piece of film by David Lynch that really needs to be watched and studied some before tackling Inland Empire in a meaningful way. The piece in question is titled Rabbits (2002) and was released as a free web series. See Rabbits in its entirety below.

RABBITS (2002).

RABBITS (2002)

Rabbits is also a rather dense piece of film, but it can be figured out by the determined viewer. It is vital to have a grasp on it before tackling Inland Empire because the rabbits in it are really representative of the interior demons being fought by the Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka) in Inland Empire(more on this later).

The piece stars the principal players from Mulholland Dr. — Justin TherouxLaura Harring, and Naomi Watts — as three anthropomorphic rabbits living in an apartment in a city where it rains all day every day. Rabbits is marked by seemingly random, non-sequitur dialogue accentuated by a sitcom laugh track. The dialogue between the three rabbits, at first appearing to be completely nonsensical, actually tells the story of Jane the rabbit (Harring) witnessing something violent near a harbour when she was 15. It is strongly implied that the occurrence was her attempted rape by a man whose eye she gouged out: "legs in the air," "dripping socket," this dialogue in Rabbits all mirrors a very important part of Inland Empire.

Still from RABBITS.

Last, there is yet another independent piece by Lynch that factors into Inland Empire. The piece in question is titled "Axxon-N" and is described at the beginning of Inland Empire (with the visual of a record turning under a needle) as "the longest running radio play in history." Axxon-N was also going to be released as a web series, yet it never came to fruition. Still, it is really used in Inland Empire as a device that breaks the Fourth Wall between the Lost Girl and Nikki (Laura Dern).

The scene of the record spinning at the beginning of INLAND EMPIRE. A voice-over description from Axxon-N (“the longest running radio play in history”) plays. It is as if Lynch wants to really impress on us the idea that everything we are about to see is an illusion.

With all of that out of the way, we can finally begin the actual analysis of Inland Empire. The film begins with the scene of a record spinning under a needle and a description from Axxon-N of a lonely hotel in the Baltic region of Eastern Europe in the dead of winter. It is as if Lynch is telling us that everything we are about to see is nothing but a radio play. It is fake: a mirage, like Diane's dream in Mulholland Dr., it is an illusion.

We are then transported to the hotel, to a scene of pimps, johns, and prostitutes. This is another motif that, like in Lost Highway and Blue Velvet(1986), runs through Lynch’s films: the mistreatment of women is a well-known trope of hard-boiled, noir stories. After the scene in the hotel, we are transported to a scene of the Lost Girl watching first Rabbits and then Inland Empire itself on a television screen.

The lost girl as she watches scenes from RABBITS and INLAND EMPIRE itself on her TV screen. This is a huge part of both the probing of her psychosis and Lynch’s overall study of cinematic suspension of disbelief.

It is this and yet another factor that makes Inland Empire a film within a film, within a film, within a film. After the scene from Rabbits flickers across her television, we are thrust into the story of wealthy but faded starlet Nikki (Dern), who is up for the role of a lifetime making a film called On High and Blue Tomorrows, which is itself a remake of an old European film called 47(perhaps the numbers here are an allusion to 8 1/2?), which is also the number of the apartment the rabbits dwell in.

Before she gets the part, Nikki meets her new Polish neighbour (Grace Zabriskie) who tells Nikki a story of a little boy who goes out to play and leaves an evil reflection in the mirror of the door he passes through. This is emblematic of the concept in analytical psychology of the shadow, or the darker impulses of a person. We shall see that Nikki wrestles with her shadow and also the various "women in trouble" (another running motif in Lynch's body of work) in the film have to deal with the shadows of the various men in their lives.

It is impossible also to assume even the slightest bit of chronology in Inland Empire because of the nature of it as a surrealist, stream-of-consciousness piece. This is a very purposeful device in the film because it produces Lynch's intended ambiguity and accentuates the psychosis that crops up in Nikki during the film's progression. We see Nikki begin reading as Sue Blue for On High and Blue Tomorrows with her co-star Devon (Theroux) as Billy Side. It is during this that we learn 47 has a curse attached to it, where both of the leads in the original project died under mysterious circumstances after (it was implied) they were having an affair.

Nikki (Laura Dern) reading as Sue Blue with her co-star Devon (Justin Theroux) as Billy Side in preparation for the filming of the film within a film On High and Blue Tomorrows.

It is during the filming of On High and Blue Tomorrows that Nikki begins losing her mind and experiencing perceptual distortions and the distortions in time that her neighbour warned her against. She melds so well into her character that in one scene Lynch inserts a purposeful Fourth Wall break where she relays to Devon that her husband Piotrek (Peter J. Lucas) threatening to kill them both if they sleep together. She says, "Shit! This sounds like dialogue from our script!" and it is then revealed that they are filming when she says it.

Nikki / Sue’s controlling, psychopathic husband Piotrek. This still also has a connection with RABBITS as the three rabbits talk about being stalked by a man in a green suit. This and Piotrek’s actions make him a symbol of evil in the mind of Nikki / Sue and in the mind of the Lost Girl.

Much of the rest of the film is a movement back and forth between scenes from On High and Blue Tomorrows, Nikki's regular life, bits from Rabbits, and the saga of the Lost Girl. All of this, in the meantime, is being watched on the television screen by the Lost Girl. Lynch purposefully makes it hard to tell what each scene is related to as both a device to accentuate Nikki's psychosis and as a vehicle to make his grand statement about cinematic suspension of disbelief. We know what we are seeing is illusory but that does not invalidate the very real emotions we feel in watching the story of the Nikki character. At any rate, it does make it easier to tell what each scene of Inland Empire is related to by noticing the southern accent or lack thereof in Laura Dern's voice: Sue Blue has a southern accent. Nikki does not.

A scene from the end of INLAND EMPIRE when Nikki / Sue is walking the streets of LA as a prostitute. Notice the blue light she is drenched in: this acts as a harbinger of the next part of the scene when the area around her that was very real to her is revealed to be nothing but a set with very decent mise-en-scéne.

Still, we go further down the rabbit hole (pun very much intended) with Nikki melding into Sue who then is revealed to be a prostitute in her real life. During the reading for On High and Blue Tomorrows, the actors, director (Jeremy Irons), and assistant director (Harry Dean Stanton) are interrupted by an unseen person in what was supposed to be a closed studio. Devon/Billy Side investigates and finds no one when they should find someone.

Throughout, we see "Axxon-N" written on, for instance, a door that Laura Dern as Sue Blue goes through. It is this scene that is further reminiscent of the time travel idea in Lost Highway because after Sue goes through the door, we see her intrude on her own reading. It is as if the diseased part of Nikki's mind (or is she really Sue?) is looking in on the still sane parts of her mind.

As Nikki further descends into psychosis and complete identity loss to the character of Sue, we see her sleep with her co-star Devon in a room that is drenched in blue light. As Lynch did in Mulholland Dr. and Blue Velvet, blue as a color is used here to represent death and depression. It is as if through On High and Blue Tomorrows and the act of cheating, Nikki and Devon have signed away their lives and will experience a type of death. Yet before this death in the carnal act, they also experience heaven in that same act.

The dark blue scene of Nikki / Sue and Devon / Billy making love as Nikki’s controlling, psychopathic husband Pieotrik looks on. The blue here, in the rest of the film, and in the title On High and Blue Tomorrows, is all emblematic of physical death, personal deaths, madness, and heaven.

This death becomes more literal when we see a woman who is presumably Billy's wife (Julia Ormond) talking to a cop about a man known only as The Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak) who hypnotized her (emblematic of her shadow in much the same way as the Mystery Man, played by Robert Blake, in Lost Highway was Fred's shadow) into killing both Sue and her husband Billy with a screwdriver. We then get a terrible scene of the screwdriver sticking from the woman's abdomen. This again reflects the theme of the perils of adultery and the immorality of how women are treated, especially in Hollywood.

Nikki / Sue after being stabbed by the screwdriver. She wanders the streets of Los Angeles as a prostitute: an occupation many failed actresses are strong-armed into.

This theme is further driven home by Nikki / Sue relaying a story to another man (presumably a mobster or her pimp) about being raped at 15 and gouging the man's eye out, the question being whether this conversation takes place in On High and Blue Tomorrows or Inland Empire itself. This also ties directly into Axxon-N, which we discover touches on themes of prostitution.

A still of the alley door where Nikki / Sue enters and sees herself in the script reading. This hearkens back to the idea of time travel in LOST HIGHWAY.

";Axxon-N" really acts as not so much a Fourth Wall Break, where the audience is made aware that what they are watching is fake, but more as a Fourth Wall Bridge if you will. One of the most pivotal scenes of Inland Empire involves Nikki/Sue seeing "Axxon-N" crudely written on a wall in an alleyway (reflective of the fable her neighbour told her). We are then transported to the record of Axxon-N spinning under its needle and the Lost Girl telling Nikki that she needs to burn a hole with a cigarette through a piece of silk in order to basically connect with her. The Lost Girl cries as Nikki does this. Nikki then materialises in the Lost Girl's hotel room where they share a passionate kiss. Nikki then fades away to the last scene of her in the mansion pictured at the beginning of the movie. She is dressed in blue (emblematic again of death), has a satisfied smile on her face, and pets her new pet monkey.

The scene of the kiss between Nikki / Sue and the Lost Girl. This is meant to show that while Nikki / Sue was never real, the feelings she produced through cinematic suspension of disbelief in the Lost Girl were very real.


As far as I can tell, the monkey may be a nod to another film that was very pivotal in David Lynch&'s development as an artist, and that also tells a tale of decaying Hollywood dreams: Billy Wilder's seminal film noir Sunset Boulevard(1950). Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) holds a funeral for her long dead chimpanzee in it.

Norma Desmond’s dead chimpanzee in SUNSET BOULEVARD. David Lynch has repeatedly acknowledged SUNSET as a very pivotal influence on his work.

Still, this scene of the kiss is vitally important because it shows the connection between Nikki / Sue and the Lost Girl. This connection is multi-faceted: first, there is the fact that Nikki and Sue were never real at all. They were merely pieces of the Lost Girl's fragmented psyche. Second, and this is certainly a paradox, Nikki and Sue were very real to the Lost Girl because she watched their saga. They are a part of her despite being an illusion and all the characters are a part of us as an audience.

Nikki communicating with the Lost Girl through “Axxon-N.” Lynch is saying that through art, the imaginary Nikki is effecting the emotional state of the real Lost Girl.

That is David Lynch's grand statement in Inland Empire that he very effectively tells through the story of one woman’s descent into the abyss of madness. Even though all the things that cinema produces are illusory, the emotions they produce in the viewer are not. We suspend our disbelief, even in the face of the most absurd storylines, and in the process, we are moved to tears, laughter, fear, and the whole gamut of human emotions. Despite Inland Empire being a concrete wall of surrealism, it is definitely a rewarding experience for the astute viewer to take in Lynch's grand statement on the lie of cinema and the very tangible products of it.