David Lynch’s Inland Empire: hypotheses and spoilers

Mr. Waggish has allowed me to write this guest post about the David Lynch movie we saw tonight. (My film criticism credentials: Explained plot of Hukkle
to Mr. Waggish, 2003.)

The problem with trying to come up with a single interpretation for this movie is that this defies Lynch’s explicit intent. I’ve found a couple of other explanations that seem at least as convincing as this one, linked to at the bottom of this post. But before I advance my hypothesis about Inland Empire‘s plot, let’s clarify some terminology.

Worlds:

  • Hollywood: Nikki Grace’s mansion; Jeremy Irons’s film studio.
  • Suburbs: Susan Blue’s retro house, next door to The Phantom’s house; Billy Side’s mansion; the burlesque club; the upstairs room; Hollywood & Vine.
  • Poland: snowy street scene, horse-drawn carriages and vintage cars.

Major characters:

  • Lost Girl: sits in room 251(?) of a Polish hotel, crying and watching talking rabbits on TV. Catchphrase: “I don’t know where I am.” Head is sometimes blurred out. May be the mother of Piotrek Krol’s son.
  • The Phantom: runs a Polish circus. Walks up and down Polish streets orchestrating screwdriver murders via hypnosis.
  • Nikki Grace: an actress, played by Laura Dern. Talks in a Martha Stewart-y voice and dresses in very severe, tidy clothing.
  • Susan “Sue” Blue: a pregnant housewife; Nikki Grace’s part in the Blue Tomorrows movie. Talks with a strong Southern accent; clothing ranges from colorful and feminine (at the beginning of the movie) to a pair of black capri pants (in the middle of the movie) to a worn-out burgundy maternity blouse and black suit (at the end of the movie). May or may not have had a son who died.
  • Piotrek Krol: is both Nikki Grace’s husband and Susan Blue’s. Wildly jealous. Shoots blanks (but maybe didn’t always). Appears to have a history with Lost Girl.
  • Devon Berk: an actor, played by Justin Theroux. Dresses in bad-boy leather.
  • Billy Side: Sue Blue’s rich lover in the Blue Tomorrows movie. Generally wears a dapper white suit or a black one.
  • Doris Side: Billy Side’s wife, played by Julia Ormond. Wears either a white t-shirt and cutoffs, or a fancy black suit. Is known to carry a screwdriver around in her ribcage.

Anyway, here’s my best effort at making sense of the movie, in chronological order, do with it what you will:

Once upon a time, in Poland, there was an evil Phantom who ran a motley circus. The animal handler in the circus, Piotrek Krol, had a beautiful wife (Lost Girl) and a son. But the Phantom coveted Krol’s wife, so he hypnotized her or slipped her a roofie, had sex with her, and installed her in a hotel room where she could do nothing but watch TV for all eternity.

Luckily, it was a magical, timeless hotel room, so her TV was state-of-the-art. One of the things she could see on TV were three Talking Rabbits, who appeared as American sitcom characters but were also the manifestations of three Polish magicians (there will be a scene where the latter’s outlines blur into the former). Unlike most of the people she watched on TV, the Polish magicians could actually see her too, as well as perform limited travel between worlds.

Krol went around looking for his wife, but when he was driven up to the circus shacks, he was told by a coworker that the Phantom had vanished. Then the three Polish magicians summoned him to their chambers. They showed him his wife (Lost Girl) but he could only hear her, not see her. They told him that the man he worked for (i.e. the Phantom) was responsible, and they gave him a gun that had the power to kill the Phantom.

Krol left the circus and arrived in America, where he married Sue Blue but never really seemed to love her. He left the Phantom-killing gun in the drawer of their bedroom. At one point, they had a barbecue and Krol’s circus friends all showed up punctually at 3pm, in an ominous fashion. Neglected by Krol, Sue became the mistress of a rich man named Billy Side.

When Sue tells Krol that she’s pregnant, Krol realizes that she must be having an affair and beats her savagely. Sue goes to Billy’s house to try to get his help, but she’s confused and disheveled from the beating. Billy refuses to recognize Sue in front of his wife Doris and his son, and sends her away. She goes up to the house next door, where she sees the Phantom. He frightens her, and she picks up the weapon that’s closest at hand, a screwdriver.

Eventually, Sue ends up on the streets. The Phantom takes Sue’s shape and mingles with the prostitutes, jeering at them and at Sue. Sue catches a glimpse of her doppelganger across the street, which is scary, but she also sees Doris, disguised as a prostitute and trailing her. She’s scared that Doris wants to kill her, so she ducks into a burlesque club. After sitting there a while, she’s escorted by the woman in red lace (some kind of magician?) towards an upstairs room where one of the Talking Rabbits (who fades into invisibility, maybe because she can’t see him) and a guy with crooked glasses are sitting. In the room, she feels compelled to deliver a series of monologues that describe her own history of violence and explain a lot of the backstory having to do with Polish legends (like the fact that the Phantom has a one-legged sister). But when the guy with crooked glasses gets up to answer the phone, she sneaks back out onto the street and into the company of the prostitutes. Being a violent sort of person, she’s about to demonstrate to them how to give herself a back-alley abortion with a screwdriver, when Doris comes up, grabs the screwdriver, and stabs her.

As she bleeds to death while her prostitute colleages flee screaming, Sue stumbles for a few feet and then pitches against a wall where some homeless people are sitting. In her dying moment, as she watches the homeless woman’s lighter flame, Sue has a Mulholland Drive-style vision that spins the street sign she saw (“Hollywood”) into a fantasy where she is a glamorous movie star named Nikki Grace.

In this fantasy, she’s living in a mansion resembling Billy’s well-appointed apartment. She has servants and a caring butler, and her husband Krol is just a shadowy figure in the background. However, the first hole in her fantasy appears when she gets an unexpected visit from Grace Zabriskie, who tells her that she has a part in an upcoming movie, but that the movie has a murder in it. Zabriskie also tells a Polish story about a boy (Krol?) who left a house (Poland?) creating his own reflection, and that’s how evil (the Phantom?) first came into the world. In this story, there’s also a girl (Sue? or Lost Girl?) who got lost in an alley behind a marketplace (Nikki’s stage set? Sue’s burlesque theater? Lost Girl’s hotel?) but found the road to the Palace (heaven? Lost Girl’s hotel?).

The movie is called “On High In Blue Tomorrows,” and it’s the story of Sue Blue’s life until a few seconds past the point of her death.

During the first script reading, Nikki finds herself disproportionately moved by the story. They hear a strange noise in the background, and Devon goes to investigate. The strange noise turns out to be Nikki herself, knocking around in her own fantasy. Jeremy Irons tells them that the movie is based on a Polish story called 47 and that it’s a remake of a movie that was never completed because the stars died in mysterious circumstances. (We never see the putative original movie; I think it is simply Sue Blue’s real life.)

Despite (or maybe because of) fantasy-Krol’s threats, Nikki and Devon find themselves oddly drawn together, and they end up having sex in a motel room that strongly resembles Sue and Billy’s bedroom. Fantasy-Krol watches and then vanishes for the rest of the fantasy. (The fact that he vanishes at this point is what makes me believe that Hollywood is a fantasy and the Suburbs/Poland are the reality.) When Nikki and Devon have sex, this catapults Nikki back into “the movie” (Sue Blue’s life story), which she experiences as having happened the day before when she was filming a scene of the movie and then got lost during the filming.

When lost in the remake of her own life, Sue has flash-forwards into her own future. She’s visited by a mysterious debt collector. She sees her fellow prostitutes hanging out in the comfortable living room, and one of them tells her how to obtain more visions into the future by burning a hole in a slip, with a cigar, while wearing the debt collector’s watch. Through the slip, she can see the day of her own death, and watch herself delivering monologues to the man wearing crooked glasses.

Finally Sue sees herself die on the street, and she reverts to her Nikki persona, but can no longer fully accept the fantasy. She finds Krol’s gun and wanders to room 47, where she shoots the Phantom, who dies with Sue’s face on. This unlocks the door to Lost Girl’s hotel room; Nikki comes in and kisses Lost Girl, allowing LG to reunite with her long-lost Krol as well as with Billy Side’s son, who may have been Krol’s and Lost Girl’s son under a spell.

Nikki takes her place in front of LG’s TV, but soon finds herself in Purgatory, which looks an awful lot like Billy’s mansion after all, where she dances with the Phantom’s sister (one-legged blonde), Niko (the monkey-owning, holey-vaginaed, blond-wigged dying Japanese junkie/prostitute), and a host of other Lynch extras.

Other compelling interpretations:

  • Beyond Hollywood – Hollywood is real, Phantom is pimp of a white slavery ring; Doris Side and screwdriver girl are two different characters played by the same actress.
  • Thoughts on Stuff – the 47 story is a repeated curse orchestrated by the Phantom, till Nikki Grace breaks the cycle.
  • Cinemathematics – the Lost Girl is a prostitute and this is all a fantasy based on a TV show that she watches in her hotel.

– Mrs. Waggish