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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.


  • 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


  1. Great work, Mrs. Waggish. I’ve been waiting for the first theories to float around the web. I’ve added yours to our list of reviews & theories on INLAND EMPIRE: http://worldfilm.about.com/od/inlandempire

  2. A challenging sketch of I E. Good job on delineating a difficult narrative of this difficile subject matter !!

  3. thank you for explaining this weird movie.

  4. That was fantastic, you are an absolute lynch translation specialist. I am rewatching this film with a while new understanding I can’t thank you enough

  5. I think this is an excellent theory. However, one of my close friends (who likes Lynch’s films but hasn’t been exposed to many) asked me a great question after it was over and we had begun trying to pick things apart: “What does it mean to UNDERSTAND a David Lynch film?” And indeed, what does it mean? Is a pieced-together sequence of events the point? I doubt it considering Lynch’s visual art history and general focus on non-linearity. Nonetheless, there are hints along the way that at least point toward a puzzled together plot-summary. Either way, I admire your efforts considerably..

  6. Great vision of the movie…

  7. Thank you for the explanation. After watching this movie, and duly considering what it might be about, I can only conclude that no one should ever again give David Lynch this much film to use at one time!

  8. Thomas Emil Hansen

    27 August 2007 at 07:39

    It’s nice to have a (somewhat) meaningful interpretation of the plot. However, I still miss a possible theme or subject, such as in Lost Highway (the insides of a deranged husband who killed his wife) or Mulholland Drive (the insides of failed wanna-be actress). Do you see any such themes in this movie?

  9. I appreciate your efforts as well. There are a couple key items that I picked up on in the film that I have not found any discussions on. First of all, when Piotrek squirts the ketchup on himself at the barbeque for his circus friends, it creates an image that looks to be a picture of the Phantom or the devil himself. Did anyone else notice this? Secondly, there are specific times during the film that a train horn can be heard in the background. Lynch does this in his films. For example, in Mulholland Drive, we hear “Silvia North Story” on two different occasions and this is paramount to understanding the film. I would love to read some feedback on these two items.

  10. Great interpretation!

    To Brandon Bayne: The train horn; also running through the ‘Rabbits’ series. I don’t know what to make of it.

    When Nikki gets a visit from her neighbour, she is asked questions like:
    -Is your husband in your film?
    -Is there a murder in your film?
    which also reveals some of the processes in making a film. What I love about Inland Empire is all the layers, that intertwines.

    Who is Smithy?
    Who is AxxonN?
    Is Crimp the Phantom?

  11. Axxon- phoentic spelling of action? might symbolize stepping between sue and nikki worlds?

    Lynch talks about shooting rabits scene outside in special features and about noise carrying alot- so train sounds might not have alot of meaning.

    Ketchup thing I never noticed-reminded me of what gypsy said about “ a little boy goes out into the world and evil is born”.

    I think she (gypsy from start) is referring to lost girl and Krol in her fairy tales at start.

    I am pretty sure Crimp= Phantom?

    I am sorry if I repeated anything you already said. I believe your interpretation is consistent, and believe lynch had some possible interpretations in mind when he created it but like literature- open to interpretation ect.

    I was wondering about:

    LB written on Sues hand
    Significance of the lights that are filmed ominously
    and the shadows of the rabits that appear in certain worlds in the film.

    All these things appear on the back of the North American DVD cover.

    I bought a copy of Mullholland drive which had a list of “ clues to solve the movie”… Not sure if Lynch was opposed to this or not.

    I agree that for many reasons it seems like Sue Blue’s life is real and Nikki’s is a fantasy;

    Great film and great interpretation..

    Also did anyone see the really long watch scene in the cut scenes? where krol sells a watch to (lost girl?)? and she seems to only want it because she has heard it brings good luck?

  12. I think the ‘Lb’ written on Sues’ hand is a code.

    if you turn the letters Lb, it looks like a 47. the room that she wanders in.

  13. Rules on Lynch Films:

    Rule #1: Never try to make sense of it all. They are truely works of abstract.

    Rule #2: Sit back and experience it like you would a theme park ride.

    Rule #3: It is a living media. Examples: A.Furniture that perfectly outline the silouette of the actor. B.Music setting the mood of a scene – Like when the circle at the BBQ. The skywalking tune playing in the room of prostitues.

  14. Great interpretation – thanks. I love Lynch’s films beacuse you can never get to the bottom of them. Did you notice how some scenes have some kind of digital distortion goin on (e.g. focus on someone’s ear and it will move, relative to their face) – these seem to coincide with the ‘fantasy’ parts of the story.

  15. I was just wondering what this film actully was about because it didn’t make sence to me.
    But now, when reading your vision / interpretation of it all it seems to make perfect sence – Thank you.
    Makes me smile and wonder
    how It comes that I actully apreciate a film that I don’t understand / undderstod at all but i suppose that’s just the lynch effect.
    once again thank you for explaining´.

    Peter Sweden

  16. I don’t agree or disagree with you. You could be right and you could be wrong. Bottom line is this movie is a trip that has some of the most beautiful scenes and some of the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen. Even if I never fully understand it all the emotions I feel from watching it make it far superior than 99% of the movies coming out anymore. I get chills every time I watch it. I still have problems watching specific scenes without turning my head or muting the volume.

  17. I think you did a great work. But I can´t see Lynch playing with ghosts.

    The phantom is a part of Susan mind. Bizarre creatures are always our mind.

  18. yeah, that scene where sue blue shoots the phantom will stay in my mind forever. That was the single most disturbing scene i’ve ever seen. I wonder if i dare to see it again?

  19. This was a good interpretation of a film not easily translated…This one takes the cake in Lynch’s abstract cook book.Some of his films are so easily interpreted if you keep your mind off of the filming style and music itself.But this one was completely shrouded in some sort of mystical presence that surpasses even that of Eraserhead…I

  20. The boy isn’t Billy Side’s Son, but Smithy’s, who can’t have Children. That leads to a different interpretation, in which Lost Girl and Nikki/Sue are the same persona.

  21. David Iarocci

    8 May 2009 at 11:05

    I think you may have taken this movie too literally. I think alot of the dissheveledness is because of the line between reality and the scrip being blurred.

    All in all I do not like these interpretations. I haven’t found 1 I totally loved, but I have seen much better. This movie much be watched a few times to wrap your head around it.

    You do have some nice theories on the Polish details…

  22. That is a very good interpretation and I think it’s very close. You can see how Lynch puts things together with no continuity on purpose to mess with you. One thing I’ve learned when approaching Lynch, going back to Eraserhead, is that purposley parts of his movies will never be coherent and weren’t meant to be, but rather like paintings that give you asthetic feelings and you go on an emotional ride for a time then get off the ride.

  23. Great explanation! My first take of the movie was that Nikki is having some sort of premonition about her career brought on by that old woman. I saw her as a method actor struggling to find her character, Susan Blue. “During the first script reading, Nikki finds herself disproportionately moved by the story.” I think this refers to when she was crying during the script reading? The emotion was so real in that scene, that it makes you wonder- who is she talking through? Her character or herself? Anyway, she pushes herself to become her character.

  24. The initials, LB, written on Nikki’s hand could mean Lost Boy. Taking into consideration reincarnation, this identifies Nikki as the reincarnation of Lost Boy. Lost Boy finds Lost Girl and their kiss releases Lost Girl.
    Just a thought.

  25. Yes,she maybe becomes the Lost Boy!!! Did anyone notice that when the Lost girl walks out the door she causes a reflection in a mirror? Did the two running at the corridor whores put the mirror outside the door to trap her??I watched the movie so many times to realize that the soundtrack is giving an illusion of ‘salvation’ at the scene but actually we see how the lost girl got trapped by the curse.And the visitor in the start didn’t come to Nikki to give her memory but to hypnotize her!!! She tells the ‘old story’ to Nikki and then she puts the command ”but this is not something you remember, forgetfullness it happens to us all!” And then she puts the confusion with the time.The ‘9.45’ and ‘After Midnight’ are going to work like triggers in the movie. And watch carefully (if possible frame by frame)the montage at the ‘killing the phantom scene’.Watch and tell me WHO is killing WHO? I’m pretty ‘lynchian sure’ that the lost girl who finds her family is going to lose her son,will be abandoned by her or his spouse and live sitting in a chair and watch her or his life pass over like the train we hear in the movie and all her or his possibilities will be partying around and hunting her like daemons or alter personalities (whores or circus people).I feel like all characters are the same person,do you?

  26. demi- the things you describe about this film ring very true with me… the ending really doesn’t seem happy at all to me. A good point about the mirror too… remember the old lady talking about casting reflections? I’m pretty convinced that what we see in the film is “reflections” of the lost girl watching television. I also think that the original posters’ suggestion of the very end of the film being Limbo rings very true. Actually I am of the belief that the film actually has multiple interpretations AND makes some kind of logical linear sense at the same time. It is a painting of a woman’s struggle. Having said that I would like to thank the original poster for shedding more light on the topic of this wonderful film… I had not read this interpretation before and it certainly cleared up a lot of aspects of the film for me. Oh… before I go… here are some themes I believe the film deals with-
    *Hypnotism (in the traditional sense and also in the sense of the conditioning of modern media and film).
    *Identity (pretty obvious).
    *The links between Hollywood actors and prostitutes (and indeed the dark side of Hollywood in general).
    *Violence as a fact of life.
    *The objectification of women as sex objects.
    *Superstition (fear of the unknown? in other words foreign or foreigners)
    That’s all from me… hi all fellow lynch fans… and remember… just enjoy.

  27. jose maria martin lozano

    20 December 2011 at 17:55

    This is the best explanation ive read about this movie.good job.also you are the only person who has clarified the rabbits true role in the movie…One of my favourite movies and a true piece of visual art….the shortest 3 hours of my life…..

  28. you are all true dl fans, got many cool interps. here’s mine on ie. lost girl and husband (with son) are actually low paid, but rising “tv” stars who now have a chance to role and upgrade careers to the polish “movie” empire. they live with other actors on the upper floors of an old polish hotel which has been renovated by a film company to not only provide living quarters (to keep actors close and on call) but also studios (downstairs, bottom level). set up is quite common in other countries especially in eastern europe and hong kong meeting the budgetary needs of both the industry and actors(therefore, actors may very well have to enter through a studio to get to a stairwell and then upstairs to their apartments). lost girl and husband’s new “breaking” role mirrors much of what has happened in their own relationship. this causes problems in their relationship, suffering mainly due to lost girl’s selfishness. a fight occurred, husband left apartment and studio putting in jeopardy a major career move and putting in jeopardy their recently reunited family. SHE is a woman in trouble and has been watching , for hours, a blank tv screen with a slight reflection of a red lamp. all the images on the tv along with the main characters are just scapegoats. they don’t exist except in the mind of the lost girl in tears on the bed. however, she then comes to terms with her visions and thoughts (the kiss). she hears something downstairs, runs down the hallway (so do two other actors who live there), goes down the stairwell into the studio to finally see her husband and son have come back. all is well, many smiles, very nice embrace. i do believe this is david lynch’s last full feature film and i do hope i am wrong. i think this because of the many references to all his other works during the best (without a doubt, the best) ending credits scene in all of movie history. and to play the song “sinnerman” during it all just adds more to it.

  29. I am very surprised that after reading many feedbacks, interpretations, criticisms from quite a few people, I didn’t find any reference to the color green: the color of jealousy. In many movies David Lynch uses red and yellow (especially with fire, lights, highways, furniture…) and of course blue (let’s not forget Blue Velvet). In Inland Empire, the first thing I noticed was the amount of green he used in the scenes. This is very logic, since the jealousy theme is present through the whole movie.

  30. To watch and enjoy this movie:

    1) Watch it and be totally confused, affected, and hungry for an explanation.
    2) Read the following explanation.
    3) Watch again with this explanation in mind and totally enjoy it.


    This is about the wife in a simple, working-class, Polish imigrant family. The wife (seen watchig TV while crying) is contemplating commiting (or has committed) adultry and running off with another man to pursue a fantasy life of wealth and love. The movie follows her fantasy and her guilt. Laura Dern is the polish girl’s alter ego and is not real . Laura’s character starts as rich and beautiful, but as the movie progresses, she is convinced she is more like a prostitute and deserving of being confronted by the other man’s wife. Her husband finding out haunts her through the movie. Her Hollywood death is her realizing the love affair would end everything she has. The second almost death moves the plot toward realizing she can’t kill her fantasies, she has to come to terms with what they are, and just keep them safe and locked away. The end culminates with all her alter egos and fantasies coming to terms. The result is her letting go of what she doesn’t have, and committing her full devotion and love to her husband and family.

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