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Inland Empire

David Lynch’s final film, Inland Empire (2006), is one of the most refined films in his oeuvre. As many avid watchers of Lynch’s film would know, he has a strange, and at times jarring, approach to the production of his films. This is one of his most recognizable traits as a director and each and everyone of his films has an undeniable aura. Themes and situations seem to present themselves in similar fashions throughout Lynch’s body of work. His characters embody common traits of loneliness and have difficulty coping with the hand they are mischievously dealt. Inland Empire, is in many ways a continuation of his previous works, although it does simultaneously expand on many of his themes. The interpenetration of separate worlds and an overarching fear seem to envelop each of his works, however pleasant or cool some might seem on their surfaces. Such is the style of Lynch. He is an auteur known for his grim portrayals of the emotional exaggerations of human irrationality as it succumbs to fear.

Perhaps, what is most chilling about a work like Inland Empire is that it does not quite predicate itself on the same terms that a horror film might, yet it is an effectively and deeply horrifying movie. Lynch constructs and strings together bone-chilling sequences of mystery and foreboding danger. Characters become lost in their own shells and the story turns itself inside out, so that eventually we can not be sure of what we are watching any longer. There is no concerted effort to declare or unmask a specific villain, just as there is also no innocent or even undeserving victim. What the film essentially does is turn its plot upon itself and reverse or switch character roles. Whereas, we think we are watching Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) attempt to navigate a career comeback alongside her forbiddingly attractive co-star Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), we find ourselves viewing the film that they have set out to make. The drama and the plot points of their project come to unfold in seemingly organic ways that challenge our own perception of conventional film sequencing. The horror of this film lies in its ability to subvert one’s attention and smoothly transition from the foreshadowing of disaster into full-fledged nightmare.

The films progression, like many of Lynch’s other projects, transmits ever-evolving dreamlike content. Because there is no linearity to the plot we unsuspecting viewers come to find ourselves wrapping our minds around something that then quickly vanishes into the background. Our understanding of Nikki and Devon’s professional relationship quickly is eclipsed by their onscreen chemistry, which suddenly is exposed as an alternate reality with complexities of its own. Nikki’s own awareness of this fact instills a deep fear and confusion within her; she seems afraid for her life because she cannot differentiate which life she belongs to. The separate worlds of the film collide at many junctions and it seems that with each collision one or two plot elements shift into different realities. What occurs throughout the course of this film is a dreamlike journey through questions of personal identity and the relevance of one’s circumstances to the overarching pursuit and understanding of individual happiness.

Lynch has always had a proclivity for steeping his work in the rawness of dreamlike content. This is an aspect of his filmmaking that is quite recognizable from the ground up. His first film Eraserhead (1977) is easily one of his most bizarre. It begins with an image of the film’s protagonist, Henry (played by Jack Nance), superimposed over an image of Earth as seen from space (although, Lynch does not do in anything in the film to explicitly express that this planet is in fact Earth). Henry stares off, back into the space that our eyes look out and into him from. It is a quiet and somber scene that that reflects a deep rumination and quiet character. Henry eventually begins to regurgitate a strangely long and gangly looking object that resembles a sperm cell. The scene switches to a solemn image of a peculiar looking man looking out a window from a darkened room. This figure seems inextricably linked with Henry and seems to be in tune with Henry’s physicality, to which he responds. Upon Henry’s regurgitating the sperm-like object the man pulls a switch and the sperm then floats away from Henry.

This material is highly abstract and off-beat, but it does suggest that whatever is happening in this dream-like state – where nothing seems too objectively real – is in fact setting up whatever is to come in the story. This does happen to quickly translate into Henry’s parentage of an extremely bizarre baby which Henry seems to feel no compassion towards. However, the strange instances of form and filmic quality such as these most likely point to Lynch’s preference for subjective narration. Eraserhead, like Inland Empire, seems as if it happen within the ostensible confines of someone’s troubled mind, rather than the absolute and uniform setting of the objectively real world.

Many sequences in Inland Empire express extreme situations that conjure up fear and angst mostly because they seem unfit for a mind at ease. There seems a constant sense of foreboding danger within each movement of the film. This, of course, has mostly to do with the enigmatic warning that Nikki receives from her new neighbor, played by Grace Zabriskie. The mysterious visitor’s warning seems to preface an inevitable descent into darkness and treachery, however, Lynch still has yet to set-up exactly how this will be experienced. Zabriskie’s Polish woman tells Nikki that she will receive her sought out role in the new Kingsley Stewart (played by Jeremy Irons) film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, in which she will be playing Sue Blue. But, she imparts this bit of knowledge with the forewarnings of two old Polish folk tales, which she clearly intends to haunt Nikki. Though Nikki is happy about the good news she is also quite concerned by the nature of the visit and the air of these strange parables, which eventually are asserted into her own story.

This scene is essential in setting up the pleasant façade that Lynch so craftily tears down to expose the darker nature beneath. The dark matter of his films is the one of the most cohesive and continuous theme in his oeuvre. One his seminal works, Blue Velvet (1986), is praised for its juxtapositional quality. The sleepy small idyllic American town of Lumberton becomes the unsuspected setting for an enveloping crime caper that drags its protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan), deep into the seedy underbelly of a town that he has only ever known by the qualities of comfort and belonging. Slowly he becomes rapt with the mysterious Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and her dismal life of servitude beneath the incredibly terrifying Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Prior to Jeffrey’s discovery of a severed human ear in an abandoned lot, however, the film’s tone is quite gleeful and light. Though there is, yet again, a sense of foreboding danger, Jeffrey’s awareness of it is generally in tune with it only as it comes to eclipse his every waking thought. His curiosity about Dorothy’s situation and his overpowering will to help her are what end up consuming him. All of this because of a severed ear; something that Jeffrey’s mind could not register within the confines of his own small town existence. It was an event so chilling to him that his involvement in whatever drama was to unfold subsequently was inevitable.

Maybe what is most dark and alluring about Inland Empire is Nikki Grace’s crisis of identity and the overlapping modes of behavior that she experiences as a result. It seems like personalities come through her as if she is merely an antennae that broadcasts these disparate lives through her own shell. This is a very consistent theme in the work of Lynch and something that he has been exploring in many ways since his film Elephant Man (1980). The main character of the aptly named Elephant Man is John Merrick (John Hurt) who suffers from deformities that liken his appearance to that of an elephant crossed with a man. Because of his horrid appearance Merrick had been a largely popular sideshow act, which in turn had limited both his mental and emotional acuity. Upon his discovery by the renowned surgeon and medical professional Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), Merrick is finally removed from his dismal quality of life and given new hope and meaning within the safe confines of London Hospital. It is here that, when finally given the chance to learn and grow in a dignified manner, John Merrick suddenly becomes somewhat of a cultural impresario; taking great interest in both the arts and architecture and hosting a slew of well-to-do guests in his own quaintly decorated hospital room. What Lynch makes of the Merrick’s character is a resolute and admirable spirit who is constantly at odds with the bestial qualities and perceptions beset upon him. Whereas, he is able to formulate a sophisticated persona rather quickly, he is ultimately unable to break free of his external appearance and the objective perceptions surrounding it. Though this film isn’t quite an all around Lynchian effort, it does speak to his thematic leanings towards for the transferrable qualities of identity and deep emotional involvement with one’s self, which come out of his work more and more as his career continues.

Jeffrey Beaumont’s compulsion to seek out the truth about Dorothy Vallens and save her from the torment of Frank Booth has a great deal to do with his personal motives rather than feeling a need to do right by Dorothy. Jeffrey walks the line between being on the one hand the innocent, good son and on the other hand being an investigative detective consumed by his need to close a case. His morals come into question and not even he is quite sure of who he is or why he does the things that he does. Essentially what happens to Jeffrey is what happens to Nikki; they both experience a crisis of identity that is fueled by a much deeper emotional self-involvement. Jeffrey’s need to help Dorothy comes out of a place that he is not familiar with and this mysterious darker side of him emerges out of some deeper emotional need to assert control into his life. He is even told by his co-conspirator and love interest Sandy Williams (also played by Laura Dern) that she hasn’t quite decided whether he’s a detective or a pervert, which he doesn’t quite seem to have an answer for. Jeffrey allows many facets of his identity to emerge through his heightened excitement. Through his investigation he no longer exists merely as Jeffrey Beaumont the loyal son and college student but also as Jeffrey Beaumont the womanizing, risk-taking private investigator.

Nikki’s journey through revitalized Hollywood actress, her role of Sue Blue, and finally a street-walking prostitute among a chorale of others is an extension upon Lynch’s theme of interrelated identity behavior. She cycles through such an array of characters that expose parallel traits of loneliness, despair, or self-destructive behavior. It may at times be difficult to imagine Nikki as all of these separate characters at once.

This marks another formal step for Lynch in terms of his portrayal of character complexity. Nikki is as able to be Sue as she is an escort. It becomes somewhat of a spectacle. In a moment of Lynchian humor one of her fellow prostitutes asks the viewer directly: “Who is she?,” feigning an awareness that Nikki is not who she would seem, or at least portray herself to be in this instance. She loses herself to the darkness the lies within her own character flaws. Lynch has long been fascinated with differences between interior and exterior identity. His highly praised television series Twin Peaks takes this aspect of interior/exterior quality to a much larger scale, in which an entire town exudes a calm and innocent demeanor but seems plagued by violence, fear, and a dark sadness that not only consumes the enigmatic murder victim Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), but the rest of the town’s residents.

Twin Peaks was a landmark for Lynch, who was finally able to withdraw from the filmic format of storytelling and plot development and hone in on smaller details and developments. The television format allowed Lynch to let his storied themes and formal aesthetics unfold episodically, so as not to rush through content that Lynch would have rather allowed time to ruminate. Though the naive small town American setting is an element that Lynch has left out of his work more and more, the Twin Peaks residents’ interactions with the dark forces around them is an emblematic quality of his entire catalog. In Inland Empire it seems that this darkness is confronted head on. The very beginning of the film contains a sequence in which the two censored faces of an escort and her client enter a hotel room to conduct business. Though the proceedings of their meeting are left to the imagination, the result is clear; the escort has endured yet another painstaking transaction from which she gains no pleasure. It is most plausible that the entirety of the movie is narrated in relation to her. Whereas the movies plot closely follows Nikki Grace, her storyline comes to intertwine with that of other prostitutes and it becomes clear that the escort in the hotel room is watching this unfold. The film exposes an awareness, a meta quality that it runs with. Nikki’s hectic travel through identity and setting lands her in the very same hotel room as the escort, with whom she makes a cathartic connection. It appears that the subjective narration of Nikki Grace is also a medium by which the Lost Girl (the role by which the escort is referred to in the credits, played by Karolina Gruszka) either relates or manipulates Nikki’s difficulties to her own.

By this token Inland Empire is most easily relatable to Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Drive, another story about a woman in trouble. It was in this film that Lynch touched upon the deeply disturbing darkness within human connection and emotional attachments. The film toggles between the storylines of the altruistic and hopeful Betty Elms and the downtrodden, sickly jealous Diane Selwyn, both played by Naomi Watts. The film begins on eerie terms which suggest that there is something evil happening behind the scenes, something simmering just beneath that isn’t made clear. An aspiring actress Betty Elms, who is new to Los Angeles, stumbles upon and befriends an amnesiac hiding in an apartment that belongs to Elms’s aunt. It is a cryptic narrative that concocts seemingly unrelated vignettes that eventually cross paths. Betty is inclined to aid the mysterious Rita (Laura Harring), who took her name from a Rita Hayworth poster in a moment of anxiety, and they begin to pursue Rita’s true identity. Betty’s character seems malleable and she discovers new facets of her personality that exilharate her. The thrill of investigating Rita’s amnesia, her promising home-run of an audition, and an unexpected romantic spark between the two women combine to establish a suspenseful plot but two somewhat galvanized protagonists. However, as Betty and Rita close in on the truth of Rita’s identity this vitality and beneficence give way to an alternate reality. Lynch’s screenplay flips the events of the story around and what emerges is much grimmer tale of jealousy, heartbreak, and desperation, in which Betty is really Diane Selwyn, who wishes ill of Camilla, the real Rita. It turns out that Betty was merely a delusional construct used by Diane to cope with her deep rage and sorrow at Camilla’s new found love.

Both films similarly intersperse the developments of alternate realities in order to lay them side by side in a way that exposes the dark depths Lynch has roiling in the air just waiting to expose itself. Betty and Nikki can be compared on the basis of their disguised natures. They are characters whose identity and behavior is predicated on or manipulated by terms that are not all too clear and somehow relate to the lurid circumstances beset upon them. In his films and stories Lynch has long been fascinated with exploring the depth of character identity and what lies within that is not all too apparent. The ways in which he strings together separate plot developments and stokes the suspense of his stories complement his dark narrative aesthetic. But as his catalog has progressed this aesthetic has begun to lend itself to an awareness not felt in early works like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Inland Empire demonstrates an extension of Lynch’s themes as they transgress the boundaries of narrative fiction. Not only do characters seem to lose themselves, but storylines weave together without regard for chronology. The source of Nikki’s eventual demise melts away, and the film brilliantly transitions from a scene in which she cough up blood and gasps her last breath into the final take of pivotal scene in Nikki’s feature film. In the end it appears that Nikki’s turmoil was only subjectively experienced and that the Lost Girl who looks on may be a storytelling technique used by Lynch to preface a loneliness and deep sorrow already within his protagonist. When Nikki suddenly connects with this Lost Girl it is as if all underlying emotional concerns are suddenly satisfied and slowly subside into the death of this conflicted character. Nikki’s scene of mortality results in the return of her objective reality, which signals a triumphant breakthrough success over the manifestation of her latent inner chaos.

Lynch has remarked in his interview series with Chris Rodley in Lynch on Lynch that as a child he had always sensed that beneath the surface there was “another world” and that beneath the goodness of things there always lurked, as he puts it, “wild pain and decay” (Rodley, 8). Characters like Nikki; like Henry; like John Merrick; like Jeffrey Beaumont; like Diane Selwyn find themselves facing a mirror that reflects something unexpected and painfully shocking. Lynch always clues his audience into depths and mysterious facets of reality that cannot be communicated in simple ways because they are not simple in nature. These narratives require time and involvement to truly unfold and reveal their latent conflictedness. But each one of these stories and protagonists represent an incremental evolution of Lynch’s narrative sensitivity and awareness.

Works Cited

Lynch, David, and Chris Rodley. Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber, 2005. Print.


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