David Lynch’s Inland Empire: An Attempt At A Roadmap

What follows is an attempt to give some explanation of what takes place in the David Lynch movie Inland Empire. This is not an effort at getting at what the movie “means”, and I try to root as much of the summary in the picture’s material details, rather than through any theory: say, the man and the woman in this scene are married because he refers to seeing her at home, rather than this movie is about the various ways women are pitted against each other, therefore what takes place at such and such a point is this, etc. Analogously, this would not be an attempt to explain what a painting “means”, only to helpfully discern details in the painting that indicate its subject is a teacup or a nude woman. Others may well have a different perspective, and my opinion should not be taken as an emphatic one. I emphasize the word “attempt”.

Those looking for different explanations and in-depth interpretations might find Out 1 Film Journal: Inland Empire Discussion, Half-Born: An Inland Empire Analysis, Daivd Lynch’s Inland Empire: hypotheses and spoilers, Patrick Meaney’s Thoughts On Stuff: Inland Empire (Part One) (Part Two), and Metaphilm’s Reading Inland Empire: A Mental Toolbox for Interpreting a Lynch Film by Adam C. Walter helpful.

I try as much as possible to use credited names. The actor Peter J. Lucas plays both Piotrek Krol and Smitty, but as his credit is for Piotrek Krol, and no one ever refers to him as Smitty, I refer to the characters he plays always as Piotrek. I am unsure if the Phantom’s wife is given a credited name, so I refer to her, in a bold move, as “the Phantom’s wife”.

Those who have not seen this movie will find what comes next utterly incomprehensible. Those who have seen the movie may find it incomprehensible as well.

I start with what might be a summary of the plot, then go through the movie as the scenes take place in their actual chronological order, rather than the out of sequence form of the movie, including relevant deleted scenes which might supplement this interpretation of the structure. Where it may warrant, I include a full transcript of the scene.

What takes place in this film should not be unfamiliar to those who have seen David Lynch’s show Twin Peaks or its companion film, Fire Walk With Me. There is a group of mysterious figures, having powers making them like gods to us, who infiltrate human life. One of those gods, the Phantom, has gone rogue, just like Bob in Twin Peaks, using his powers for selfish pleasure, thriving off human suffering. The Phantom can place any human subject under a hypnotic spell so that they follow his orders, and he may also be able to take the human form of whoever he wishes. In one human form, the Phantom is part of a love quadrangle in Poland. His ex-wife has fallen on hard times, working as a prostitute, carrying on an affair with Piotrek Krol, whose wife discovers this affair and resolves that this woman shall never take her husband away from her. Through hypnotism, the Phantom compels the jealous wife to kill her husband, then kill herself. The Phantom beats his own ex-wife to death. The jealous wife enters purgatory for what she has done.

The other gods, angry over what has taken place, resolve to destroy the Phantom. They will not kill him, however: the vengeance instead will be given to his past victims. The Phantom will be led into a trap, like a horse to the well, with reincarnations of all the past actors, in a “re-make” of the past tragedy, but one with a different outcome this time.

In this reiteration, the lost girl who committed suicide will be re-born, though only halvely; she finds herself as an actress in a bountiful world that is promised her if she completes the task of killing the Phantom. She is Nikki Grace, married again to Piotrek Krol, except this time he takes the role of the control freak husband of the first plot. She, in turn, will play the part of the other woman, the one she was so jealous of in the first plot. She will carry on an affair with a man, Billy Side, whose wife will attempt to kill them both after she discovers their infidelity and is hypnotized by the Phantom. We move back and forth between the life of Nikki Grace promised her by the gods, and her actual, impoverished existence as Sue Blue, where she works occasionally as a prostitute, just as the other woman did in the first iteration. Her rival in this life, Doris Side, moves back and forth as well, between her actual life and the vision given her by the Phantom. Two mysterious visitors remind Sue of the task that must be performed.

Sue’s husband travels to Poland as part of a circus. There, he attends a séance where he sees his dead wife from the last plot, and he is given the mission to kill the Phantom. For whatever reason, perhaps because the Phantom is too close to himself, he does not do so, and the evil god leaves before they catch him, to go to the Inland Empire. He, in fact, ends up next door to Sue, perhaps attracted by the reiteration of the quadrangle, and so he can exert his power over Sue’s husband. Her husband returns, and beats Sue very badly, just as the other woman was beaten in the first iteration, her husband perhaps under the influence of the Phantom. As we move back and forth between the two worlds of the protagonist, Sue in the impoverished one, Nikki the actress in the mansion, we might note that they are two halves, with Nikki good, prim, decent, while Sue is violent, crude, carnal. The contrast is in full display in the penultimate act of the re-make, when Sue gives a lengthy confession to one of the gods. She is then stabbed by her rival, who then stabs herself, but something is different this time: Sue doesn’t die, but instead emerges whole, the two selves together. She takes the pistol given her husband, and kills the Phantom. The lost girl is liberated, and is restored to the husband of the first iteration, now in happy union. Sue is brought back to the mansion, her controlling husband gone, her tomorrow undecided.

AN ATTEMPT AT A SEQUENTIAL ORDER OF THE MOVIE

The Phantom’s wife is on the street as a prostitute. The sequence of yesterday and tomorrow are often confused. “Tell me if you’ve known me before”, she says to the two prostitutes she will see again and again after this. One of them makes the sign of the Phantom: these women, who guide Sue through the visions of the past, know who her husband is, and what his powers are. Another possibility is that they make a simple spiral sign signifying an endless loop: the story seen is an ancient Polish gypsy folk-tale and it is the longest running radio show of the Baltic region. Though we see two iterations of the story, it has been run through many, many times with these parts. These laughing women are gods in human form, and they have seen it re-told again and again, and to be told twice more.

PHANTOM’S WIFE
Hey, look at me…and tell me if you’ve known me before.

The Lost Girl, Piotrek’s wife, has fallen under the spell of the Phantom, and is compelled to kill her husband for his infidelity. She tries to fight it, but it’s a losing battle.

Lost Girl prays

LOST GIRL
Cast out this wicked dream that has seized my heart.

At a later point, Piotrek’s wife begs her husband not to leave the house. He is going to see the other woman. She is not who he thinks she is: she is under the influence of the Phantom.

LOST GIRL
I can’t give you children. I know that…Are you listening to me?

PIOTREK
I’m going out now.

LOST GIRL
I’m not who you think I am! I’ll never let you have her! Never…

Piotrek leaves. It is after this that the Lost Girl kills Piotrek, then herself.

The Phantom, who is either in the form of the other woman’s husband, or her actual husband, runs into her on the street. They used to be husband and wife: “I’m used to seeing you in our home”. She works as a prostitute, she is “out in the street, at night”. That the Phantom might only be in the form of her husband is there in the line “I think you don’t recognize me…my manner…”; his outward appearance is the same, but his behaviour is very different. The killings have already taken place, one of the dead being Piotrek, the man she was having an affair with: “I’ve seen the two of you together.”

THE PHANTOM
I almost didn’t recognize you.

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
You startled me.

THE PHANTOM
Strange…to find you on the street.

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
You seem upset…Are you?

THE PHANTOM
Should I be?

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
No, but…

THE PHANTOM
So I shouldn’t be?

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
No…but still you seem so…

THE PHANTOM
I think you don’t recognize me…my manner…

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
That’s true. You seem different.

THE PHANTOM
You too. I’m used to seeing you in our home…not on the street…at night.

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
Me too.

THE PHANTOM
There was a murder…

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
How awful. Where?

THE PHANTOM
Just down the way. I think…you knew the person.

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
Who was it?

THE PHANTOM
Don’t know the name…but I have seen you with this person.

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
You have?

THE PHANTOM
I have. I think…I’ve seen the two of you together.

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
That’s awful.

The Phantom is now in a room with the other woman. Their argument escalates.

Inland Empire

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
I didn’t mean anything by that. I just asked a question.

THE PHANTOM
Why did you ask if it means nothing? Whatever you want is that it?

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
No. Whatever you want?

THE PHANTOM
Oh…now it’s me.

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
Always you.

THE PHANTOM
You can lie to me, but don’t lie to yourself. So sly…

He pushes her.

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
Don’t push me.

THE PHANTOM
I’ll push you to hell.

THE PHANTOM’S WIFE
Stop it!

A key moment in the film. A stranger asks Piotrek what time it is, he replies that it is 9:45. Piotrek is already dead. His sense of time has stopped. He appears on the screen, a transparent figure: he is a ghost.

Inland Empire

PIOTREK looks at watch. Stranger comes by.

STRANGER
Excuse me, do you know the time?

PIOTREK
9:45 pm.

STRANGER
Thank you.

The gods often take the form of a trio of rabbits, occasionally miming the actions of mortals. Here, the trio mime what has just taken place, the female rabbit summoning the male rabbit as a transparent vision, as if a dead man at a séance, just like the faint image of Piotrek. Suzie Rabbit uses a pair of candles as a summoning device, and when the old men call up the ghost of the Phantom’s wife, they sit at a table decked with candles, the same instrument for this magic – and the old men, of course, are actually the rabbits.

Inland Empire: candles.

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The Phantom beats his wife to death.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Phantom beats his wife to death

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Phantom beats his wife to death

What makes the Polish scenes confusing is that Karolina Gruszka plays the part of the Phantom’s wife and her rival. The former wears her hair pulled back tight, while the other wears it loosely. We can see the contrast between the two roles when, in a deleted scene, the Phantom comes across Gruszka with her hair down, which reminds him of his wife of the past, with her hair tight up. The woman with her back to the camera who pleads with Piotrek not to go to this other woman, is seen again with her hair down in the sénce.

A clip of the Phantom meeting the woman with the uncanny resemblance to his past wife and an overview of appearances of Gruszka as Piotrek’s lover and the Phantom’s wife:

Inland Empire: same woman, different lives.

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The Lost Girl is escorted into her purgatory by the Phantom. She is in-between two roles, the woman she once was, and the woman she’ll be in the next part, where she will be a prostitute, where she’ll be Sue.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - 'Do you want to fuck me?'

David Lynch's Inland Empire - the Lost Girl watches TV

WOMAN
The stairway is dark…I don’t recognize this hallway. Where are we?

MAN
At our room now.

WOMAN
I don’t have the key…

MAN
No, you gave it to me. I have it.

WOMAN
What’s wrong with me?

WOMAN
This is the room? I don’t recognize it…

MAN
Take off your clothes.

WOMAN
Sure…

MAN
You know what whores do?

WOMAN
Yes. They fuck.

WOMAN
Do you want to fuck me?

MAN
Just take off your clothes. I’ll tell you what I want.

WOMAN
Fine. Where am I? I’m afraid. I’m afraid…

The lamp we see easily through the ghostly substance of Piotrek on TV is the same lamp of this hotel room. Piotrek has ended up in a similar purgatory. When the Lost Girl sees Piotrek’s transparent form and the lamp, she realizes what’s happened: that Piotrek is dead, and also stuck in a waystation between death and the afterlife.

Inland Empire: between two worlds.

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The gods again as a group of rabbits that perform on a stage for an audience of their fellow gods. Later, they will hold a séance in order to show Piotrek his past wife. Here, they serve as mediums for thoughts of the past plot: “I’m going to find out one day”: one day Piotrek’s wife will discover who he is having an affair with. “I have a secret”: Piotrek’s affair. “When will you tell him?”: perhaps a thought of the second woman, that she was pregnant with Piotrek’s child. “Who could have known?”: how did Piotrek’s wife find out about the affair?

There are also two lines which provoke laughter, which may be jokes among the gods. “What time is it?” Either: silly mortals, unable to know when they are dead, or: it is past midnight, time for the end of the Phantom. “There have been no calls today”: they will receive a phone call from the other world when things are nearly in place for the Phantom to be destroyed. “I hear something”, and one of the female rabbits laughs at this; they will hear Sue approaching right before she enters their domain, after she’s killed the Phantom. “I do not think it will be much longer now”: the plan to trap the Phantom is about to start. That they laugh so easily at humanity should underline the fact that these beings do not look on us with anything like compassion. They wish to see the Phantom destroyed because he has violated their own code, not out of any sympathy with those hurt. This, I think, is easily seen in their treatment of Sue, who they use as indifferently as any child with a dull toy.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - the rabbits at home

JANE RABBIT
I’m going to find out one day.

SUZIE RABBIT
When will you tell him?

JACK RABBIT
Who could have known?

SUZIE RABBIT
What time is it? (laughter)

JACK RABBIT
I have a secret.

JANE RABBIT
There have been no calls today. (laughter)

JACK RABBIT
I hear something. (SUZIE RABBIT laughs)

JANE RABBIT
I do not think it will be much longer now.

The male rabbit leaves the domain, fades out, and re-forms as Janek. The Phantom is given permission to enter the world again, so the gods may trap him.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Janek and the Phantom

JANEK
You are looking for something?

THE PHANTOM
Yes…

JANEK
You are looking to go in?

THE PHANTOM
Yes.

JANEK
An opening?

THE PHANTOM
I look for an opening. Do you understand?

JANEK
Yes, I understand.

THE PHANTOM
Do you understand I look for an opening?

JANEK
Yes. I understand completely.

THE PHANTOM
Good. Good that you understand. That’s good! You understand!

Nikki meets with a mysterious visitor. The visitor gives a strong hint to her mission.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Nikki's visitor

VISITOR#1
A little boy went out to play. When he opened his door, he saw the world. As he passed through the doorway, he caused a reflection. Evil was born. Evil was born, and would follow the boy.

NIKKI
I’m sorry, what is that?

VISITOR#1
An old tale. Another variation. A little girl went out to play. Lost in the marketplace. As if half-born. Then: not through the market-place, you see that, don’t you? But through the alley, behind the marketplace…_this_ is the way to the palace. But. It isn’t something you remember. Forgetfulness. It happens to us all. And me? I’m the worst one. Oh! Where was I? Yes…is there a murder in your film?

NIKKI
No, it’s not part of the story.

VISITOR#1
No? I think you’re wrong about that.

NIKKI
No.

VISITOR#1
BRUTAL FUCKING MURDER!

NIKKI
I don’t like this kind of talk. Things you’ve been saying. I think you should go now.

VISITOR#1
Yeeees…me I can’t seem to remember if it’s today, two days from now, or yesterday. I suppose if it was _9:45_…I’d think it was after midnight. For instance, if today was tomorrow…you wouldn’t even remember that you owed on an unpaid bill. Actions do have consequences. And yet…there is…the magic! If it was tomorrow, you would be sitting over there.

A man has an evil reflection, which follows him, and may overtake him. This takes place in the first iteration of the story, when the Phantom overtakes one man, as well as the second telling of the story, when it overtakes Piotrek. “…and would follow the boy”: The Phantom literally follows Piotrek. He ends up living right next door to Piotrek and Sue.

There are two marketplaces, one is Hollywood, the other is prostitution. Nikki is lost in the first, Sue is lost in the second. Both are half-born, needing the other half. It is not through either marketplace they will find redemption, but through the alley, behind the studio or the street, that they will perform their mission of killing the Phantom, and it is by that route they will reach the palace, the mansion at the end. Nikki owes an unpaid bill, the killing of her husband for which she must repent by this mission. Though Piotrek, still thinking he’s alive, thinks it’s 9:45, the gods (like this visitor) know it’s actually after midnight: Piotrek and the others are dead, now reincarnated in another life, and it is overdue that they act against the Phantom.

This movie is a re-make of an old Polish tale and an unfinished Polish movie, it’s an attempt by these gods to make it end properly this time, with the destruction of the Phantom. Nikki is the Lost Girl re-incarnated, and during one brief scene, an older couple inquires as to whether Nikki speaks Polish, eyeing her suspiciously. “Half of it,” says the old man mysteriously to Piotrek. An understanding husband might say of his wife, “I think she understands more than she knows,” to imply that she understates her talents, but the dominating, suspicious Piotrek says, “I think she understands more than she lets on.” Sue replies, “But I don’t speak it,” and this echoes a line from a deleted scene out of Inland Empire; the Phantom is in a church and he encounters a woman bearing a striking resemblance to the wife of his past existence, played by the same actress, Karolina Gruszka. The Phantom speaks to her in Polish, then asks her if she’s Polish. “I don’t speak it,” says this woman.

Inland Empire: not speaking Polish.

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Nikki and Devon are cast in the lead roles. They grow closer and begin an affair. The move from this visionary world of a wealthy actress to the reality of her more squalid existence is not discreet: the two bleed together slowly.

For instance, in this scene where Piotrek threatens Devon:

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Piotrek and Billy

NIKKI
Piotrek? Where did everyone go?

HEAD MANSERVANT
I’m sorry, he’s taken Mr. Berk upstairs.

NIKKI (scared)
Alright.

DEVON
Well, I’m not exactly sure at what you’re getting at.

PIOTREK
I’m going to put my arm around you and hold you close. You don’t mind, do you?

DEVON
What do you mean?

PIOTREK
Now, sometimes people don’t say exactly what they mean. And you have been guilty of this all evening. Now, I’ll tell you something. And I will mean everything I say. My wife is not a free agent. I don’t allow her that. The bonds of marriage are real bonds. The vows we take, we honour, and enforce them. For ourselves, by ourselves, and if necessary, they’re enforced for us. Either way, she is bound. Do you understand this? There are consequences to one’s actions. And there would, be certain, consequences for wrong actions. Dark, they would be. And inescapable. Why instigate a need to suffer?

Reasonably alert listeners will notice that even though we appear to be off the movie set, Devon and Nikki, who, outside the movie have Yankee northern accents, start to retain the southern accents of their roles.

Later, in this scene where Nikki and Devon begin their affair, with lines clearly referencing that they are off-camera, getting ready for the start of the shoot, all their dialogue is in the southern accents of their on-screen roles.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Nikki and Devon

DEVON gives NIKKI some coffee.

NIKKI
Thanks, Devon.

DEVON
Pleasure.

NIKKI
This is exactly what we need.

DEVON
After shooting, do you want to get something to eat with me?

NIKKI
I bet you know a cute little Italian restaurant. Tucked away. Private. Great food.

DEVON
I do. How did you know that? Doesn’t that sound nice?

P.A.
They’re ready for you.

NIKKI
I’ll be just a minute.

A long look at DEVON.

NIKKI
See ya after the shoot.

In this disturbing moment where Nikki can no longer figure out what is real, they speak in southern accents, then, when Nikki breaks character, she keeps her accent.

NIKKI
I don’t know.

DEVON
Tell me.

DEVON
What?

NIKKI
Something’s happened. I think my husband knows about you. About us. He’ll kill you. And me. He’ll…

NIKKI
DAMN! This sounds like dialogue from our script.

Inland Empire: "DAMN! This sounds like dialogue from our script."

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In a deleted scene, Sue is visited by a friend, who describes meeting Billy Side, the man Sue is having an affair with. This isn’t the later Sue who’s trapped in the Smitty house, but upscale Sue, the one who lives in a mansion. We are given only tight shots back and forth of Sue and the nameless guest, but we can see from a few things – some of the details of the background, Sue’s manner, the reference to the Radisson – that this isn’t the impoverished Sue of the later movie. Here, all the elements of the story blend together; we never cut away to indicate that we’re in the movie, with the only hint that the unknown woman talks about meeting someone named Billy, Devon’s character in the film. The story the woman tells is the experience of the Lost Girl before she enters the purgatorial hotel room, accompanied by the Phantom, and this suggests that Billy, the character of the movie, has become possessed by the malevolent figure. The story that this lady, a character without a name or an identity, tells Sue of meeting Billy could well be Sue’s own. She cannot escape her past or the demon haunting her world, even in the fantasyland of a film she appears in. After this sequence, we see Jack Rabbit move in slow motion in the hall of the hotel and then the stone stairway which is the common backstage structure of so many places in the film – where Sue walks up to meet the interrogator, the place behind the door of the twisting green corridor of the Smitty house, where the Lost Girl climbs before killing Piotrek. I bold the two key sections.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - friend tells Sue about Phantom Billy

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Sue reacts to Phantom Billy story

SUE
Where you been?

THE LADY
I had the most incredible experience. It all started at Al’s. I was sitting in the back, you know, where the bathrooms are. There was this guy…he turned around and looked at me and…I just lit up inside. You know. He asked me if I wanted a beer, and I said: I said, yeah, okay, thank you. And then I noticed he had a ring. He was married, but…I didn’t care. And then, he said he was just passing through. And, uh, he asked me my name, and I told him. He said his name was Billy. And, he said: nice to meet you. And I said, nice to meet you, Billy. Pete was in the back, serving up a beer to Sandra. And, uh, I don’t know, he suddenly, like, I met you before. And I’m like, I’m not falling for that line. But now I said, I think I’ve met you before. And I thought I’d met him before, but I don’t even remember where. And then suddenly he said, like…I wanted him so bad, and I felt he felt the same thing, you know? And then he said: I want you. And I said: where do you want to go? And he said he was staying at the hotel, and I said, at the Radisson? He said yeah. We just left. And Pete was looking at me, like…and Sandra was eyeballing this man I was leaving with. And then we got to the hotel. And I was…kinda hanging back…in the dark while he was getting his key. Everything was different. We went through the hallway…I didn’t know where I was. They must have changed the decor or something. Everything was different, I didn’t recognize…any of it. I didn’t know where I was. It was like I was dreaming.

Inland Empire: "It was like I was dreaming."

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When Nikki and Devon sleep together, we further see the overlap. They sleep together in the bedroom of Smitty’s house, yet they are spied on by Piotrek as Nikki’s wealthy, nattily dressed husband, not the poor man Sue is married to. Nikki, who is always very prim and restrained, slowly bleeds into her other self, talking explicitly about sex and the two of them coming together. Laura Dern, an excellent actress who has no difficulty keeping a southern accent, loses and gains it here, as she slips in and out of her next identity. They talk about events of the film set, yet Devon calls her Sue, and she suddenly becomes very frightened that he doesn’t recognize her as Nikki, but only as this other woman.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Nikki and Devon in bed

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Piotrek voyeur

Inland Empire: the bedroom film set.

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NIKKI
You feel that?

DEVON
Yeah.

NIKKI
Ohhh…

DEVON
You move like that again and I’ll come.

NIKKI
Okay. Wait. Stop, baby. Oh, god. Oh, yeah. Just do it one more time–oh, god. Yeah. Okay. Our first time. Fucking this good.

DEVON
You’re talking through the whole thing.

NIKKI
Oh, please.

DEVON
You talk too fucking much. Are you gonna talk through this whole thing?

NIKKI
Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

NIKKI
Remember that night when I said that thing about it being — Oh, you feel that?

DEVON
Yeah.

NIKKI
Oh, remember — remember I told you about this thing that happened? It’s a story that happened yesterday, but I know it’s tomorrow.

DEVON
That doesn’t make sense.

NIKKI
It was that scene that we did yesterday, when I’m getting groceries for you with your car. And it was in that alley, and I parked the car. There’s always parking there. So there I am.

DEVON
What?

DEVON
Sue, damn.

NIKKI
It’s a scene we did yesterday. You weren’t in it. That one when I’m in the alley. I’m going to get groceries for you with your car, and I park there ’cause there’s always parking. You know the one. I see this writing on metal. And I start remembering something. I’m remembering…and…ohh…this whole thing starts flooding in, this whole memory. I start to remember. And I-I don’t know. I don’t know what it is.

NIKKI
It’s me. Devon, it’s me. Nikki!

DEVON
That don’ make any sense. What is this, Sue?

NIKKI
IT’S ME. DEVON. IT’S ME. NIKKI! LOOK AT ME, YOU FUCKER!

NIKKI
Look at me…please…

Note that she describes the event of going behind the alley which will take place next, as having happened yesterday. She becomes the mysterious visitor that was spotted on-set, yet this is an event that occurred long ago, on one of the first days of production. On that same day of the intruder, Devon noted that the set for Smitty’s house hadn’t been completed yet, but when Nikki runs to the house for refuge, it is fully built.

Another small detail: during the first scene of the set intruder, Nikki remains in her chair when Devon goes to chase the visitor. When it takes place again, Nikki is gone.

Inland Empire: Nikki is gone.

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David Lynch's Inland Empire - split screen of the two intruders - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/DelightfulHairyCarpenterant

A brief split screen contrast of the two occurrences of the mysterious intruder onto the movie set, in which Nikki is the intruder in the second sequence.

Now, Sue ends up in Smitty’s house. This, I think, is a slightly distorted vision of Sue’s own difficult life, its true squalor only heard, never seen, in Sue’s monologues at the end. This touches on the difficulty of watching and discussing this movie – Sue has an actual, concrete existence, and yet we only see that life at a slant, indirectly, selected scenes that recapture this life and her monologues which describe it. Sue’s life is both something distinct, and one that is already something of the past, a re-living of the past life of a Polish prostitute. This tilted perspective comes close to a truer telling of someone in Sue’s life, the difficult details she doesn’t want to remember or concentrate on, the vivid fantasy of being a movie star, and the disorienting intersection of the two; this, of course, is a variation on what we see in Mulholland Drive. The story told by the homeless woman at the end encapsulates the contradicting qualities of such a life, a heavy drug user on the decline who once looked like a movie star in her blonde wig, and of course, in Mulholland after Rita puts on a blonde wig, Betty’s dream life is shattered, and she’s returned to her ordinary life of an addict on the skids.

My friend Nico, who lives in Pomona…has a blonde wig. She wears it at Paris. But she’s on hard drugs and turning tricks now. She looks very good in her blonde wig…just like a movie star. Even girls fall in love with her. When she’s looking so good…In her blonde star wig.

We may see several levels of a truer and truer account of Sue’s life and who she is, from the mansion, to what we see in the movie On High In Blue Tomorrows, Smitty’s house, and finally the monologues. We do not see Sue work as a prostitute at Smitty’s house. We see her miscarry there, while in the monologues, the reference to the child by gender (“after my son died”) suggests a death outside the womb.

Perhaps the best way of looking at the movie is that we see Sue’s story told in several ways, like variations on a song, one of which is the Polish tale that precedes and anticipates her own, for which her own life is a “re-make” of the same story: the high flown romance of Blue Tomorrows, the events on the stage set of the Smitty house that parallels the stage set on which the rabbits convey human thoughts to an audience of gods, and the disturbing monologues she tells the clerk.

Though some of what takes place at Smitty’s house fits no sequence, some points might be placed before others.

Sue shops for food that night.

She tells her husband that she’s pregnant.

Inland Empire

She miscarries in the kitchen.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Sue miscarries in the kitchen

She is visited by the group of women, prostitute co-workers from the past life of the other woman, and of her own. Again, we never see this most difficult part of Sue’s life, where she earned money for sex work. It is hinted at in the Hollywood Boulevard section, and only mentioned explicitly in the monologues.

LANNI
Hey. Look at us and tell us if you’ve known us before.

SANDI
In the future…

DORI:
…you will be dreaming…

LORI:
…in a kind of sleep…

TERRI:
…when you open your eyes…

LANNI:
…someone familiar will be there.

This, I think, can only be a reference to what will take place at the end of the movie, after a sort of long dream has ended, and Sue will come across the hotel room with the Lost Girl, the woman she was in a past life. The line, “Look at us and tell us if you’ve known us before,” is one that recurs in variations throughout the movie. It’s said here by one of the two girls who accompany Sue and the Lost Girl throughout their travels. Sue and the Lost Girl ask these same two women, “Look at me, and tell me if you’ve known me before,” in English and Polish.

Inland Empire: "Look at me and tell me if you've known me before."

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Inland Empire: "Yes, we will do that."

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Another deleted scene has Sue traveling through the various worlds, finally arriving at a hotel room of Nikki, the actress. The Phantom, through his magic, speaks to Nikki during a phonecall she has with Devon, the conversation between the Phantom and Sue making explicit mention of her previous life where she killed her husband in Poland. Note that even though this is clearly Nikki, she starts speaking with the southern accent of Sue, then gradually loses it until her final exclamation, when it is entirely gone. Devon’s accent is Yankee. The gods, worried that their plan will fail, interrupt the phone conversation: an intense burst of static, and then Suzie Rabbit’s loud exclamation: “THERE IS SOMETHING HERE.” I bold the most important lines.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Nikki looks on

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Nikki on the floor

SUE looks down at NIKKI on the floor.

THE PHANTOM
You don’t remember?

DEVON
Nikki. Nikki. I can hardly hear you. Better question is: where are you?

THE PHANTOM
You don’t remember? Do you understand?

DEVON
Speak into the phone.

NIKKI
Nah, cause I didn’t kill anybody.

DEVON
What?

NIKKI
I didn’t kill anybody.

THE PHANTOM
But are you sure?

DEVON
Are you crazy? What are you talking about?

Inland Empire: "No, because I didn't kill anybody."

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THE PHANTOM
Tell me everything.

NIKKI
‘Cuz I’ve never been there. I don’t know where that is.

THE PHANTOM
Isn’t it so, right?

NIKKI
I don’t even know where that is.

DEVON
NIKKI.

Static overwhelms line, and we cut to the RABBITS.

SUZIE RABBIT
THERE IS SOMETHING HERE.

Inland Empire: "THERE IS SOMETHING HERE."

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NIKKI
Listen.

THE PHANTOM
Do you hear?

DEVON
I gotta go now.

NIKKI
There is something here. Hear that?

THE PHANTOM
It glows within me. Like gold.

NIKKI
Something here.

DEVON
I don’t hear anything.

NIKKI
Something here.

DEVON
Go to bed, Nikki.

NIKKI
Last night…

DEVON
What about it?

THE PHANTOM
It could have destroyed a dream, right?

NIKKI
Your voice is frightening me.

NIKKI
I want you to come round. Why don’t you come round? I can’t sleep anymore. I can’t even sleep. I can’t even go to sleep. I just want to go to sleep.

THE PHANTOM
It wasn’t me. Maybe I fucked you a few times…

DEVON
Nikki, are you still there?

NIKKI
Tell me the truth.

DEVON
What do you…what do you mean? What do you mean, Nikki?

CUT TO where SUE was standing before, observing – it’s the exact same space, but SUE is now gone. POV of a shaky camera, running to a locked door. JUMP CUT to SUE in formal dress looking on, suddenly breaking out in a deranged laugh.

Inland Empire: crazed laughter.

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Back to NIKKI on the floor.

NIKKI
WILL YOU STOP FUCKING WITH ME? STOP IT!

Sue travels to Billy’s house where she confronts her rival, Doris, Billy’s wife. This is defintely Billy’s mansion, not Nikki’s, and the room in which this takes place is the same one where she was first offered a drink, and the servant who served the drink is now the one who offers to call the police.

Inland Empire: "I've had just enough of you."

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The Sue of this episode is a much less demure, less controlled woman than that of the initial Blue Tomorrows scenes. She also uses the side entrance, rather than the main one, perhaps a demotion in class from earlier in the movie, a melding of her real identity and that of her role on Blue Tomorrows. Yet she is not a stranger to these characters: they recognize her and know her by name. I read Billy’s expression as that of a man who is most definitely having an affair with this woman.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Billy looks on when Sue returns

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Sue can't believe Billy won't acknowledge her

DORIS
Susan? What are you doing here?

SUE
What? I thought you were gone.

BILLY enters.

SUE
Billy? Something’s wrong. Bad wrong. Do you feel it?

BILLY
Sue.

SUE
Billy. Do you love me?

DORIS
What?

SUE
Billy.

BILLY
Sue.

SUE
Don’t you remember anything? How it was?

BILLY
I don’t understand what you’re talking about.

SUE
Are you listening?

BILLY
No. Now, you go on, Sue. You go on, now.

BUTLER
Would you like me to call the police?

DORIS
No. We can handle this.

SUE
Billy. Something’s wrong. I love you, Billy.

DORIS
I’ve had just about enough of you.

DORIS slaps SUE.

SUE
I love you.

Slapped again.

BILLY
Go away, Susie.

SUE
I love you.

BILLY
SUE!

SUE
I don’t care! It’s something more. I don’t care. It’s something more.

The circus drops by for the barbecue.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - the circus is in town

Piotrek spills ketchup on himself, and it’s a reminder of the fatal wound inflicted on him in the past life.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Piotrek's massive ketchup stain

The Piotrek of this plot is as controlling a husband as the Phantom of the Polish one. He is good with animals, and I read in his long hard stare that his wife is one of those animals. “It was said I have a way with animals,” and this line is echoed in the monkey story of the homeless Japanese woman as Sue dies beside her: “This monkey can scream. It screams like it in a horror movie. But there are those who are good with animals. Who have a way with animals.”

Inland Empire: "A way with animals."

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PIOTREK
They are a group that performs in traveling shows…in the Baltic region.

SUE
What’s that got to do with you?

PIOTREK
I will take care for the animals. It was said that I have a way with animals.

While the circus is on tour, Piotrek is taken by Janek to the house where a séance calls up the spirit of his past wife. They give him a gun, or perhaps a magical weapon with only the external appearance of a gun, to kill the Phantom.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - the ghost of the Phantom's wife

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Piotrek and Janek

David Lynch's Inland Empire - the weapon that can kill the Phantom

LOST GIRL
There’s someone there…I have to tell you…There’s someone…

MAREK
Do you recognize her?

PIOTREK
I don’t see her…

MAREK
You understand she sent for you?

LOST GIRL
I don’t know where I am…

MAREK
I hear her now…

JANEK
Do you see her?

PIOTREK
No.

DAREK
It was…red…

MAREK
You work for someone?

PIOTREK
Yes.

MAREK
This is the one who she spoke of.

PIOTREK
The one I work for.

MAREK
So…you understand.

FFRANCISZEK
The horse was taken…to the well…

DAREK
Take the pistol…

JANEK
Let’s go!

FFRANCISZEK
Right away! It’s after midnight!

The man Piotrek works for is the Phantom. “This is the one who she spoke of”: the man he works for, the Phantom, is the one who placed her under the spell to kill her husband. “The horse was taken…to the well…”: they are luring the Phantom into the trap. “It was…red…”: the Phantom has some affinity with red objects and red light.

The séance is held next door to where the murder took place. A comparison of the the first vision of the past which the two mystery girls show Sue, where she’s told “it all took place”, and the establishing exterior shot of where the sénce takes place:

Inland Empire: where it all took place.

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The old men transform into the rabbits.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - old men transform into rabbits - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/FoolhardyTheseDouglasfirbarkbeetle

JANE RABBIT
I’m going to find out one day.

SUZIE RABBIT
It was red.

JACK RABBIT
Where was I?

JANE RABBIT
This isn’t the way it was. (laughter)

JACK RABBIT
It was the man in the green coat. (distorted)

SUZIE RABBIT
It had something to do with the telling of time. (distorted)

Inland Empire: "It was the man in the green coat."

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“I’m going to find out one day”: Doris, Sue’s rival, will find out about the affair one day. “Where was I?”, Piotrek has no idea if he is alive or dead. “This isn’t the way it was”: the re-telling of the story is going to go differently this time, which provokes laughter. Yes, this time things won’t go according to the Phantom’s plans, and he’ll be destroyed. “It was the man in the green coat”: this is Piotrek when Nikki runs into Smitty’s house. It’s Piotrek when he’s under the hypnotic influence of the Phantom, or the Phantom taking the form of Piotrek. “It had something to do with the telling of time”: how the Lost Girl knew that Piotrek was dead, and that she had killed him. “It was red”: the color associated with the Phantom. This may also connect with Sue’s lamp, mentioned as an heirloom in one of Sue’s deleted monologues, the device itself carrying the spirit of the Phantom, and the curse which forces these characters to re-live an existence where they are continually tortured and then destroyed by the Phantom. We move from a shot of Suzie Rabbit with a sinister red gleam coming through the window, and then a close-up of the window itself, with the red light piercing through. This might be an accompanying image to the first scene of Sue in the Smitty house, where the image of the man in the green coat, who carries such a fearful dominance on the stage, penetrates the scrim of the dirty window.

A picture of the sinister lamp before Sue is visited by the prostitutes at her house:

David Lynch's Inland Empire - the red lamp

Piotrek travels with Janek to find the Phantom, but it’s too late – their quarry has already left for the Inland Empire. This near miss may be by intentional design of the gods: it is not Piotrek who must kill the Phantom, but Sue. A red vessel is tossed out containing dark liquid; maybe some raw essence the Phantom feeds on, like the creamed corn that the supernatural beings of Twin Peaks live off of.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - red cup

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Gordy

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Piotrek has missed the Phantom

PIOTREK
Gordy!

GORDY
What do you want?

PIOTREK
Where is he?

GORDY
What’s the point? Are you blind? He’s gone!

PIOTREK
Everybody?

GORDY
Why should I answer your stupid questions? You’re nothing! You’ve done nothing!

PIOTREK
Where did he go?

GORDY
No idea. He talked…mumbled something about Inland Empire.

While Piotrek is gone, Sue receives a second visitor who reminds her of the unpaid bill, the deed from the past life which she must make right.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - second visitor

VISITOR#2
I came about an unpaid bill that need paying.

SUE
Alright.

VISITOR#2
Do you know…the man who lives here? (softly) Do you know him?

SUE
Yes.

VISITOR#2
It is an unpaid bill that needs paying.

SUE
You already said that.

VISITOR#2
Do you know the man who lives next door? “Krimp” is the name.

Sue goes over to the house next door, and takes the screwdriver. She briefly spots the Phantom, who then disappears.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Phantom with lightbulb in mouth

Though we could put the next sequence in many places, it seems a good fit at this point. Sue picks up the phone to try and reach Billy.

Inland Empire: "BILLY?!"

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SUE listens while the phone rings. There is a change in tone, the line crackling, as if the call was re-routed. JACK RABBIT picks up the phone.

SUE (v.o.)
Billy?

The audience with the RABBITS laughs hard.

In this sequence, Sue wears the same night dress we see when she is beaten. A possible assumption is that Piotrek overhears her make this call, and realizes her infidelity. This is the phone call the rabbits were waiting for in their first scene in the movie, when Jane Rabbit spoke of there being “no calls today”. This is the harbinger that the plot is nearing its end. It is this discovery of the affair which prompts the fight. Sue is beaten very badly by her husband, an echo of the beating the other woman got in the Polish plot.

Inland Empire: nightmares.

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PIOTREK
I’m not who you think I am. Are you listening to me? I know it for a fact. I can’t father children.

These lines, “I’m not who you think I am”, and “I can’t father children”, echo those of the Polish Lost Girl. Both have become possessed by The Phantom.

Inland Empire: "I'm not who you think I am."

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After this night, her wounds from this beating still very visible, Sue travels into the city.

The Phantom places Doris, Sue’s rival, under a hypnotic spell. In deleted scenes, we see Doris travel towards Sue in order to kill her.

Inland Empire: I move my fingers and put you in a trance.

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From the opening of this sequence, Sue is much closer to the cruel, crude woman of the interrogation. When she says “I’m a whore”, it’s with a tone of defeated recognition: yes, this is how rough her life was all along. The rest of her opening lines on Hollywood Boulevard are a nasty, teasing echo of her own self entering the purgatorial room.

MAN
Just take off your clothes. I’ll tell you what I want.

WOMAN
Fine. Where am I? I’m afraid. I’m afraid…

Inland Empire

SUE
I’m a whore. (mock whining) Wheeeeeeeere am I? I’m afraaaaaaid!

Inland Empire: "Wheeeeeeeere am I? I'm afraaaaaaid!"

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That she says one of the first lines in such a cruel, mocking way is because maybe this figure is Sue with only her base, malicious qualities, all the traits the Phantom exploits in others to do his nasty work, whether it be Sue’s malevolence, the murderous envy of Doris, or the controlling rage of Piotrek. This is a movie of one set of doubles already, prim Nikki and vulgar Sue, now with a new doppelganger brought in, a Sue that is not simply used to a coarse, difficult life, but one that is a dangerous lunatic. This is the Sue who embodies the unhinged murderousness of the Polish Lost Girl when she killed her husband and then killed herself.

We are shown this Sue with the prostitutes, then given the original Sue walking down the other side of the street, before she sees her disturbed mirror image, and does, forgive me, a double take. This is an echo of an earlier moment, when Sue has a vision of this murderous double, and also jumps back in fear.

Inland Empire: doubles.

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A small, digressionary note: for a handsome man such as Willem Dafoe to make himself into a monster in, say, Wild at Heart, is a matter of no issue. When a beautiful woman such as Laura Dern turns herself into a grotesque for this movie, it takes some bravery, for there are no shortage of those who will use any moment of ugliness in a woman, however brief, even if by design, as an avenue for hurt. In a better world, it is a bravery that should be unnecessary, but in this one, in ours now, I note it.

Sue flees Doris, and ends up at a room at the top of a long flight of stairs where she speaks of her life to Mr. K, the Jack Rabbit of the rabbit trio, in human form. We’re given the starkest vision of Sue’s life so far. Though these monologues are interspersed throughout the film, I place them all here, after the assault by her husband, since the wounds from that are visible in every monologue. As said before, the Sue who speaks here is a far cruder, tougher woman than we’re given at any point in the film. Her accent is far more country than the Sue of Blue Tomorrows or of the Smitty house.

Inland Empire: the rabbit is the clerk.

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David Lynch's Inland Empire - Sue's monologue

MONOLOGUE #1

SUE
I don’t really understand what I’m doing here. That’s one hell of a fucking climb getting up here. So I was told you can help me. I guess I’ll just tell you the thing. I’m just gonna catch my breath. There was this man…I once knew. His name was…it doesn’t matter what his name was. A lot of guys change. They don’t change, but they reveal. In time, they reveal what they really are. You know what I mean? It’s an old story. Well, this guy…he revealed something. Looking back on it…all along it was being revealed. He was planning something. Planning something with me in mind. When I get mad, I really get mad. I gouged a man’s out when I was fifteen once. He was trying to rape me. I mean, the fucker had it out. He was pushing my legs apart. I got a finger in his eye socket. Pretty quick, rape was a long way off his mind. He was crying and screaming like a baby. “What a fucking man you are,” I said. There was goo. But he could still see me with the one eye…see me coming at him…grabbing his nuts and tearing at ’em. He seen that, all right, and felt it, too. He was screamin’ and wailin’ like a little baby, sittin’ in the corner and crying…moaning and hugging his nuts till the ambulance come. The ambulance guys…they say, “What the fuck happened here?” I say, “He come to a reaping what he been sowing, that’s what.” They say, “Fucker been sowing some kind of heavy shit.”

MONOLOGUE #2

SUE
Seen a guy come at me with a crowbar once. Guess he figured I was two-timing him. I was coming home, we were shacked up at the time. He was waiting for me in the half-light. Waiting for me to come home. Guess he had worked himself into some kind of frenzy. I open the fucking door…and I see this fucking shape burst out of the chair…and a crowbar going up. I scream, and turn. Fucking crowbar comes down, smashing in that fucking door, cheap piece of shit. It just splinters into a thousand pieces, like it was glass, shit flying everywhere. I don’t take this kind of behavior. I see what this fucker was up to. BAM! I kick him in the nuts so hard he go crawling up inside his brain for a refuge. He goes down like a two dollar whore. Crying and shit, telling me he’s done nothing but love me and bullshit.

INTERROGATOR
Were you in fact seeing another man?

SUE
I screwed a couple guys for drinks, no big deal. This one guy was kinda cute. Fucker had a dick like a rhinoceros. He’d fuck the shit out of you, I tell you what. He’d buy me a couple of drinks after. We’d talk, he’d tell me about the town he grew up in. All the little girls he fucked. There was a chemical factory in this town, and he’d tell me it was putting so much shit in the air you couldn’t think straight. It got to a lot of the people. There was a lot of crazy shit going on there. People having weird dreams, seeing things that wasn’t there. This one time, this one little girl. She was staring off at something one time. Starts screaming. The people hanging round come to her and ask what’s wrong, and uh, she says she sees the end of the world. All fire and smoke and blood running. You know, like they say, the wailing and the gnashing of the teeth.

MONOLOGUE#3

SUE
Fucker went to some Eastern European shithole. With the fucking circus. Can you fucking believe that? That circus. Talk about carnies. Carnies, gypsies, con men, you name it. A real fucking ball of shit. There was this guy they had working there. He’d start talking. You know, real regular. Talking up the crowd. They’d start listening. Pushing in closer. He did some sort of thing on people. They all called him “the Phantom”. He got into a barroom fight one night. All the bar was arrested. A lot of them fucking circus clowns. So when they take them all down to the station? Guess what? The Phantom’s done gone and disappeared. This is the kind of shit I’m talking about. He was a marine from North Carolina. He had a sister with one leg. She had a sorta car stick for the other one. She killed three kids in the first grade. This is the kind of shit…Fucking funny. People. They all got their own peculiarities. Their own way of living.

The Phantom, who may be able to change his outward form, has taken on the appearance of a North Carolina marine.

MONOLOGUE#4

SUE
It was a funny name…they was called “Krimp”.

A DELETED MONOLOGUE FRAGMENT ON THE LAMP

I got a lamp. I keep it by my bed. It’s my sister’s bed, but the lamp is mine. Same damn lamp’s always been with me. It’s my sister’s bed, but my lamp. I won’t go anywhere without that lamp. It’s a lamp from my family. On my momma’s side. She was the one who changed it to the red shade it’s got now. It was a floral pattern one before. I seen a picture of it. It had that floral pattern shade. Picture was black and white, so I couldn’t see the actual color of it. Picture was really weird. It had a…man’s hairy arm on the edge of the picture. It was sorta coming in on the side. I asked my momma…if that was my daddy’s arm in the picture. She said, no, dear, that ain’t your daddy there. I asked, who is it then? She said, it’s none of your business. Why wouldn’t she just tell me it was my daddy? I would have forgotten all about it. This way, I keep wondering who the fuck it was hanging around our house. It could have been anybody. Sorta makes you wonder.

This is the lamp that was already mentioned in reference to the mysterious Rabbit dialogue that contains the line “It was red”, and this heirloom occasionally flashes with sinister red light.

In one brief scene, we glimpse Piotrek in his green suit walking out of the bedroom at night and ducking into the door inside the twisty green hallway which connects with the living room. We are never told where he goes, and are left to assume that he is possessed by the Phantom and is going to his mistress, just as Piotrek would leave behind the Lost Girl in order to visit the Phantom’s wife. Two deleted scenes show Piotrek leaving the house in the middle of the night. “Where are you going?” asks Sue in one. “It’s 11:30.” A deleted monologue gives us another reason for why he goes out at night. Sue tells the interrogator that he searches in the bureau for something before leaving, and it’s in the bureau that Sue finds the weapon given to Piotrek in Poland. Piotrek may sometimes be going out to see his mistress, but he also goes out to track down the Phantom.

A DELETED MONOLOGUE ABOUT PIOTREK’S STRANGE TRIPS AT NIGHT

I’m telling you it was a night like any other night. He was getting something from the bureau drawer. It was hidden. Looking back on it, I could see he was hiding it, whatever it was he got out of that drawer. He gets in bed. He sortof looks at me…and switches off the light right by the bed. I got this funny feeling…I said…I don’t know why I said it, but I said: “Is something wrong?” There’s no answer. I sortof freeze, you know. I strain to hear something…and I can’t hear nothing but nothing. I say…I say his name. There’s no answer. I say “What is it? What the hell’s going on?” I can’t hear nothing.

Inland Empire: "Where are you going? It's 11:30."

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Another deleted scene begins with the power suddenly going out, Sue loudly saying “THERE’S SOMETHING HERE!” just like Jane Rabbit during Nikki’s phone conversation in which the Phantom speaks to her as well. Sue senses that the Phantom is in her house. She goes out with a candle, just as Jane Rabbit held a pair of candles and summoned the spirit of Jack Rabbit. Sue looks at Piotrek and is deeply disturbed by what she sees in his face; there is only one line of dialogue between them before he leaves the house again, for who knows where. “I’m going now,” he says.

Inland Empire: blackouts.

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MONOLOGUE#5

SUE
There was this man I once knew. I’m trying to tell you so you’ll understand how it went. The thing is, I don’t know what was before or after. I don’t know what happened first. And it’s kinda laid a mind-fuck on me. My husband…he’s fucking hiding something. He was acting all fucking weird one night before he left…he was talking this foreign talk…and telling loud fucking stories…

(intercut with her being beaten by her husband)

SUE
Like this, his face all red. His eyes bugging out. I figured one day I’d wake up and figure out just what yesterday was all about. I’m not too keen about thinking about tomorrow. Today’s slipping by. I guess after my son died…I went into a bad time…when I was watching everything go round me while I was standing in the middle. Watching it…like in a dark theater, before they bring the lights up. I’m sitting there…wondering, how can this be?

INTERROGATOR
Hello? Yeah? She’s still here. I don’t think it will be too much longer. Yeah. The horse to the well. Yeah. Huh? Yeah. He’s around here someplace. That’s for sure. Czerwone time.

What does Mr. K, aka Jack Rabbit, aka “the interrogator”, refer to here? Obviously, that the gods won’t have to wait much longer till the final confrontation with the Phantom. “The horse to the well”: the trap the gods have set. “He’s around here someplace”: the Phantom is nearby. “Czerwone” is Polish for red. Red time might be Phantom time or blood time.

After this, Sue flees to the street where she meets again the prostitutes who’ve been haunting her in the Smitty house. Perhaps my favorite moment of that sequence:

Inland Empire: here comes the night time.

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Sue is stabbed by Doris.

Inland Empire

She gives out a scream, which is the exact same scream we hear outside the building after the Lost Girl kills Piotrek and then stabs herself to death.

Inland Empire: two screams.

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Perhaps my second favorite moment from this sequence, the blurring lights of Hollywood as Sue wanders about after being stabbed.

Inland Empire: flashing lights.

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From a deleted scene, Doris goes on to kill Billy, just as Piotrek was killed in the first plot.

Inland Empire: two deaths.

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Doris is trying to resist these impulses just as the Lost Girl did, so she turns herself in to the police, but it’s already too late. Doris is under the Phantom’s spell to kill Sue, kill Billy, and lastly, to kill herself – and she’s already done the job, sticking the screwdriver deep into her torso, another re-play of the past, this time of the Lost Girl’s wound when she committed suicide, after killing her husband.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Doris with the police

David Lynch's Inland Empire - police officer squinting

Inland Empire: screwdrivers and their misuses.

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DETECTIVE HUTCHINSON
Take a seat. What’s this all about?

DORIS
I’ve been hypnotized or something.

HUTCHINSON
Hypnotized?

DORIS
I’ve got a…I’m gonna kill someone.

HUTCHINSON
Oh yeah? Who ya gonna kill?

DORIS
I don’t know.

HUTCHINSON
Who hypnotized you?

DORIS
I saw him looking at me once…when I looked around the bar. He then moved his hands and he said I would know who it was.

HUTCHINSON
How are you gonna kill this person?

DORIS
With a screwdriver.

I will make a brief digression here, and offer the possibility of an entirely different take on Inland Empire: this is a movie of layers upon layers of illusion, and it is perhaps one layer of illusion that we see Sue always in the lead, when the contemporary story, of squalor, prostitution, and beating, is actually that of Doris, with Sue playing her part. We have some hint of this in the story of the homeless woman: “My friend Nico, who lives in Pomona…has a blonde wig. She wears it at Paris. But she’s on hard drugs and turning tricks now. She looks very good in her blonde wig…just like a movie star. Even girls fall in love with her. When she’s looking so good…In her blonde star wig.” Doris is the real self, and the blonde woman is her imagined ideal self, with the apotheosis of that ideal Nikki, the celebrity. When Sue intrudes in the mansion, she says “What? I thought you were gone,” to Doris, and this is the imagined self taking over the last vestiges of the real. It’s after the moment of the first intrusion on the set, a mysterious figure suddenly in the background, that we have the scene of Nikki being inspected by her husband’s friends about whether she speaks Polish, and then we jarringly shift to Doris at the police station. The story we see is a reprise of the Polish story, and yet it’s also an imagining, an imagining by Doris, and these three consecutive scenes are linked: the intruder is Nikki looking on, but also Doris looking on her created world.

Doris hates her squalor, so she imagines an entirely different existence, and she also hates herself. Her violence is her being possessed by the Phantom, and it’s also self-hatred. When she slaps Sue, it’s violence against her own face, her own body. The image of Sue being stabbed by Doris is Doris stabbing herself. This possibile interpretation, which seems stronger and stronger the more I give it thought, resolves a practical hole: how is it that Doris stabs Billy with a screwdriver, stabs herelf with a screwdriver, when the screwdriver has been left behind, stuck in Sue and then falling to the concrete after Doris has run away? Here is the simple answer: Doris (as Sue) first stabs Billy to death, then stabs herself, after which the two plots diverge, her dying in the police station and her imagined arc in this movie. We are also given an explanation for why the image of malevolent Sue across the street, which Sue finds so frightening, disappears and has its place taken by Doris. We are also given some context for what precedes the stabbing; the whores snap their fingers, then move out as if something ominous is about to take place, after which Sue lifts the screwdriver as if to move it to stab herself, only to have Doris rush in and grab the tool from her hand and stick it in herself. Doris stabs Sue, but Sue is just a proxy playing out Doris’s life, and this is Doris just stabbing her own body, the tool stuck in her insides when she gets to the police station.

Inland Empire: My body, my self.

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Sue wakes from the movie set, with, I believe, her two selves joined. The point is left ambiguous: it is her accent which lets us know whether she’s Nikki, Sue, or what might be the identity closest to Sue’s actual existence, the unapologetically vulgar woman of the interrogation, and she never speaks again after this point. The deaths of Billy and Doris may be as impermanent as Sue’s, part of the ruse to lure in the Phantom, something like when an elaborate con game in a movie is played on a mark, the mark calling some police at the end, a shoot-out taking place, the mark fleeing in panic, and then there is the big reveal: the police are con accomplices in disguise and the would-be victims rise from the mess of exploded squibs.

She gets the gun given to Piotrek.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Sue finds the gun

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Sue's hand on the gun

She kills the Phantom. She sees in him a brief reflection of herself, distorted by lunatic hate, the very same poisonous feeling that caused her to kill her husband and herself in a previous life. The Phantom bleeds the dark bile that was in the red cup thrown to the ground in Poland.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Sue fires gun

Inland Empire: crazy inside.

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Inland Empire: the poison.

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That Sue is killing not just something that controlled her husband but controlled herself, in the past life and this one, is, I think, the heart of the movie. We first see malevolent crazed Sue walking along a landscape with a thin overlay of a clown, from Piotrek’s circus. When the Phantom dies, his face becomes dripping bile, trapped in a bag. It’s this very imagery that Lynch employs in his book, Catching the Big Fish in the chapter “Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit”, about his own anger:

When I started meditating, I was filled with anxieties and fears. I felt a sense of depression and anger.

I often took out this anger on my first wife. After I had been meditating for about two weeks, she came to me and said, “What’s going on?” I was quiet for a moment. But finally I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “This anger, where did it go?” And I hadn’t even realized that it had lifted.

I call that depression and anger the Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit of Negativity. It’s suffocating, and that rubber stinks. But once you start meditating and diving within, the clown suit starts to dissolve. You finally realize how putrid was the stink when it starts to go. Then, when it dissolves, you have freedom.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - the clown mask and scary Sue

We might see Sue’s journey as part of buddhist tradition, or an interpretation of such traditions, where she resolve the burdens of past lives, and finally free herself of toxic anger, fear, and anxiety.

She goes to the haven of the gods and opens the door. She frees her earlier self from purgatory. This former self, the Lost Girl, is brought together again with her dead husband and Sue’s child, the child the Lost Girl could not have. The gods applaud Sue for her work. She is back at the mansion of the beginning, but now she’s someone different. Her appearance suggests a union of two identities, the refined Nikki of the early section, and the coarse tough Sue of the interrogation, in what she looks like here: the demure pose of Nikki with the hair style of the later Sue, not the hair worn long or pony-tailed by the actress. She has taken the path to the palace.

David Lynch's Inland Empire - the rabbits have a visitor

David Lynch's Inland Empire - Sue and the Lost Girl

Inland Empire: happy endings.

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David Lynch's Inland Empire - Sue at the palace

(All images and script excerpts copyright Absurda productions.)

On April 17, 2015, as part of an on-going process to make this very intricate explanation more readable, several edits were made – though some phrasings were tweaked, none of the essential content was changed. On April 26, 2015, further attempts were made to render this post more readable. On April 27, 2015, the gif of lunatic Sue in the hotel room was added. The week of June 8, 2015, various vines were added to this post, and on the day of June 8, the paragraph beginning “Perhaps the best way of looking at the movie…” was added. On June 16, 2015, the vine and monologue about Piotrek’s night trips was added. The notes on Sue, buddhism, and Catching the Big Fish were added on the same day. Originally, I thought the meeting between “The Lady” and Sue took place in the Smitty house narrative, but I now think it happens in Blue Tomorrows, and on June 17, 2015, that text was moved to the appropriate location and given a few edits. On that same day, the vine and accompanying text about the deleted scene featuring the sudden blackout and Piotrek’s mysterious night trip was added. The paragraphs suggesting the possibility that the movie is actually about Doris’s life, “I will make a brief digression here, and offer the possibility…” and “Doris hates her squalor…”, were added on June 28, 2015. On June 29, 2015, the paragraph “This movie is a re-make of an old Polish…” was added. The vines of the prostitutes snapping their fingers and the blurring L.A. lights seen from Sue’s perspective were added that day as well. On June 30th, 2015, a few more details were added to the paragraphs about the possibility that we are actually seeing Doris’s story, with Sue playing her part.

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