I watched Inland Empire last night. Something I've always loved doing when consuming a media like this is to come up with a clear or concise meaning on my own. After that, I then look at other various theories on the internet. As I enjoy writing, I decided to publish my thoughts. Of course, spoiler warning ahead.
As my thoughts on this film are relatively fresh, and I've only seen it once, they are not all-encompassing of the entire movie. Instead, I'm trying to pull meaning from a single theme or aspect of the film. This article is not an analysis of the plot, nor does it try to be. When it comes to David Lynch, I'm less interested in the story itself, but rather the implications for the characters and the underlying meaning. I also do not believe my thoughts are the correct interpretation, or that there even can be a correct interpretation of media.
My theory's base concept is that Laura Dern's characters' represent the actors' experience in Lynch's films or films in general. Movies are not shot in chronological order, and actors don't always know what is going on in each scene. It's also not uncommon for actors, especially method actors, to become emotionally attached to their characters, and experience some blurred lines of reality. Without fully understand what is going on due to filming order, experiencing blurred lines of reality appears to cause severe emotional distress in Nikki Grace.
In the first third of the film, an attraction between Nikki and Devon grows. Nikki is often shown to be unsure whether she's acting in character or not, when with Devon. I interpreted this as a blurring of reality, as she was uncertain whether she was feeling attraction towards him, or her character was feeling attraction towards his character.
After about a third of the way through the film, after sleeping with Devon, she appears to fully believe she is Sue Blue. I feel this is best shown when she's confused while watching the women in the house perform a nonsensical string of scenes. I interpreted this to be her watching the filming of multiple separate scenes on a single set, but as her character rather than herself.
After her death scene is filmed, her role is over, but she struggles to separate from her character. She's left in a confused daze as she tries to piece together who Nikki Grace, and accept the fact that she's no longer Sue Blue.
The Woman in the Room
To then extend my theory to the crying woman watching the TV, I believe this represents the audience and reality. I haven't fleshed out this aspect of my idea as much, but I feel the crying woman used the film as some form of escapism. The audience and the crying woman knows that the film is fake, but it is still a false reality that someone can feel an attachment to.
I feel that the last few scenes, of Laura Dern visiting the rabbit room, and shooting the character that then turned into a warped view of her face, was part of her process of "unblurring" the lines of reality. She saw that the rabbit room was purely a set, and killed her character's attachment to the film. At that point, she entered the room of the crying woman and literally embraced reality.
To sum it up, my theory is that the film represents how media can act as an alternate reality, for both actors and the audience. The film focuses on actors, and how it blurs the lines of what is their characters and what is themselves. I do not believe this is the only theme the film focuses on, there are many aspects that I've left out. However, I feel some plot points exist purely to make the movie more coherent and connected, such as the curse. The curse gives the viewer an in-universe explanation for what is going on.
Overall, I loved this film, despite being confused for a vast majority of the runtime.
About the Author
Hi, I'm Maddy Miller, a Senior Software Engineer at Clipchamp at Microsoft. In my spare time I love writing articles, and I also develop the Minecraft mods WorldEdit, WorldGuard, and CraftBook. My opinions are my own and do not represent those of my employer in any capacity.