“Laura Dern is one of the all-time great actresses. She can play anything. And she’s just so…a great actress makes it real from a deep place, and Laura can do that.” – David Lynch
While never having really stopped working, Laura Dern is in the midst of quite a career renaissance. After receiving her second Oscar nod for Jean-Marc Vallée’s 2014 film Wild (her first in over two decades since Rambling Rose in 1994) she once again teamed up with him for HBO’s sleeper hit, Big Little Lies. Her inclusion in the upcoming revival of Twin Peaks and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) will continue this upswing in public awareness of her talent and work—a reevaluation that is long overdue. Though she’s broadly acknowledged as “that girl from Jurassic Park,” Dern has worked tirelessly since the beginnings of her career with a diverse range of directors such as Peter Bogdanovich, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Altman. Her decades-long collaboration with David Lynch, however, is truly one of the unsung great partnerships in modern cinema. The king of dream logic and obfuscation, Lynch’s cinematic visions have held critics and audiences in thrall for nearly half a century. His casting of Dern, in a small yet vital supporting role in Blue Velvet (1986), would catapult her to fame and, in turn, imbue his characteristically chilly work with an emotional fervidity through her great skill. In Dern, Lynch found his spiritual match and, together, they went on to produce the most divisive and exciting works of his entire career.
Radiator Ladies and Troubled Teens
“I get so protective of David [Lynch], like an older sister or something, which is so absurd. He’s not waiting for us to ‘get’ the movie because he doesn’t think the cinema is about ‘getting it’. I think he believes – which I’ve found very rare in filmmakers – in the intelligence of the audience, that they’re intelligent enough to discover the film and what it means within themselves.” – Laura Dern
Though she has only appeared in three of David Lynch’s features, Laura Dern’s influence on his work has been invaluable. For a director of considerable perceptiveness, his films are surprisingly thin on characterisation, especially where women are concerned.
His debut, Eraserhead (1977) is one of cinema’s great psychosexual nightmares—presenting the viewer with a dripping, monochromatic world of oppressive, whirring machinery and monstrous, polluted parenthood. Jack Nance plays the tall-haired lead, Henry Spencer, with a bug-eyed queerness and naivety, where the virulent atmosphere of the world he inhabits stinks of paternal anxieties and sexual impotence—squeezing the gut of the viewer like a glistening, mucous covered tentacle. Eraserhead’s approach to the female body, mind, and role on the screen is particularly unsettling and would soon become a foundational aspect of the formula to which Lynch would return to time and again. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anne Roberts) and Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) function within the dusty “madonna vs whore” trope, while the iconic Lady in The Radiator (Laurel Near) is a further projection of a sick, masculine mind. Though Eraserhead possesses an elemental, almost primal quality – quite unlike the narrative complexities of the director’s later work – he rarely strays very far from the straightforward symbolism these representations of women evoke. His leading ladies are frequently used as tools for the spiritual growth or desolation of their male counterparts, and blonde/brunette, good/evil split-personality dichotomies are overabundant. Of course, there are exceptions to this in Lynch’s work and often his use of these tropes can be viewed as intentional and ironic, but his obsession with doubles frequently results in characters lacking roundness and emotional refinement.
The worst examples of this can be found in Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks (1990-1991). Lynch’s sole TV venture gets its dramatic heft from the torture of bad girl Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and the other double-X chromosomed denizens of the Washington town – from Madchen Amick’s abused Shelly, to Sherilynn Fenn’s incorrigible flirt, Audrey Horn (who may or may not meet an explosive end in the show’s finale). Though, admittedly, the women of Twin Peaks may be drawn in finer strokes than most of Lynch’s ladies, they are constantly besieged by a world of darkness and sexual punishment. There’s even a case of doubling, when Lee plays her own good-girl cousin, Madeline Ferguson – Lynch slyly pilfering the names of Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart’s characters in Vertigo (1958).
More disturbing still, is that despite the uncomfortable intimacy generated between Lynch’s female character and the audience through their myriad tortures, they still remain virtually unknowable and elusive. Lost Highway becomes the most problematic example of this issue. Seth Colter Walls nails the troublesome obscurity of Patricia Arquette’s mesmerizing dual role quite succinctly:
“Who exactly is Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, anyway? More to the point: does Lost Highway direct us to think that the answer to this question is at all important? It doesn’t matter whether she’s a mysterious and chilly brunette housewife or a blonde-bombshell porno actress: Arquette is so pulchritudinously Other she’ll make a man’s head go into meltdown mode, literally (what with Bill Pullman’s skull dissolving down to the brain cavity and building itself back up as Balthazar Getty). It’s as if the movie is telling us some women are too hot to ever be known. Better to become an entirely new man after messing with that kind of femininity-as-weapon.”
However, the actresses who have played these characters have a warm attitude towards Lynch. Naomi Watts, Patricia Arquette, and Hailey Gates (of the upcoming Twin Peaks revival) frequently speak with infectious joy about the director and his idiosyncrasies, seeming to relish the enigmatic nature of the roles they’ve embodied.
This doesn’t necessarily speak to a problem with the way Lynch writes women, though that certainly is an element. Sheryl Lee gives a performance in the oft-maligned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) that shifts her from mere to plot contrivance to tragic heroine, and the aforementioned Watts navigates the labyrinth that is Mulholland Dr. (2001) effortlessly, but performances like these are the exception, not the rule. Laura Dern, however has mastered the art of maintaining a verisimilitude of character within Lynch’s twilight worlds that makes her immune to casting as a mere symbol or cipher. An actress of great emotional acuity and daring, no collaborator has handled Lynch’s material better than she, or understood more fully the necessity of absolute unwavering trust between actor and director. Though she began as a supporting player, she would grow to influence Lynch just as much as he influenced her and become enamored with the mystery inherent in his style of filmmaking.
“I don’t know how—I don’t think he’d ever seen me act, I didn’t audition for him—but he knew I was Sandy and cast me. It was the miracle for my career, really. He invited me to Bob’s Big Boy for fries and ketchup with Kyle MacLachlan to talk about the movie and meditation, and it was off to the races.”
A film about pure evil lurking beneath the wholesome facade of an American suburb, Blue Velvet (2001) truly defined the style we’ve come to know as Lynchian, catapulting Laura Dern from Hollywood bit player to daring, sought after actress.
As the daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, Laura had been in show business practically from birth. At six years old she had a cameo in her mother’s film White Lightning (1973). At thirteen, she leapt her first professional hurdle when she sued her mother for emancipation and won, allowing her to act in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (2002), The Fabulous Stains (1982). Her successful supporting turns in Mask (1985) and Smooth Talk (1985) led to the landing of her breakthrough role when she encountered David Lynch. Dern described the hypnotic draw she had to types of movies Lynch was making:
“Having been raised by actors in the ’70s on films where characters were complicated and stories were not only elusive but themes were ambiguous, that to me was filmmaking. And when David Lynch luckily found me, I was right where I belonged.”
As the town detective’s daughter smitten with leading man Jeffrey (Kyle McLachlan), Dern’s revelatory performance transcends the clichéd nature of the rather traditional role. As Sally, she’s frequently outfitted in pink angora sweaters, her fluffy blonde hair a perfect Sandra Dee style—the compulsory virginal, snowy-white mirror opposite to the tortured Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), the mistreated moll of the hyperbolically evil Frank (Dennis Hopper). However, the sixteen-year-old actress manages to craft a small, delicate emotional core for the aggressively dark film— tapping into the deep well of hope that is so frequently missable in Lynch’s work: as a longtime practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, his films have the profound power of the human soul flowing within them, though it’s often buried beneath layers of grime and horror.
Take then, for example Sally’s gooey speech to Jeffrey about robins:
“I had a dream. In fact, it was on the night I met you. In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins and the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed that love would make any difference, and it did. So, I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come.”
Critics and cinema-goers often mistake moments like these in Lynch’s oeuvre for smarmy satire, but they are wildly mistaken. The director just as firmly believes in the truth of Sandy’s naive dream of robins as he does the vile world into which Kyle McLachlan dives. Late in the film, when Sally learns of Jeffrey’s sexual relationship with Dorothy, she sobs to herself “Where is my dream?” It’s an unadorned moment of existential pain that pierces the heart like a shard of ice.
Much has been made of the obviously phony robin that Dern and McLachlan watch from their window at the close of the film, but again, most viewers misinterpret the moment entirely. Though Lynch bristles at singular, concrete interpretations of his work, an understanding of what occurred behind the scenes can often cast light upon even the most esoteric of sequences. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes explained that the choice was borne out of necessity when the live robin they had acquired was molting and looked “awful.” Lynch used a stuffed robin not to present the joy Jeffrey and Sandy feel as an illusion, but to fully complete the idealized fantasy vision of two souls at peace with each other—a mirror image of the exaggerated nightmare world from which they both escape, represented by the equally phony beetle skittering in its beak. The robin itself is no more stiff or exaggerated than Hopper.
This gets to the heart of why Dern and Lynch were a match made in heaven—she treats each role with the same earnestness he treats the innermost desires of the human heart. Lynch’s filmmaking process is largely intuitive, drawing from the subconscious in service of a larger truth. Whether depicting the violent of thrashings of the unconscious mind or the desperate yearnings of the soul, he treats both with seriousness and demands that his actors do the same and follow him down whatever creative rabbit holes he may explore.
Examine the classic “Club Silencio” scene in Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Dr. In what is likely one of his finest moments as a filmmaker, Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Herring embark on a late night escapade to a nightclub whose emcee vehemently repeats “No hay banda! You hear a band, and yet there is no band.” A trumpet player blasts on his instrument, then removes it from his mouth, but the music continues. Lynch, in an auditory signal, reveals to the viewer (and his leads) that the first half of the film has been illusion. When a ravishing, emotionally raw singer enters the stage and begins to sing, we’re fooled again—enraptured with the elemental power of her quavering voice – the type of haunting tones for which Lynch is famous. She stumbles and faints, yet the music continues. It’s a moment of profound emotional torment for both the audiences and the leads—playing upon the remarkable human capacity for self-delusion despite evidence to the contrary. Yet, delusional as it may be, it doesn’t make the feeling any less tangible.
Recalling her first meeting prior to filming with Lynch and McLachlan, Dern says, “A girl either goes: these are really bizarre men, and they’re twin souls, or: I’m in love with both of these people and want to spend the rest of my life with them, which is how I responded.” Four years later the duo would find massive success with Lynch’s most conventionally constructed, yet maddeningly earnest work—Wild At Heart (1990).
“Wild at Heart” was… I feel like it was my college years. I didn’t do four years of university, I just went to the School of David Lynch. Lula was my y’know, my coming of age. But I loved it. I loved Sailor and Lula. I loved that movie. It’s troubling and brave and super-funny and really weird and dreamy as anything you’d ever want from David Lynch’s brain. I mean, let’s be clear: Glinda the Good Witch shows up. And my mother rides a broom.”
Blue Velvet was a nearly impossible act to follow, and Lynch took four full years before attempting it. When Wild at Heart was released, it received mixed reviews but managed to win the Palme d’Or (a choice that was met with some exasperation from both critics and audiences) and secure an Oscar nomination in the supporting actress category for Diane Ladd. Roger Ebert’s review of the film was both damning and wrong-headed:
“He is a good director, yes. If he ever goes ahead and makes a film about what’s really on his mind, instead of hiding behind sophomoric humor and the cop-out of ‘parody’, he may realize the early promise of his Eraserhead. But he likes the box office prizes that go along with his pop satires, so he makes dishonest movies like this one”
While this is not terribly surprising, considering the fact that the normally astute critic was no fan of Blue Velvet either, this time around, his was the popular opinion. If viewers were a tad mystified by Dern’s sunny dreamer in Blue Velvet, they were downright repelled by Wild at Heart’s hoary, bald-faced romantic fantasia in which the childish dreams of the young are given vivid life alongside happy endings that are presented without even a whiff of satire or smugness.
Nicholas Cage stars as Sailor, a snakeskin jacket wearing former driver for a hitman and boyfriend of Lula Fortune (Dern) who faces imprisonment after Lula’s mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) sends an assassin after him. Upon release, Sailor breaks parole and embarks on a cross-country odyssey with Lula, closely tailed by various creepy murderers hired by Marietta. During an ill-fated stop off in Texas the duo meet the villainous Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe at his seedy best) who bamboozles Sailor into a botched bank robbery that lands him again imprisoned. The film concludes with Lula, Sailor, and their six-year-old son re-united after much tearful uncertainty.
As previously stated, Roger Ebert’s insistence that Lynch’s films function as satire is misplaced. Though Twin Peaks would co-opt the trappings of prime time soaps and Lynch would come to develop a sardonic edge toward Hollywood in his later works, these are far more complex and interesting than mere satire or pastiche alone. Furthermore, Lynch frequently states that he isn’t a student of cinema. Comparisons between his and Bunuel’s approaches to surrealism or how his gallery of grotesques is Fellini-esque are met with a shrug by the auteur who seems ignorant of everything but painting and meditation. For Wild at Heart to function as satire, it would boast a topical edge (which it doesn’t ) and lampoon a familiar style (which it doesn’t). If there’s anything Wild at Heart resembles, it would surely be the films of Douglas Sirk, which marry an intense, cinematic unreality with genuine emotion—a wringing of passion out of artifice. A concept that would take on a necessary literalness in the aforementioned Muholland Drive, finds it’s thematic DNA here.
Though Cage and Dern share almost equal screentime, the center of Wild at Heart is Lula’s journey from wild young hellion into a responsible and independent woman. Unlike Blue Velvet’s Sandy, Lula is drawn to the dark and joins Sailor in his carnival ride through hell of her own accord. Also different for Lynch, there’s an overwhelming, all consuming sexual passion between Lula and Sailor, untainted by his usual psychosexual creepiness. Their lovemaking is titillating and frequently underscored by images of billowing fire and smoldering cigarettes—signposting the live fast, die young mentality of the two that must be reckoned with before the film reaches its conclusion.
Though initially a somewhat dim southern spitfire, Lula quickly becomes one of Lynch’s most complex characters—merging the disparate halves of womandom that the director typically explores into one glorious, heartfelt performance. Cage fares far worse in this world of operatic emotion and country-fried, pop-art aestheticism. The dialogue is hammy as can be and the film is liberally littered with references (both visual and aural) to The Wizard of Oz (1939) that would feel labored to the point of embarrassment if Dern were any less committed to them. Early on, Lula cringes at the laugh of an old woman, stating that it reminds her of “the wicked witch.” Later, during their interim in Texas, she laments: “It feels like we’ve broken down someplace on the yellow brick road.” Most overtly, she frequently imagines her murderous mother as Margaret Hamilton’s iconic verdigris crone—watching her float beside their car as they tear across the dusty landscape in the darkness of the night.
While these moments and references often feel somewhat corny, within the world of the film, they work if one simply goes on the journey. In a reality populated by grotesque assassins and crimson-faced mothers in pointy shoes, the fantastical imaginings of a naive girl aren’t so terribly bizarre. Much like Sandy, Lula is a girl obsessed with dreams and fantasy—projecting upon her beau her hopes and desires for a family she herself doesn’t have.
With a mysteriously dead father, a bloodthirsty mother, a rapist uncle and an insane cousin, her draw to the tumultuous Sailor is unsurprising, nor is her casting of their journey as a fairytale. Lula constantly yearns for an escape from the carnivalesque darkness of the world she inhabits. When they drive down a country road, listening to the latest abominations to have occurred on the news, she wails “Holy shit! It’s night of the living fucking dead!” pulls over and escapes the vehicle, demanding that Sailor turn the radio to dancing music. Sailor flips on heavy metal and they both dance ferociously, kicking up desert dust with a guffaw-inducing abandon until the music swells and the camera zooms out—the exhausted lovers embracing under a technicolor sunset. Music, fucking, and film are balm for their tormented minds. They can only run from reality for so long, however.
Take for example the remarkable, silent scene when Sailor heads off to the robbery that will send him back to prison. Lula reclines in her motel bed, chiaroscuro light illuminating her face as she peers longingly at the radio on the nightstand. Standing triumphantly atop the noisy box is a noble charger, fully outfitted in the regalia of a knight’s steed. Yet, there is no knight—the empty saddle glowing invitingly as if trying its damnedest to attract a suitable hero. Lula Fortune seeks her prince valiant in Sailor, but he is, and may always be, the absent knight to her perpetual damsel.
Yet, by the film’s final minutes we see she has grown from damsel into a form of independent womanhood. She’s raised their unplanned child alone and moved out of her mother’s house. She appears dressed in a more mature fashion, her curly mane somewhat tamed into a bouffant cascade. When she reconnects with Sailor, she finds a man somewhat unable or unwilling to grow up with her, to be the father to her child and the love of her life in all responsibility that entails. After he leaves her sobbing to strike out anew, he’s attacked by a gang of hoodlums and for the first time sees a fantastical vision of the sort that Lula has seen: Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, appears above him as Glinda the Good Witch, telling him not to run from love. In a grand gesture worthy of Old Hollywood, he runs back to Lula, screaming and clamoring over cars just in time to sing her Elvis’ “Love Me Tender,” over the credits.
In Wild At Heart, there’s room for both fantasy and reality to walk hand-in-hand. Here, Lynch is fully and unabashedly committed to the power of fantasy and dreams (somewhat to the film’s detriment) but it’s difficult to remain unmoved when a despairing Lula feverishly strikes her heels together as she clutches at herself—a Carolina Dorothy trying with all her might to summon the power to send herself to a home that exists only in her dreams.
Nikki Grace/Sue Blue
“I’m always excited and surprised by what he asks me to play. Even in the beginning, I signed on because of David. He inspires that trust.”
Lynch followed up Wild at Heart with Lost Highway in 1997, but it wasn’t until 2001’s Mulholland Dr. that he became a critical darling again. The film would earn him an Oscar nomination and is regarded as the finest of his puzzle films. Never an artist to do the expected, he would embark on his most maddening, divisive, artistically daring journey yet with 2006’s Inland Empire.
“I’m through with film as a medium,” David Lynch wrote in his book Catching the Big Fish. “For me, film is dead.” Having experimented with Digital Video during Mulholland Dr., Lynch would make full, brilliant use of it with his next feature. Inland Empire grew out of a fourteen-page monologue performed by Dern in which a mysterious woman describes various heinous things she’s witnessed in her life in lurid detail. It germinated into a full-blown project that was shot intermittently over two and a half years whenever the maestro had a bolt of inspiration. He stated at the time:
“I’ve never worked on a project in this way before. I don’t know exactly how this thing will finally unfold… This film is very different because I don’t have a script. I write the thing scene by scene and much of it is shot and I don’t have much of a clue where it will end. It’s a risk, but I have this feeling that because all things are unified, this idea over here in that room will somehow relate to that idea over there in the pink room.”
The use of digital video allowed Lynch to film for hours unfettered. Dern’s co-star Justin Theroux admitted they the two also found the work mystifying and that he “couldn’t possibly tell you what the film’s about, and at this point I don’t know that David Lynch could. It’s become sort of a pastime—Laura [Dern] and I sit around on set trying to figure out what’s going on.”
Impenetrability aside, the film was well received by critics. Jonathan Ross, presenter of the BBC programme Film 2007, described it as “a work of genius… I think.” Some were a tad less kind. Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “the film, which begins promisingly, disappears down so many rabbit holes (one of them involving actual rabbits) that eventually it just disappears for good.” Dern received some of the biggest accolades of her career and although David Lynch campaigned for her to receive an Oscar nomination (famously and characteristically with a live cow) he was unsuccessful in that endeavor.
Despite the largely positive reviews from critics, the film has proven divisive to both the casual viewer and Lynch devotee alike. Even hardcore Lynchophiles scoff at the film as if it’s emblematic of the director’s worst excesses—a relentlessly puzzling obfuscation in which the pieces are less than the whole, a wallow in his own pretension. For those who are willing to follow Lynch and Dern down those many, many rabbit holes, however, Inland Empire (2006) is both a masterful exercise in mystification and self-commentary—a paean to the indelible relationship between director and actress celebrating the transcendent spiritual journey of the woman at its center.
On the surface, Inland Empire concerns wholesome actress Nikki Grace who lands the role of a lifetime as Sue in a film called On High In Blue Tomorrows. At first, Dern’s character and co-star Devon (Theroux) are elated, but soon find out that the production has a cursed history: the film was originally a Polish project in which the two leads were murdered years earlier. The actors and their hapless director (Jeremy Irons) forge on, but things get complicated when Sue and Nikki suddenly become indistinguishable. The film then unspools with an unstoppable wave of surreal imagery that plays like a 180-minute nightmare.
Inland Empire begins with images of a purely Lynchian nature—a light cutting through darkness, a needle on a record, faceless French people fornicating, a sitcom starring anthropomorphic bunnies—but the first hour is largely devoted to setting the stage and exploring the character of Nikki. The only signs that something is amiss are Grace’s meeting with a clairvoyant neighbor (frequent Lynch collaborator Grace Zibriske) and a framing device featuring a beautiful young woman (Carolina Gruszka, credited as the “Lost Girl”) tearily viewing a television set that depicts the events of the film as we watch them unfold. When the picture finally nose-dives into full on Lynchian onslaught, it is unrelenting.
As David Lynch’s most subconsciously untethered work, Inland Empire can prove frustrating— eschewing any sort of paltry narrative cohesion his previous puzzle films had. An apt visual summation of the film itself (and much of Lynch’s work in general) comes from the title card alone—the paltry light of a projector illuminating the Eastern ends of the titanic letters. Though we can clearly illuminate various small parts of the whole, the rest constantly and trickily remains in shadow. Though attempting a cohesive analysis is an exercise in masochism, canny viewers can piece together a storyline that pulls one along even as it recedes and breaks like a wave. This plot seems largely sparked by Lynch’s love of transcendental mediation, presenting the audience with a purgatorial journey through hell and self-confrontation leading to freedom.
Lynch develops these meditative themes throughout the film. At one such point, Nikki and her neighbor’s exchange is as follows:
“Neighbor: So, you have a new role to play, I hear?
Nikki: Up for a role, but I’m afraid far from getting it.
Neighbor: No, no. I definitely heard that you have it.
Neighbor: Yes. It is an… It is an interesting role?
Nikki: Oh yes, very!
Neighbor: Is it about marriage?
Nikki: Um, perhaps in some ways, but…
Neighbor: Your husband is involved?
Neighbor: Hmmm. 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 followed the boy.
Nikki: I’m sorry, what is that?
Neighbor: An old tale, and a variation. A little girl went out to play. Lost in the marketplace, as if half-born. Then, not through the marketplace – 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.”
“Neighbor: Is there a murder in your film?
Nikki: Uh, no. It’s not part of the story.
Neighbor: No, I think you are wrong about that.
Neighbor: Brutal fucking murder!
Nikki: I don’t like this kind of talk; the things you’ve been saying. I think you should go now.
Neighbor: Yes. Me, I… 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.
[Neighbor points to Nikki’s couch across the room]
Neighbor: Do you see?’
Themes of infidelity and the fallibility of memory seem to stalk Nikki like pernicious ghouls. Later when we meet her husband, he tells her co-star: “My wife is not a free agent. I don’t allow her that. She is bound.” He seems to be a dark reflection of her inner landscape (a la Eraserhead) rather than a character consisting of flesh and blood.
Locked in carnal embrace with her co-star Devon just before the film goes off the rails, Nikki herself laments: “This is a story that happened yesterday, but I know it’s tomorrow!” What we are seeing must be her memories or a version of the events that lead to the film’s central monologue. To further compound this mystery, we see scenes of the Lost Girl’s life enfolded into Nikki’s. In her dark journey, Nikki encounters a group of polish prostitutes (a Lynchian chorus of sorts) and implores them: “Hey! Look at me! Tell me if you’ve known me before.”
There’s a connection between the death of The Lost Girl and the actress at the center of the film, whether it’s by reincarnation or simple spiritual similarity is up to the viewer. During one of the film’s finest set-pieces, a down-and-out version of Nikki/Sue wanders the street. In a flash, a menacing Julia Ormand plants a screwdriver in her abdomen. She flees and collapses between two street women who babble on about the wound and an unseen woman with a pet monkey and “a hole in her vagina.” Eventually, one of them says: “You on high now, love. No more blue tomorrows.” Lynch’s camera pans out and we see filming equipment at the frame’s edge.
What we’ve been watching is a setup, a dupe. The viewer has been led to believe that Nikki was the fake and Sue was the truth, but Lynch pulls the rug out from under the viewer and further confuses the matter. Is the world we first see a fantasy Nikki has created for herself? Is she truly Sue Blue, and Nikki Grace is just the successful actress persona she’s escaped into, much like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr.? Unlike that film, Inland Empire seems uninterested in a simple answer and to insist that both of these personalities are equally real. The wholesome actress, the role she plays, and the down-and-out: these are all same woman.
Through this union of identities, Lynch and Dern pummel the bad woman versus good trope into a sort of submission. Rather than being presented as two sides of a coin, all personalities are wrestling for domination within the same body. As previously stated, this a theme Lynch has enjoyed exploring throughout his career, but this is the first time Dern has played this type of role and Inland Empire tackles it with an overtness unshackled by narrative lucidity. Overseeing this spiritual struggle is The Lost Girl, who seems to be, in some way, connected to the original actress who died during the making of On High in Blue Tomorrows. She may, indeed be the actress herself.
Stuck in a sort of purgatorial hotel room, viewing the action on her fuzzy tv set, many have come to believe that Dern is her re-incarnation and the hell she’s experiencing is a bid to set The Lost Girl free. After the false street death, having escaped the nightmare world of the film, Sue/Nikki enters a theater and sees her ordeal being played out on the screen. She climbs a set of stairs and encounters a menacing man with a ballooning head, Dern’s increasingly warping face projected upon it. She shoots and kills the phantom and reaches the Lost Girl at last. They embrace and kiss, and Nikki/Sue fades out of existence. The Lost Girl finally leaves the room and is reunited with her child and lover, a moment of rare and joyous adulation in Lynch’s oeuvre. The film ends where it started with Nikki again in her home, visited by her eerie neighbor turned jocular.
Sitting atop her divan, staring off as if she’s viewing a brave, new world, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that only in films featuring Dern do characters get happy endings. These can be deliriously rosy (as in Blue Velvet) or likely a brief respite from life’s storms (Wild at Heart) but in Inland Empire there is a beautiful, unironic, cleansing of the soul with no precedent in Lynch’s filmography. Nikki, through sheer force of will, goes from a woman high on blue tomorrows – i.e. her own suffering – to one who unafraid of confronting her demons, making those same tomorrows a thing of the past.
The wistful ending of Inland Empire is masterfully buoyed by Dern, who fully seems to rely entirely on instinct rather than rational thought, marking her role as Nikki/Sue as the consummate Lynch performance. Working sporadically, turning down other films to make this vision a reality—the trust in Lynch that Dern possesses allowed Inland Empire to exist in the first place and created a vision of a woman’s struggle with herself and her own darkness in filmic terms heretofore unwitnessed in cinema. Inland Empire challenges, frustrates, and elates, breaking down Lynch’s obsessions and spinning them alchemically into something entirely new compared to his previous visions. Inland Empire is a digital-video exorcism, casting out Lynch’s narrative obsessions as niggling demons and embracing the remarkable power of self-discovery through strife.
The credits sequence brings all the female characters together (including those we haven’t seen, like the girl with the pet monkey) dancing raucously and with great joy. A woman limping on crutches utters the film’s final word: Sweet! A moment after, we see the ravishing Laura Elena Herring enjoying the spectacle, as if to connect us with Mulholland Dr. If that film was a descent into the mind’s hell, this is the escape from the same. What we see and hear is real (Hay una banda!) and all realities are possible.
The Robin Returns
“The work with David would be one milestone to me—Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Inland Empire are one big body of work. It doesn’t matter whether people love it or hate it or connect to it. There’s no greater maestro for me.” – Laura Dern
Inland Empire may very well be considered the final culmination of a career built on following the primal, unconscious urges of humanity as far as they’ll go, though the upcoming continuation of another Lynch masterwork may yield rich thematic fruit. Dern, Lynch and McLachlan will again be united on the third season of Twin Peaks and the two most frequent collaborator’s admiration for the auteur and his maneuvering of uncharted waters hasn’t dimmed. In a recent Variety cover story, Laura Dern said: “For Kyle and I, we’ve spoken about this incredible gift that we know what [Lynch] means We have gone on this journey with him, so we know his language, or what he’s inventing. We don’t necessarily need to understand it or need it to be logical, but we see where his brain is taking him and we can follow.”
Dern is keeping mum about her role’s size or importance, though she’s revealed a callback to the project that started her relationship with Lynch so long ago: “Kyle and I had several scenes, particularly in the car, when we’re talking about the robins. There’s this very beautiful, hopeful poetry amidst this hellish world they’ve entered.”
It seems fitting that we should find her right back where she started, waxing poetic about feathered fauna freeing mankind from torment. Maybe this is a tacit acknowledgment from Lynch’s seemingly bottomless subconscious that his career began in earnest in that very moment, when a terribly young and intuitive actress took his vision and made it vital.
“David creates these worlds, sometimes all too real and sometimes incredibly absurd, but either way, he places humanity inside them.”
 Stephen Applebaum, ”Queen of the Empire,” The New Zealand Herald. 18th July 2007. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=10452389
 Seth Colter Walls, “Laura Dern Is Our Only Hope For Bringing David Lynch Back”, The Awl, 31st Aug 2011. https://theawl.com/laura-dern-is-our-only-hope-for-bringing-david-lynch-back-c62a4ee6a27a
 Blue Velvet, Dir. David Lynch, MGM Home Entertainment, 1986.
 Frazer, Bryant, “The Story Behind Blue Velvet’s Fake Robin.” Studio Daily. 7 Nov 2011. http://www.studiodaily.com/2011/11/the-story-behind-blue-velvets-fake-robin/
 Roger Ebert “Wild at Heart“. Chicago Sun-Times. 17 Aug, 1990.
 David Lynch, Wild at Heart The Samuel Goldwyn Co., 1990.
 Lynn Hirschberg, “Laura Dern and Naomi Watts Open Up About David Lynch, And Tease Twin Peaks.” W Magazine. 25 Apr. 2017. https://www.wmagazine.com/story/david-lynch-twin-peaks-showtime-laura-dern-naomi-watts
 Nagib, Luca, and Anne Jerslev. Impure Cinema: Intermedial and Intercultural Approaches to Film, (I.B. Tauris, 2014): 283
 Dennis Lim. “Eclectic Boogaloo.” Village Voice. 16th August 2005. https://www.villagevoice.com/2005/08/16/eclectic-boogaloo/
 Inland Empire, Dir. David Lynch, Absurda, 2006.
 John Powers, “Laura Dern on Oscar Season, Cheryl Strayed, and Her Birthday Tradition with David Lynch”, Vogue, 13th Feb 2015. http://www.vogue.com/article/laura-dern-wild-oscar-interview
 Maureen Ryan, “Inside the Roller-Coaster Journey to Get David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’ Back on TV.” Variety, 10th May 2017. http://variety.com/2017/tv/features/twin-peaks-revival-david-lynch-showtime-1202419020/