Noted for his surrealist films, director David Lynch delivered a genuinely mind-bending experience with Inland Empire and the film’s ending left nothing but questions. Released independently in 2006, the shot-on-video film featured a powerhouse performance from frequent Lynch collaborator Laura Dern and was surprisingly star-studded despite its unassuming production. Although it was not a box-office success, grossing only $4 million (via Box Office Mojo), it was warmly regarded by many critics and received a positive, if polarized, reception from the cinematic intelligentsia. While Lynch was known for presenting challenging films, Inland Empire was his most complicated puzzle to date.


Essentially a thesis statement on themes that Lynch had been exploring his entire career, Inland Empire was a Lynchian nightmare on an epic scale, and it is often regarded as one of the best three-hour movies ever. Deftly blending elements of fantasy and horror with Lynch’s usual surrealism, Inland Empire had more to offer than the simple unexplainable motifs seen in films like 1997’s Lost Highway or 1977’s Eraserhead. Lynch has often been described as an auteur filmmaker, and Inland Empire was the result of the director having ultimate control over the production (which saw every detail come to life without a concern for clarity or cinematic convention).

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What Happens In Inland Empire’s Ending?

Laura Dern looks on in Inland Empire

Unlike other Lynch films (which have been described as looping Mobius strips that end and begin in the same place), Inland Empire was more of a web that actually saw the culmination of certain ideas. The ending saw Nikki Grace, who had fully blended with her onscreen persona Susan Blue, finally confront the mysterious man known only as The Phantom. Often regarded as one of Laura Dern’s best movies, the ending of Inland Empire saw Grace/Blue shoot The Phantom after it took on her aspect, and she discovered the door numbered 47 – which lead to the apartment of The Rabbits.

Grace then stared into a revelatory light before entering the hotel room of the Lost Girl, who had been watching the film on television. Nikki and the Lost Girl embraced momentarily before Nikki faded out of existence, which seemingly freed the Lost Girl from her sorrow of watching the television. The Lost Girl then wandered through Smithy’s house and began to weep when she met a young boy and a man. Nikki then arrived back at her mansion (as seen at the beginning of the film), and looked at a vision of herself on the other couch across the room.

Who Was The Phantom?

A distorted image of Laura Dern's face is a jump scare in Inland Empire.

Out of all the things the director has done well, Lynch’s best movie villains have shown he has always had a keen eye for the macabre and could deliver scares as well as confusion. Looming over Inland Empire as one of its biggest mysteries, The Phantom was seen from the outset of the film to be an aggressive person, but his true purpose became clearer as the film went on. He was seen physically abusing his wife, and it was later revealed that he may have possessed a mystical ability to influence people with his mind. Though not every character appeared in every plot thread, The Phantom was consistent throughout them all.

Whether The Phantom was a real person or not was unclear, but the scenes set in 1930s Poland suggested he once lived in the real world. Nikki/Sue encountered the memorable David Lynch character on several occasions, the first of which was the scene where she saw him with a red light bulb in his mouth. The red light could have possibly been a reference to “red light districts”, and the fact that The Phantom may have forced his wife out onto the street. His other appearances had a vaguer aspect, and it is most likely that he was the personification of evil that the Lost Girl lived through.

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Who Was The Lost Girl?

The Lost Girl cries while watching TV in Inland Empire

Omnipresent throughout was a strange crying woman who watched many of the events of the story play out on a television screen in a hotel room. The so-called, Lost Girl also appeared in scenes in 1930s Poland, and she was even seen brutally murdered as well. Undoubtedly one of David Lynch’s weirdest movies, Inland Empire‘s Lost Girl could have been the key that tied the entire film together. A scene revealed that she was once married to The Phantom and that she was a victim of his ruthless abuse. Her adulterous affair was mirrored in the events of Nikki/Sue’s story, and the entire film could have been in her mind.

The Significance Of Vier Sieben

A closeup of a door with the number 47 on it from Inland Empire

The fictional Polish folk tale Vier Sieben, or 47, was an integral part of the Nikki/Sue storyline and was roughly explained by the female visitor at Nikki’s mansion towards the beginning of the film. The tale involved a boy or girl, who opened the door of their house to look out, only to find a reflection of themselves looking back. Lynch’s films aren’t the only horror movies inspired by fairy tales, and Inland Empire‘s Vier Sieben story was another clue to unlocking the film. Not long after the scene at Nikki’s mansion, it was revealed that On High in Blue Tomorrows was based on the tale.

The aforementioned film-within-a-film was said to be cursed, and it being an adaptation of Vier Sieben had something to do with it. The tale’s moral of seeing a reflection of oneself in the world played out frequently, especially when Nikki was confronted by The Phantom, whose face morphed into hers before he died. Nikki was even pursued by herself in several scenes. The number 47 also appeared on the door of the apartment of The Rabbits, which tied things together more than it answered any questions.

Who Were The Rabbits?

The Rabbits stand together in a green apartment from Inland Empire

The Rabbits appeared on television as a twisted version of a sitcom, but they did bleed over into the supposed real world as well. Inland Empire was one of David Lynch’s most rewatchable movies because of its myriad of details, and the scant Rabbits scenes actually contained several connections to the rest of the story. The loose plot within the world of The Rabbits involved the male rabbit having a secret, and the female rabbit vowing to find out the answer. The male rabbit was the only one that left the confines of the sitcom, and he manifested as Janek, the man at odds with The Phantom.

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Inland Empire featured several mystical characters that came from another place and had either evil or neutral intentions in the real world, which was reminiscent of the bizarre residents of the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks. The Rabbit form of those characters could have been the way that they communicated with the real world through their sitcom, as explained by the Lost Girl viewing them on her TV. To go along with the gateway to another world idea, Sue was seen peering through a cigarette burn in her blouse and the burning hole appeared in the air during one of the sitcom scenes.

The Significance Of Axxon N.

A gramophone needle plays a record from Inland Empire

Though the name was gibberish, Axxon N. was a Polish radio show within the movie’s universe and was visually represented by the needle on the gramophone. Axxon N. was not only a way to divulge information to the audience, such as the opening narration explaining what was just seen, but also as a communication device between plot threads. Similar to Lynch trademarks in Mulholland Drive and others in his catalog, repeated messages were a motif he returned to frequently in Inland Empire and beyond. Nikki/Sue saw the words Axxon N. scribbled on walls, and it was how the Lost Girl directed her through the story.

The Real Meaning Of Inland Empire’s Ending

Nikki/Susan screams in the middle of the street in Inland Empire

In his book Catching Big Fish, Lynch laid out his theories on the collective unconscious and how art can be found in the swirling pool of ideas therein. In a way, Inland Empire could be interpreted as the dark opposite of that theory, and how pain and evil could corrupt the collective unconscious and force others to experience it. No matter what was real or fantasy, the Lost Girl experienced evil at the hands of The Phantom, and she was forced to watch as that evil played out again and again through the manifestations of Vier Sieben on her TV.

Inland Empire was not one of David Lynch’s best films because it struggled with the execution of its ideas. If the movie could be summed up, perhaps it could be best defined as the idea that, as Vier Sieben suggested, the world was merely a reflection of the person viewing it, and the Lost Girl’s dark experience produced a dark world. Nikki Grace may have been a real movie star, or she could have simply been a vessel in which the Lost Girl passed on her trauma as she was forced to watch her experience play out through others throughout time.

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