In this segment of our Colossus Movie Guide for Inland Empire, we delve into the significance of the film’s title.
- Laura Dern – Nikki Grace / Sue Blue
- Jeremy Irons – Kingsley Stewart
- Justin Theroux – Devon Berk / Billy Side
- Harry Dean Stanton – Freddie Howard
- Julia Ormond – Doris Side
- Diane Ladd – Marilyn Levens
- Peter J. Lucas – Piotrek Krol / Smithy
- Grace Zabriskie – Visitor #1
- Mary Steenburgen – Visitor #2
- Karolina Gruszka – Lost Girl
- Krzysztof Majchrzak – Phantom
- Ian Abercrombie – Henry, The Butler
- Nae – Street Woman
- Terry Crews – Street Man
- David Lynch – Writer and director
Why is the movie called Inland Empire?
While the meaning behind the title might seem obvious—as Inland Empire encompasses a stretch of California cities, including San Bernardino and Riverside, that border Los Angeles and Hollywood—movies aren’t necessarily associated with the two-county region. Yes, some famous films have been filmed there, such as Erin Brockovich and The Fast and the Furious. And yes, filming in the the region did account for over $1 billion between 1994 and 2005. But no large production companies or film studios are based in Inland Empire. And Lynch never actually shot any scenes there for Inland Empire. Really, the area isn’t as synonymous with the movie industry as you might think.
So why did Lynch name his movie after the area? Because the director is so tight-lipped about his films, we may never know for sure. But we sure can speculate.
Let’s start with each of those words. “Inland” means “situated in the interior of a country rather than on the coast” or “in or toward the interior of a country.” A fairly innocuous word. But “empire” has a much more foreboding power: “an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority” or “a large commercial organization owned or controlled by one person or group.”
These two words combined own an ominous aura that feels very Lynchian. The director said his hometown of Philadelphia was the biggest influencer on his career. Ridden with crime, poverty, and death, the industrial city came to embody the dark undertones of his films, as even the most benevolent of Lynch characters discover that extreme darkness lurks just beneath their surface. Specifically, the industrial environment of Eraserhead, Lynch’s first feature film, was heavily influenced by the fearful tension in Philadelphia (Lynch called it his The Philadelphia Story).
Essentially: the characters of Lynch’s movies are heavily impacted by seemingly familiar surroundings that secretly contain dark truths. Think of the suburbanesque American Dream setting of Sandy’s life contrasted with the filth and squalor of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Or the small-town setting of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, where nobody thinks anything bad will ever happen, yet reveals itself to serve as a nightmarish harbor for lurking evil. The characters of these movies have one perception of their environment, only for it to be upturned and thwarted.
With that in mind, “inland empire” seems to coincide with that Lynchian trope. Especially when you consider that crime historically runs rampant in places like San Bernardino and poverty has continually been a problem. “Inland” conveys a setting that’s tucked away, and “empire” suggests an overarching power that controls its inhabitants. No, Inland Empire isn’t technically part of Hollywood. But it is Hollywood-adjacent, and its economy does benefit from the film industry. This gives the title a menacing atmosphere: Hollywood isn’t technically part of Inland Empire, yet Hollywoood looms over the city. The title “Inland Empire” makes the region feel illustrious, but once you move past the glitz and glamour of movies, you’ll find filth and squalor persist in the dark crevices.
This, to me, captures the imposing ambience of the movie’s title. Nikki lives a cushy life in her mansion. Hollywood has been good to her and brought her many years of success. Yet, internally, she’s a mess. She’s fearful of her husband’s controlling nature. Her career is on the decline. And she doesn’t like to acknowledge the ugliness of the world. But before she can reenter the movie business, she needs to confront her demons.
As we discussed in the Ending Explained section, the entire movie could be viewed as Nikki’s vision after Visitor #1 visits Nikki’s home. Nikki envisions herself receiving the part of Susan in On High in Blue Tomorrows, and everything follows could be viewed as a symbolic representation of the fears and anxieties at this stage in her acting career, in her life. While movies have provided wealth and prosperity, acting forces actors to confront every component of themselves—including the dark side. Dern herself said of the role: “It took me to the edge of my own darkness. The fact that I didn’t know why I was there at times was that much more terrifying. Losing my sense of self. Acting out something behavioral. There was terror in the spaces.”
This tumultuous journey through several different characters and settings is representative of Nikki (and, in meta fashion, Dern herself) working through those demons, all in an effort to discover her true self and ready herself for the film. For this Hollywood role, Nikki must travel beyond the borders of Hollywood into a darker, more sickly realm where movies exist yet aren’t representative of the everyday darkness—that is hurdle between fear and enlightenment. That is Inland Empire.
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