Leaving the theater after seeing a David Lynch movie, we emerge into a different world than the one we departed several hours earlier. Friends and co-workers appear menacing, objects take on a talismanic significance, the very light and air around us is drenched with foreboding. Some of us, the hardcore Lynchians, can’t get enough of the maverick director’s warped, self-contained universe. Others – skeptical moviegoers, devotees of linear narrative, certain squeamish film critics – can’t get away fast enough. Mulholland Drive isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind. Those who hoped 1999’s sunny fable The Straight Story signaled a move away from Lynch’s shadowy netherworld will find Mulholland downright maddening; those who favor the mind-altering reveries of Eraserhead or Fire Walk With Me may well deem it a masterpiece.
The story so far: filmed in 1999 as a two-hour pilot for a proposed weekly series, Mulholland Drive was rejected by ABC, the network that had commissioned it. Destined for the primetime junk heap, Mulholland was rescued by an infusion of cash from French financiers Studio Canal Plus, allowing Lynch to shoot enough additional footage to expand the episode into a feature film.
Much of the pilot remains intact. On L.A.’s twisty Mulholland Drive, a dark-haired beauty (Laura Elena Harring) narrowly escapes with her life from a car accident that renders her an amnesiac. She hides out in an aging actress’s vacant apartment, but is discovered in the shower by Betty (Naomi Watts), the tenant’s naive, cheery niece from Deep River, Ontario. Taking the name "Rita" from a poster of Rita Hayworth, the mystery woman teams with Betty in an attempt to discover her true identity. Meanwhile, Betty’s quest for movie stardom intersects with brooding filmmaker Adam Kesher’s opus-in-progress, which is overseen by a conspiracy of malevolent oddballs functioning as a sort of shadow Hollywood. (This is no doubt exactly how David Lynch thinks show business is run, and who knows, he may be right.) As their investigation leads them closer to the truth, Betty and Rita grow closer emotionally as well.
It’s anyone’s guess where the weekly televised version of this story was intended to lead, but it’s a safe bet that the explicit, highly-charged lesbian love scene that follows was not in the cards. Arriving roughly ninety minutes into the film, this steamy interlude heralds the point of departure from the previously filmed material. The final act of Mulholland Drive (if you can even call it a traditional "act" – screenwriting guru Syd Field will probably drop dead of a massive stroke if he ever sets eyes on this thing) reconfigures all the events and characters of the preceding two hours, turning the movie into a double-sided jigsaw puzzle, albeit one with a few pieces missing. At the same time, the film as a whole serves as a re-tooling of Lynch’s entire back catalogue of obsessions. The giant, billowing red curtains that marked the dark divide between shifting levels of reality in Twin Peaks perform the same function here when the girls pay a visit to the nightmarish after-hours cabaret Silencio – which in turn calls to mind The Slow Club of Blue Velvet. The identity transference and temporal slippage of Lost Highway are likewise revisited, to much greater effect this time.
In his continuing exploration of these recurring themes and motifs, Lynch leaves himself open to the tiresome charge that he is a man out of ideas, making the same movie over and over again. And yet the last word that would ever spring to mind when describing Mulholland Drive is "predictable." Though we can probably guess, in a very general way, that Lynch will take us on a journey from seeming normality to full-blown phantasmagoria, the detours along the way are constantly surprising and outrageously entertaining. Does it all add up? Is there one satisfying explanation for the events that unfold? Several interpretations suggest themselves on first viewing, at least one of which is perfectly simple, but none of them seem to take into account all that we’ve seen transpire. What are we to make of the monstrous trash entity glimpsed in the alley behind a Denny’s-like restaurant? Or the cryptic blue key and the device it unlocks? Or the supremely creepy old couple Betty encounters several times, to her mounting horror? This is a movie that cries out for multiple viewings, but ultimately resists all rational explanations.
As usual, Angelo Badalamenti supplies a moody, idiosyncratic score – by turns mournful, ominous and whimsical as required. And as with Sheryl Lee in Fire Walk With Me, a young and relatively unknown blonde starlet is revealed as a striking, powerful performer. In my review of the original pilot, I wrote that Naomi Watts "shows signs of darker impulses beneath her cornpone veneer." This proves to be an understatement when applied to the feature film version; whether playing wholesome and adorable or bitter and vengeful, Watts is equally convincing.
If there was ever a movie to throw the shallowness, the bare minimal competence, the utter bankruptcy of imagination in contemporary Hollywood into sharp relief, Mulholland Drive is it. Lynch’s mastery of all elements of sight and sound is absolute; his tonal control impeccable; his ability to navigate dangerous, murky emotional currents and conjure moments of heart-freezing dread out of thin air unparalleled. And it’s high time – in fact, long past time – for this singular artist to get his due from the naysayers, the namby-pamby critical establishment, and especially from the gutless bottom-liners who control the purse-strings of the film industry. What does it say about our culture that one of the most inspired, fertile creative talents of our age must time and time again turn to France for funding? Nothing good, that’s for damn sure. David Lynch is the sandman of American cinema, and Mulholland Drive is his most mesmerizing dreamscape yet.