Review: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive



Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring star in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (©2001 Universal Pictures).

David Lynch, the kinkiest, most daring, and greatest American film artist of the last 15 years, has hit the creative pinnacle of his career. For the first time, Lynch has made two completely realized films in a row. After the semi-debacles of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway (films I still enjoyed despite their significant flaws), The Straight Story, the elegiac and gorgeous G-rated odyssey on a tractor, galvanized Lynch back to his uncompromising artistic spirit that made him so famous.

His latest, Mulholland Drive, is the best film he’s made since Blue Velvet. Trippy, illogical, and filled with oddities that seem to be there just for the hell of it (if it weren’t for the primal essence Lynch infuses in them), Mulholland Drive is a movie that demands to be seen more than once. The critics that have dismissed it on the basis of one viewing are only discrediting themselves. Since when did every film have to be entirely readable after one viewing?

From the opening frames, it is absolutely clear that Lynch is comfortable telling the story his way. A darkened limo, in which a beautiful and dressed up brunette (Laura Elena Harring) sits apprehensively, climbs up winding Mulholland Drive. There will be an accident and she will seemingly escape execution, but will lose most of her long-term memory. After stumbling her way into a luxury apartment, she is discovered by Betty (Naomi Watts), a perky blonde who takes pity on the brunette who calls herself Rita.

Betty has just come to Hollywood to be an actress, and her sunny disposition is infectious. Brilliantly, Lynch harkens back to his light women/dark women theme. Betty is the effervescent spirit determined to tame the dark beast of Los Angeles. Rita is the flip side, the chewed up and victimized female. As Betty and Rita try to uncover Rita’s true identity, we follow many other storylines. A young gawky man goes to dinner, where he has had a recurring nightmare, only to see it come horrifically true. A dim slacker murders a buddy for a mysterious black book. Most centrally, a young, hip director is being forced to recast the female lead in his film, threatened by dour mobsters and well-spoken cowboys.

If none of these vignettes makes immediate sense in a strict story sense, thematically they blend beautifully. Lynch is obsessed with the weight of dreams, the potent force of unseen dread, the mystery of a city, an unknown woman or monster, the lure of something both terrifying and seductive. Mulholland Drive is filled with shady, despotic overlords, enforcers who speak in coded Zen epithets, and the retro kitsch of dance contests and harmonized pop songs. When people say Lynch is overly surreal or ironic, they seemingly miss the point. Yes, he is both, and also creepy and often perverse, but no other modern filmmaker understands the totemic weight of kitsch, surreal visions, and confusing role reversals. Lynch has the rare ability to make even the most far-fetched plot machinations seem absolutely natural. Without even considering the film’s themes or “meaning” (of which, I believe, there are many), Mulholland is an absolutely successful fever dream, a film style that is mysteriously excluded in the escapist genre.

As the film progresses and Betty and Rita become closer to each other and to discovering Rita’s identity, they attend a bizarre art performance. There they find a blue box that fits the corresponding blue key in Rita’s bag. When they open the box, the film switches to a different and far darker reality.

I don’t think there is one right explanation to Mulholland Drive, as it is not definitively spelled out. While it bothers some, to me it is a daring and exciting experiment in real audience participation. Lynch does not tell what is what—you decide.

Mulholland Drive is the rare film that lives on in your mind long after it’s over. See it, love it, see it again. I know I will.