Movie Review: “Mulholland Drive”

No matter the shiny Hollywood polish sparkling on its surface, David Lynch’s classic psychological thriller Mulholland Drive, featuring no real stars outside of Naomi Watts and (to an admittedly lesser extent) Justin Theroux, eventually reveals some of his strangest, most intensely nightmarish imagery, but don’t be put off by its surreal ambiguity. Difficult as it may be to always make sense of Lynch’s fever-dream visions, it’s just as difficult not to be sucked into this eerie, irresistible mystery with no clear answer, a gorgeously volatile portrait of Los Angeles’s darkest corners.

Lynch teases at this shift towards terror early, with an ominous scene set with two men we know nothing about, and are hardly ever seen again. Bristling with paranoia, one man recounts the repeated nightmares he’s had about the diner they’re sitting in (“There’s a man in back of this place… I can see him through the wall”), though they just sound like his mind playing tricks on him. The further he describes these vivid night terrors, however, the more we notice this conversation starting to mirror them, revealing it to be the same nightmare setting itself into motion.

All this, however, appears to only be the dream(?) of a mysterious dark-haired woman (Laura Harring), who has no relation to the characters we just watched, nor is any more familiar to the audience following her. Desperately seeking refuge after a sudden collision saves her from being murdered, she’s seemingly suffered such a serious concussion from the accident, she can’t so much as remember her own name. Sleeping brings her no closer to any lost memories, but after spotting a Gilda poster, she instinctively calls herself “Rita”.

Into this amnesiac stranger’s path walks Betty Elms (Watts), a rising, rosy-eyed Hollywood star moving into the same LA apartment Rita’s broken into to spend the night. Something draws her to this quiet girl, but neither woman knows if it’s love, fate, or possible connections even deeper than both; nevertheless, they’re determined to, perhaps, possibly find as much of Rita’s past as they’re able to, before Rita’s past possibly finds her. If that’s anything like what they actually discover (or don’t discover), what with Rita’s purse holding not credit cards or driver’s licenses, but stacks of $100 bills held together by rubber bands… and a single, anonymous blue key.

Whether or not each clue really adds up to anything for Rita, Mulholland Drive is absolutely mesmerizing to watch, even when its unconventional story is a challenge. If given enough thought, it’s not so much that it’s necessarily difficult to explain (well, that’s probably up for debate), but that it doesn’t always hold your hand as it plays out. Like a dream that makes complete sense until you wake up, each bizarre turn of events is so engrossing, you barely even notice reality beginning to unravel.

Mulholland Drive’s story alone can (and, inevitably, already has been) be dissected endlessly, to the point of requiring it to be approached from an entirely different perspective. On the same coin, this story lingers so long because of the chilling mood sustained by Lynch’s direction, not in spite of it. Without the stylized darkness and beauty captured in Peter Deming’s glowing cinematography, Naomi Watts’s deceptively cheerful performance, or the late Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti (cameoing as a well-connected mobster with a finicky taste for espresso) composing his career’s most trancelike score, the film’s visceral effect would be sorely lacking.

To date, Mulholland Drive is Lynch’s only movie to be based off a failed TV pilot (his only fully realized show, Twin Peaks, did receive the 1992 film adaptation Fire Walk With Me after being canceled for a long period, but none of it was shot for TV), featuring similar subplots clearly meant to be expanded on as the show progressed. In using this pilot as a jumping-off point, Lynch ensures the completed film feels no less cinematic, but with its structure naturally being so episodic at first, not every subplot isn’t left hanging.

By the end, all those subplots, particularly the role of every character within the film’s greater narrative, do serve an unexpected purpose, so it’s hard to argue they’re entirely unnecessary. At the same time, however, that overall purpose might have felt more impactful if the subplots were more conclusive, or had at least brought more of these characters outside their own contained bubble. A comic-relief hitman character is, without giving too much away, surprisingly important later, but when otherwise having so little to do with the film’s remainder, it’s not really as compelling.

In comparison to Mulholland Drive’s main thrust, though, the subplots don’t take very much away. If anything, they help the film take its time to ease into the horror we’re all waiting for, and that’s exactly what makes the horror stand out. Had the entire film been as confusing and bizarre as its last third, that final act simply wouldn’t pack such a lasting punch, nor would the previous two acts be so emotionally involving.

For what Lynch is going for, it’s much more effective to let the chaos slowly creep in, not immediately plunge into it with no intriguing buildup. Considering Mulholland Drive’s reputation (let alone the way it’s been described here), it’s shocking how easily it can be followed until a certain point, but nothing else would make this cinematic experience so powerful. Regardless of what you might take away from it (or even if you don’t take away much at all), not many other films, even within Lynch’s catalogue, evoke quite the same haunting, unexplainable feeling, and that’s a beautiful thing.


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