Twin Peaks always leaps to mind when you hear the name David Lynch, but Mulholland Drive is the filmmaker’s true masterpiece. Many of his earlier movies, particularly Blue Velvet and Lost Highway, almost seem like trial runs for his beautiful, haunting “love story in the city of dreams”. It’s an intoxicating, beguiling, timeless, masterfully produced neo-noir, that rewards repeat viewings and manages the trick of being both cerebrally challenging and emotionally draining. Now regarded as one of the finest films of the 21st-century, that almost seems like a backhanded compliment. It’s surely one of the greatest movies ever made.
Originally conceived as a television drama (the heroine was written for Sherilyn Fenn, reprising Audrey Horne from Twin Peaks), ABC got cold feet after being shown Lynch’s otherworldly pilot in 1999. Frustrated and disappointed by the decision, the project was repurposed instead of abandoned, with Lynch elongating the completed episode to feature-length and resolving the story.
Mulholland Drive would have made a fantastic ongoing TV show, as an urban companion piece to rural Twin Peaks, but having potentially years of storyline whittled down to 146 minutes, meant the end result had a more focused and immediately rewarding narrative. But that’s not to say there aren’t still numerous scenes and subplots that, on the face of it, don’t appear to be essential. At least on the first viewing. They each work towards broadening the scope of the movie, fleshing out Lynch’s unsettling vision of Los Angeles, and providing subtle clues to what’s going on.
The first hour of Mulholland Drive is the easiest half to grasp, as it was intended to introduce wide audiences to these characters and entice them into following the rest of the story on a weekly basis. A beautiful dark-haired woman, chauffeured down Mulholland Drive by limo, is involved in a terrible car crash seconds after being threatened at gunpoint from the backseat. Surviving the ordeal, a concussed “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring), as she’ll come to be known, wanders down the hills and sneaks into an L.A apartment where she spends the night recovering.
The next day, perky farm girl Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) flies into LAX, full of smiles and positivity about making it as a Hollywood movie star. She goes to stay with her veteran actress aunt Coco (Ann Miller) in the same apartment Rita’s taken refuge, whom she mistakes for a reserved housemate. As Betty goes about her business auditioning for roles around town, she becomes fascinated by amnesiac Rita and drawn deeper into the mystery of where she came from, after they discover a large quantity of money in her purse and a strange blue key.
The two women also develop a close friendship that turns sexual, but they actually have a much deeper and stranger connection than each appear to realise. Both Watts and Harring are at their very best here, and despite this being the movie that introduced Naomi Watts to the masses, she’s never quite bettered it. It’s an astonishingly nuanced performance that shifts through a variety of gears, with great skill and fluency. Harring’s also mesmerising in the quieter role, often letting her great beauty do the talking, but certainly no wallflower. 16 years later, it’s a source of great frustration that the Mexican-American actress’s career never really took off in the same way as her co-star.
There are other characters swirling around Mulholland Drive, of course, who become more important, or sometimes less so, as the story progresses and deepens. The one downside of Mulholland Drive becoming a movie is how a few intriguing characters are given short shrift, as they might have travelled down some equally fascinating roads themselves. I’ve always been a little disappointed we didn’t get more of the blonde hitman (Mark Pellegrino), who gets one of the funniest scenes as a simple assassination spirals out of control.
Arrogant young director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) has a storyline that survives the movie’s reimagining more than most — probably because his largely takes place during the early stages of what would’ve been the pilot. It certainly helps the movie that Adam’s the closest thing to a “normal person” in the story, behaving as most of us would if confronted by the unusual situations and bizarre behaviour of other characters in the movie. I always enjoy Adam’s outburst at a meeting, when a man (played by composer Angelo Badalamenti) childishly spits out coffee into a napkin, as it’s one of the few times someone reacts in a way that seems entirely rational.
I’ve only seen Mulholland Drive three times since it was released in 2001, which isn’t very many for a movie I profess to love and consider an all-time favourite. Truth is, I don’t think watching this numerous times would be wise. I much prefer seeing it very occasionally, as a treat, so my memory fades and I find myself being surprised again by moments and incidents I’d forgotten about. I tend to do this with most of Lynch’s movies. But this one’s one of the few that hangs together very well — both thematically and otherwise. You don’t feel confused and slightly cheated by the end, just devastated by the truth of people’s identities and how the story being told wasn’t the one you thought you were watching.
There’s a strange off-kilter logic at work through Mulholland Drive, and on some weird level you completely understand what happened, even if it’s hard to explain the moment you attempt to. Fittingly, the film dissolves like a dream in that way, one it ends and you “wake up” from the experience. You feel your consciousness expanding as you watch, almost like you’re being slowly hypnotised by the camera, but it’s a mindset that doesn’t hang around once the spell breaks with the word “silencio”. Like many of Lynch’s movies, this feels very much like a gateway to a waking dream state. I’ll enjoy watching Mulholland Drive, however infrequently, for the rest of my life.
- Back to Mulholland Drive featurette.
- On the Road to Mulholland Drive featurette.
- Criterion interview with Naomi Watts & David Lynch.
- New Interview with Laura Elena Harring.
- New interview with Mary Sweeney.
- Interview with Angelo Badalamenti.
- Introduction by Thierry Jousse.
- In the Blue Box Featurette.
- PK Interviews: David Lynch, Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, Laura Elena Harring.
- Deleted Scene.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: David Lynch.
starring: Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Ann Miller & Robert Forster.