A dream of the movies as well as a nightmare, David Lynchs newest film is a phantasmagoria of hot bottle blondes, cold-blooded monsters and all the things that go boo in your head. The time is the present, or maybe three weeks ago, or maybe tomorrow. The place is Los Angeles where Sunset Boulevard meets Nightmare Alley, which means that the place is also Hollywood -- industry, ideal, crushing dead end. Because, as Jean-Luc Godard once said, all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl, this movie has Betty (Naomi Watts) from Deep River, Ontario, who comes here to be a star but somewhere along the frayed and twisted line gets detoured, then lost. Of course theres a gun, but you have to wait for it, a wait which, as with so much of this movie, you at once savor and dread. As with all dreams worth remembering and all the nightmares lodged deep in your mind, whats crucial about Lynchs movie isnt the moment you wake up, the aha of lucidity, of recognition and reckoning. Whats important is dreaming itself, the eternal twilight in which unreason usurps reason and we each become either our greatest masterpiece or our cruelest mistake.
Here, point of view is everything, including the moral of the story. Lured to L.A. after winning a dance contest, Betty steps into its bleached light as if she were walking onto a sound stage. Dressed in Mary Janes, capris and a 1950s coral sweater studded with rhinestones, she breaks open a smile so wide its a surprise when she doesnt start singing Rodgers and Hammerstein. Soon afterward, invited to stay at her traveling aunts empty apartment, she discovers that a brunette with no clothes and no memory (Laura Elena Harring) has already moved into its sprawling, sepulchral rooms. The mystery woman calls herself Rita, having lifted the name off a poster for Gilda, and is the survivor of a crackup up on Mulholland, where the movie starts. Embracing a new role, Betty transforms from would-be star into can-do Nancy Drew, scheming to help Rita solve her riddle while squeezing her sleuthing around a movie audition. After the tryout, at which she lights fire to every cliche in the script, Betty meets a young director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), whose story somehow seamlessly folds into hers.
Kesher has troubles of his own, including a cheating wife and some movie-business thugs whose numbers include a hulking double for Miramax head Harvey Weinstein. Its a terrific, mean jab, but while Mulholland Drive contains an indictment against the business of movies, it would be too limiting to call the film just another screed against Hollywood. It isnt the dream factory per se that feeds Lynchs rancor; its the way the factory turns dreams into sausages, people into meat. Kesher (clearly the directors stand-in) is being coerced to cast an actress he doesnt want, a snub-nosed blonde who the thugs insist is the girl. There are others in play, mostly iconic types twisted to familiar Lynchian specifications, among them a hit man, a cowboy (a hypnotic Monty Montgomery), and a hooker, one of the directors dirtier blondes. The characters are as familiar to Lynchs work as the fetishistic touchstones that mark this story like a woodland trail -- the dwarf, the whoosh in through the curtains, the slicked red of a womans mouth, the pulsing electrical sizzle that works a nervous counterpoint to the ever-present hum of terror. But as familiar as these touchstones are, and though Lynch is essentially reworking pet themes, worrying beloved tropes like beads (he never tires of the spectacle of lost innocence), theres nothing stale about any of it. Lynch isnt just digging into our heads and under our skin here -- hes worming into our hearts.
Mulholland Drive started off as a pilot for ABC, where it was doubtless rejected for not cleaving to the exacting standards of, say, The Drew Carey Show. Network executives apparently found Lynchs pilot too slow, too complex; Tad Friends 1999 New Yorker article about the fiasco suggests that they even deemed the female leads too old. While theres a nice irony to the idea of a failed television project becoming one of the years best films, you have to wonder if what pushed Mulholland Drive to greatness was the ambitiousness of the original project, its scale, and then the time Lynch had to whittle it down. Theres enough plot in the films 146-minute running time to fill a television season, yet theres none of the narrative slack you might expect. As with much of Lynchs work, not everything ties together, but the loose ends seem less like stray threads than divertissements. Theyre excursions into the weird for the sheer un-instrumental joy of it, but theyre more than indulgences. Each time Lynch pulls away from Rita and Betty, he flicks at our nerves a little more, a little harder. The women look like fairy-tale centerfolds, Rose Red and Violet Blue gone seriously astray, so you want to keep watching them, but because they also come across as good and decent, you want them out of harms way -- you tense up when theyre not around. As with Kyle MacLachlan, trapped with his eyes open in Blue Velvet, you cant bear to watch or look away.