A dream of the movies as well as a nightmare, David Lynch‘s 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 there’s 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, what‘s crucial about Lynch’s movie isn‘t the moment you wake up, the “aha” of lucidity, of recognition and reckoning. What’s 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 it‘s a surprise when she doesn’t start singing Rodgers and Hammerstein. Soon afterward, invited to stay at her traveling aunt‘s 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. It’s 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 isn‘t the dream factory per se that feeds Lynch’s rancor; it‘s the way the factory turns dreams into sausages, people into meat. Kesher (clearly the director’s stand-in) is being coerced to cast an actress he doesn‘t 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 director’s dirtier blondes. The characters are as familiar to Lynch‘s 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 woman’s 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), there‘s nothing stale about any of it. Lynch isn’t just digging into our heads and under our skin here — he‘s 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 Lynch’s pilot too slow, too complex; Tad Friend‘s 1999 New Yorker article about the fiasco suggests that they even deemed the female leads too old. While there’s a nice irony to the idea of a failed television project becoming one of the year‘s 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. There’s enough plot in the film‘s 146-minute running time to fill a television season, yet there’s none of the narrative slack you might expect. As with much of Lynch‘s work, not everything ties together, but the loose ends seem less like stray threads than divertissements. They’re excursions into the weird for the sheer un-instrumental joy of it, but they‘re 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 harm’s way — you tense up when they‘re not around. As with Kyle MacLachlan, trapped with his eyes open in Blue Velvet, you can’t bear to watch or look away.
Part of what keeps you watching is that Mulholland Drive is a mystery. There‘s murder, a big pile of cash, even a pair of deadpan detectives. But Lynch isn’t interested in solving mysteries, only poking about in them, and here, as in his other films, the genre elements remain incidental. For Lynch, unlike the majority of nominal independents, vision is never subordinate to the imperatives of industrial moviemaking, which is partly why his third feature, Dune, was such a disaster: He never could get past all the cool stuff he‘d come up with and get on with telling Frank Herbert’s story. That may be why, whether stumped by the demands of narrative or merely indifferent, Lynch has, more or less, been telling the same story for years. What changes from film to film are his sympathies, a weather vane, perhaps, of where he himself is in the pecking order — looking a down from the top of the film world or gazing up from below, an ant crawling over a waxy severed ear.
Betty tugs at our own sympathies with cornflower eyes and a dazzling optimism that seems definitively American, and it‘s hard not to think that part of what makes her so vulnerable is that Lynch sees a little of himself in her. A genius at casting, Lynch calls on Watts, who’s been knocking around in small parts since the mid-‘80s, to do almost everything an actor can possibly do in a role, and she returns his confidence with an extraordinary performance. Watts is so good that in her first few scenes she even persuades us she’s “bad” — she says her lines too loudly, with too much false brio. The reason is central to the film‘s mystery, which is equally obscure and obvious, and resists too much hard prodding because it’s essentially as fragile as a broken heart. As Rita, Harring doesn‘t have as much to do, but the former beauty queen (Miss USA in 1985) makes her character’s amnesia into a virtue — she empties her face of guile, leaving only melancholia and fear. Still, because Lynch‘s dialogue is invariably pitched between Samuel Beckett and Abbott and Costello, the film is also consistently, absurdly funny. (When the women dial a number that could belong to Rita’s real self, Rita says, “Maybe it‘s not me.” Says the voice on the answering machine: “Hello, it’s me.”)
Lynch knows we can‘t stop watching, and this time he’s not punishing us for our pleasure — or his own. Lynch is our homespun Buñuel, an aesthetician of cruelty, but he‘s not an intellectual, and his work sometimes suffers from a lack of real, lived-in ideas. He’s so at home in a dream world of his own making that it sometimes seems he isn‘t much concerned with navigating the world in which the rest of us have to live. He’s entitled to that, though not to our blind devotion. He is, of course, a savagely gifted artist with an unerring instinct for composition, and a fantastical visual imagination that recurrently pushes our sense of what narrative film can be. But genius alone doesn‘t make art great. There’s the human factor, too — empathy, the very quality that can go so grievously missing from Lynch‘s work, the quality that turns the likes of a Buñuel or a Francis Bacon into more than empiricists of misery or brilliant technicians. But maybe rejection has softened Lynch a little, roughed him up in all the right places. Mulholland Drive isn’t just his most affecting movie since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the sequel film to his vaunted television series, it‘s his most tenderly felt since The Elephant Man, the film that now curiously seems his most autobiographical, especially if you think of Lynch playing both doctor and patient.
In The Day of the Locust, a novel Lynch’s new movie evokes in its sordid texture and its sense of this city as fundamentally unforgiving, Nathanael West wrote, “Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” There are plenty of monsters in Mulholland Drive — a back-alley demon with lit-up eyes, a rasping movie executive sealed in a monument to his own power — but mainly they‘re the monsters of our own making. In the end, what turned audiences, and critics, off Fire Walk With Me wasn’t just its seriousness but its revelation of beasts within. That, along with its earnest, plaintive tone, didn‘t jibe with the original Twin Peaks’ archness, its cathode cool. Just before, Lynch had made Wild at Heart, a decadent mess nearly devoid of feeling that played like the work of a filmmaker who, having gorged on the adoration of his audience, had grown contemptuous of it in return. He soon lost his bearings: Lost Highway unraveled like a parody of Lynch‘s obsessions, while The Straight Story mined too much of what’s boring about his world-view, all that hokum and gee-whiz blather, instead of the freakish and the unbearably true. In Blue Velvet, a man screams “Mommy” between a woman‘s legs; here, it’s a woman who screams into the void of her being. Mulholland Drive gets at many of the same painful truths as Blue Velvet, and while it‘s not always as beautiful looking and its pleasures are tougher, its lessons harder, the film is finally more human — a film to love, not just revere.