DELIBERATELY OUTRÉ, occasionally absurd, and above all hauntingly weird in its blend of naïve optimism and sinister subplots, ‘Mulholland Drive’ might seem like David Lynch’s answer to the Coen Brothers’ ‘The Big Lebowski’. Each surname has evolved into an adjective—Lynchian, Coenesque—or school of iconoclastic filmmaking that threads deep sardonicism through comedy and deadpan irony through drama. Though Lynch started working before the Coens, his ‘Mulholland Drive’ appeared a few years after ‘The Big Lebowski’ and became its nightmarish negative. LA has never seemed so surrealistic and yet so right.
But to set the Coens’ effort as a precedent for Lynch is to do him a disservice—in work like ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Twin Peaks’, and even the clunky ‘Lost Highway’, Lynch had long been establishing the groundwork and defining the archetypes that would all come together in ‘Mulholland Drive’: starry-eyed out-of-towner arrives to a cesspool of conspiracy; a cabal of attractive actresses, often unknown at the time, delve into its opaque depths; the one (or maybe two) guys play it straight to give the audience just enough of a wink; a ghoulish or misshapen stranger lurks on the periphery and pronounces obscure doom; erstwhile stars in hardly glamorous cameos; and every frame cast with an indistinctly nostalgic air that belies the film’s millennial setting. ‘Mulholland Drive’ is the complete Lynch experience encapsulated—and it may be his best picture.
There is stiff competition from ‘Blue Velvet’, made when Lynch was 40, a few films into his career, and still exploring the boundaries of his style. Though the ‘Lynchian’ precedent was already clearly extant, the director was still stretching and flexing some of his muscles for the first time and it made ‘Blue Velvet’ powerful in a vigorously applied, confrontational manner. Fast-forward 15 years and we find Lynch confident, capable, and fully aware. He effects equal results from his actors and similarly strong reactions from his audience with less force and greater poise. ‘Mulholland Drive’, aside from its excess of toplessness, is a less gratuitous film than ‘Blue Velvet’, but no less memorable of one.
Moreover, it is a greater mystery. ‘Blue Velvet’ had its almost too-earnest sleuth in Kyle McLachlan (just as ‘Lebowski’ had its Dude), and both of those films play off many existing tropes of Hollywood detective tales before providing some kind of release in resolution. We may not be able to fathom the bizarreness of their characters, but at least we can understand what happened. Meanwhile, ‘Mulholland Drive’ trumps both boldly by never solving its mystery. Though it has a sleuth of equal measure—a Nancy Drew-type go-getter in Naomi Watts—it is never Lynch’s intent for us to achieve that definitive moment of eureka. Rather, he satisfies us implicitly while frustrating us explicitly, and that is a balance most difficult to acquire.
The unresolved and sprawling plot, profound complexity of detail, gleans of red herrings, and chopped-up narrative subject ‘Mulholland Drive’ to virtually limitless interpretation. It is more ambiguous than ‘Twin Peaks’, which left us pining for its atmosphere and characters, and yet more efficient than ‘Lost Highway’, which left us apathetic towards them and everything else. Plenty of plots are confusing without actually being good, of course; what makes ‘Mulholland Drive’ different is the breadth and depth of its execution. As for the plot—it is a ball of twine by Escher, so seamlessly ornate that we cannot prove that there are any loose ends because we don’t know where one thread ends and another begins. But we feel that Lynch does, crucially, and that he is not inclined to reveal his secrets.
Behind the camera he is in peak form, comfortable in many settings outside of his central plot and compelling in all of them. Among other demonstrations of his art, we are treated to a smattering of art-film non sequiturs, satirical anecdotes of Hollywood woven in as subplots, and one reveal to rival any horror film for searing memorability—and in broad daylight, no less. Examine each closely and they become distinct, almost irreconcilable case studies; but step back, and the ensemble creates a unique and beguiling portrait on the very cusp of reason.
In ‘Mulholland Drive’, the pleasure comes in undertaking the journey, not reaching the destination. For there is none, really, and our joy is not to arrive, but rather not to know where we were even going. Like Rita in the limousine, we are being chauffeured somewhere strange—the fact that we never recognize a destination doesn’t mean we didn’t arrive.