A moronic and incoherent piece of garbage. — The New York Observer
“. . . Makes a severe and unwelcome turn down a lost highway.”— Variety
“Exactly what the hell happens in this movie?” — Premiere
Silencio. That’s the last word uttered in the mind teaser — some would say mind fuck — that is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but nobody who sees it is going to shut up about it. Even the critics who don’t throw stones feel the need to pull out fancy words like doppelg”nger and inchoate and oneiric to elucidate the meaning of Lynch’s surreal dreamscape. Come on, that’s almost as bad as the Web fan-boys who only salivate when co-stars Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring strip down and rub titties.
Before reducing Mulholland Drive to hot lesbo action or a Freudian exercise, let the movie pull you in. Surrender to it. Lynch’s wild ride through the unconscious is grounded in emotion — perhaps a result of 1999’s atypically benign The Straight Story — and minus the cold posturing that undercut 1997’s Lost Highway.
Following his film Blue Velvet in 1986 and the groundbreaking Twin Peaks TV series in 1990, Mulholland Drive makes movies feel alive again. This sinful pleasure is a fresh triumph for Lynch, and one of the best films of a sorry-ass year. For visionary daring, swooning eroticism and colors that pop like a whore’s lip gloss, there’s nothing like this baby anywhere.
That’s the problem. The film was first intended as a TV series, but frightened execs at ABC dropped Lynch’s 1999 pilot, with Fox and the usually adventurous HBO following suit. It took an additional $7 million in financing (France’s StudioCanal ponied up) for Lynch to reconceive the $8 million pilot as a feature. Remnants of the pilot remain, including Robert Forster doing a quick vanishing act as a detective. No matter. Mulholland Drive is all of a dark, dazzling piece, and lapses in clarity seem a small price to pay for breathtaking images like these.
After the credits roll over a brassy jitterbug contest, Mulholland Drive opens in a fever dream, with a woman twisting and turning in bed. Then it’s dark — Lynch dark, an inky black accentuated by Angelo Badalamenti’s seductively unsettling score (no sound design this year is more vital to a film’s success). It’s night in Los Angeles. A limo slithers along Mulholland Drive, but just as the driver stops to shoot the gorgeous brunette (Harring) in the back seat, the limo is rammed by a carload of hard-partying teens. The only survivor is the brunette, who staggers in heels down a hill, taking refuge in a Hollywood bungalow just vacated by a woman on her way out of town.
Cut to the L.A. airport. Bright sunshine. Perky blonde Betty Elms (Watts) has just jetted in from Deep River, Ontario, to make it as an actress. An elderly couple she met on the plane wish her well. Sitcom stuff? Hardly. Those seniors give off a malevolent vibe, especially when they laugh. Lynch includes a shot of the pair, grinning at the camera, that creeped me out big-time.
A feeling of dread infects everything except Betty, who keeps smiling even when she settles into her aunt’s bungalow and finds the brunette in the shower. Yes, that bungalow. Instead of reporting the naked stranger to the apartment manager (veteran Ann Miller in a frisky cameo), Betty offers to help. The brunette calls herself Rita, after Rita Hayworth (she spots a poster of the 1940s star in Gilda hanging on the wall), but the limo accident has erased her memory of everything, notably where she got the cash stuffed in her purse.
When the name Diane Selwyn triggers a response in Rita, the girls play detective (Lynch’s Angels?) and turn up no end of surprises, including a mysterious blue box and key, a dwarfish tycoon (Michael J. Anderson) with ties to Hollywood, a mobster (composer Badalamenti doubling as an actor) who doesn’t suffer bad espresso gladly, a bungling hit man (Mark Pellegrino), a threatening cowboy (Layfayette Montgomery), a crazed psychic (Lee Grant) and — oh, yes — a rotting corpse.
That’s enough setups for a full TV season, and I haven’t mentioned Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a hotshot director who passes up Betty for the lead in his movie because the mob has ordered him to audition a mystery woman named Camilla Rhodes and shout out, “This is the girl!” Lynch likes sticking it to Hollywood, sometimes too much. There are times when you wonder if Lynch knows where he’s going, such as the scene in which Adam catches his wife in bed with the gardener (Billy Ray Cyrus, of all people) and retaliates by smearing her jewelry with pink paint. But each vignette adds to the unease that envelops Betty and Rita. One, about a man who dreams of something terrible lurking behind the diner where the girls eat, has a shuddering impact.
The relatively unknown Watts and Harring are sensational in ways that go beyond the call of babes-in-distress duty. Harring, of the TV soap Sunset Beach, makes Rita a ravishing blank slate on which Betty draws her fantasies. And Watts, born in England and raised in Australia, is a revelation. Her performance, nailing every subversive impulse under Betty’s sunny exterior, ranks with the year’s finest. Watch her in the audition scene — as perversely brilliant as anything Lynch has ever directed — when Betty reads lines with Jimmy Katz, an older actor smarmed to perfection by Chad Everett. Earlier, with Rita, Betty had rehearsed the role of a good girl who is being sexually abused by her father’s business partner. But with Jimmy, Betty assertively takes charge, breathing in his ear, biting his lip, reading her dialogue — “Get out of here before I kill you” — like a carnal invitation.
As Watts digs into the juiciest role for a young actress in ages, Lynch starts unveiling the method behind his madness. When Betty invites Rita to share her bed, their give-and-take is richly comic: “Have you done this before?” asks Betty. “I don’t know,” says the amnesiac. Later, Rita whisks Betty off to a decaying nightclub; no one does glamorous old-Hollywood rot like Lynch. Zombified musicians perform without benefit of orchestra. “No hay banda,” says the sleazy MC (Geno Silva). He intros a singer (Rebekah Del Rio) who breaks into a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” that brings tears to Betty and Rita (Rita is wearing a blond wig now, shades of Hitchcock’s Vertigo). To add to the symbolism overload, the singer collapses midsong, though her voice goes on, and a blue-haired la dy at the club whispers, “Silencio.” Whew! You can do one of two things: Scratch your head and curse Lynch as a freak or realize that what’s transpired so far is the dream being experienced by the woman from the first scene, a woman who might be Betty.
Might is the operative word. In the film’s final third, as identities shift and the world is thrown out of balance, we are encouraged to link the pieces of the puzzle cunningly devised by Lynch, cinematographer Peter Deming, production designer Jack Fisk and editor Mary Sweeney. The challenge is exhilarating. You can discover a lot about yourself by getting lost in Mulholland Drive. It grips you like a dream that won’t let go.