Modern Masterpieces #7: Mulholland Drive
Some films demand to be scrutinised; intricate films with difficult plots, hidden details, and perception-altering twists are often watched and re-watched constantly by fans desperate to discover the film’s real meaning. On the surface, David Lynch’s 2001 magnum opus Mulholland Drive is such a film. Its dreamlike structure is disorientating, asking audiences to notice subtle hints and clues to uncover the true meaning of the film’s non-linear plot. However, despite the film growing more meaningful with every watch, viewers don’t need to take notes to feel the atmosphere of Mulholland Drive. Like a beautiful drug trip, the film works best when you simply allow it to wash over you, taking you on a journey into the unknown.
To describe the plot is to take on an almost impossible task. Unlike the majority of Lynch’s work, which tells a story from A to B (no matter how odd or disturbing), Mulholland Drive fades in and out like a waking dream, telling one story only to get waylaid with a new scenario for a few minutes, then returning us back to the action. The bulk of the film focuses on the relationship between Rita (Laura Harring) and Betty (Naomi Watts). First seen surviving an assassination attempt and a car crash, Rita wanders away from the titular boulevard with no memory, eventually stumbling on the new apartment of aspiring actress Betty . Optimistic Betty looks for clues to Rita’s identity, leading them down a dark path towards the real truth behind both women’s lives.
Along the journey, we meet several other characters. Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a big shot Hollywood director, has the most humiliating day of his life: forced to hire a new leading lady during a Kafkaesque meeting with sinister producers, cuckolded by his wife and her pool cleaning lover, and threatened by The Cowboy, a mysterious man who reappears throughout the film. There’s also a diner customer (Patrick Fischler) who’s convinced he’s living in his nightmare, a hapless hitman (Mark Pellgrino), and an unknown woman named Diane Selywn…
When reviewing Mulholland Drive, it would be easy to simply list all the wonderful scenes and set pieces Lynch creates. From the opening car crash, which cuts off Angelo Badalementi’s angelic score with a thud, to the man behind Winkie’s (one of the most effective jump scares ever), Betty’s time-stopping audition, one of the most erotic sex scenes ever filmed, Club Silencio, and beyond… Though these moments linger, the power of Mulholland Drive is how it moves like one entity, every scene fitting into place like a jigsaw. That is perhaps an odd compliment for such a jumbled, fragmented film, but there’s a feeling of controlled chaos; Lynch is the tour guide leading us into his own mind, holding our hands but refusing to explain the baffling events before us.
While he has previously created nightmarish atmospheres (Eraserhead), written unsolvable mysteries (Twin Peaks), or taken us on a journey into the depths of darkness (Lost Highway), David Lynch has never been as stylish or as gorgeously moody as his sound and picture work here. Entire essays could be written about the sound design alone; take note of the conversation in Winkie’s, in which all atmosphere drops out, leaving nothing but silence and voice, or the way Badalamenti’s eerie, bass-heavy score fades in and out to make the viewer feel constantly on edge. Peter Deming’s cinematography, meanwhile, is as wonderful as it gets, capturing the sun-scorched yellows of Los Angeles, the deep blues of Club Silencio, and the blackness of night so beautifully, it’s baffling he received no major awards for his effort.
No David Lynch film is complete without big characters and bigger performances; so stylised and mannered they’re almost kitsch, you rarely see straightforward acting in Lynch’s filmography. Mulholland Drive is no exception. The supporting cast, mostly made up of non-actors, give varying levels of fun, deadpan performances – of worthy note is Hollywood producer Monty Montgomery as the sinister Cowboy, and Miley Cyrus’ Dad Billy Ray, hilariously laidback as the pool cleaner sleeping with Theroux’s wife. While he’s now known for his intense performance in The Leftovers, Theroux is a sleazy revelation in his first major role. The most overtly ‘funny’ part of the film, Adam Kesher is hilariously pathetic whether attacking a limousine with a golf club or being beaten up by Cyrus. During the climax of the film where every character subtly changes, Theroux gets even better, his sneering laugh and overtly-sexual body language making him endlessly punchable.
As Lynch builds the film around his two leading actresses, it is fitting that Laura Harring and Naomi Watts are perfect in their roles. Harring is something of an enigma; other than a few TV series, Mulholland Drive is the only genuinely big credit to her name. One would think Harring would have been more in-demand on looks alone. Shot with male (or in this case female) gaze, Harring is the image of a 40’s noir femme fatale, and Lynch uses her admittedly limited acting ability (she could be criticized as ‘wooden’) to excellent effect, creating a character who is almost totally blank, unaware of her past and guided exclusively by intuition and emotion.
However, as anyone can tell you, the standout is Naomi Watts. Giving perhaps the most astonishing breakout performance of the 00’s, Watts is essentially playing three characters in the film, and all three are pitch perfect. Betty, the naïve-but-eternally-optimistic actress who talks like a 50’s housewife and greets everything with a smile, briefly gives way to the character she inhabits when auditioning for a soap opera. Seen rehearsing the cheesy dialogue with appropriate awfulness, Betty’s performance in the audition is a sexually-charged, breathless display that most people mention as being ‘the moment’ Watts announced herself as the next big talent.
There’s also a third character, Diane, a depressed actress with a grudge, who shows up towards the end of the film. While people remember Betty most fondly, it’s with Diane that Watts gives her finest performance, whether pathetically masturbating to memories of a break up or trying not to explode at a dinner party. Diane’s arc is tragic and upsetting in ways Lynch has tackled before, but he’s never been as outwardly emotional as the climax of Mulholland Drive. Diane’s despair, combined with ghostly images and the haunting score, provide the most genuinely moving images of Lynch’s career. You often feel disturbed at the end of a David Lynch film, but how often do you shed tears?
Recently voted the Best Film of the 21st Century in a Critics’ poll, there’s no doubt in my mind that Mulholland Drive is one of the most staggering directorial achievements of all time. Even by David Lynch’s standards, the film stands out as a dreamy, disturbing, seductive work of genius: decades of work condensed into one perfect experience. At a surface level, the vivid cinematography and eerie sound create a perfectly unnerving experience, while the cast are uniformly terrific, especially Naomi Watts in her star-making role. Lynch is interested in so much more than aesthetics, however, aiming to touch the mind and soul of his audiences. On that level, Mulholland Drive is his masterpiece; a physical, mental, and sensual journey down the rabbit hole of Lynch’s mind. It’s a difficult, confusing dreamscape, but you’ll come out the other side knowing you’ve experienced something truly unique.
By Harry J. Ford
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