It’s often been said that the genius of David Lynch‘s work is that he takes traditional images of classical Americana, and shows the dark side of them. Small towns, apple pie, homecoming queens… Lynch shows us the seedy underbelly of all those things, in a brilliant way.
Lynch’s film Mulholland Dr., which marks its 20th anniversary this week, is Lynch’s application of that formulation, applied to Hollywood itself. It centers on the Hollywood trope of a pretty small-town girl arriving in L.A. in search of stardom. It gives that cliché sheen of darkness — a plot involving an amnesiac gangster’s moll, and mobsters threatening the director of a movie — and then the film doubles back on itself in its second half.
The genius of David Lynch‘s work is that he takes traditional images of classical Americana, and shows the dark side of them
It’s a hauntingly beautiful film, and along with Blue Velvet and The Straight Story, it ranks with the best of Lynch’s non-Twin Peaks work. Mulholland Dr. is one of those movies that should be watched late at night and at absolutely no other time.
Mullholland Dr., famously, was originally conceived of as a TV pilot for ABC, which would have represented Lynch’s return to series television nearly a decade after the original Twin Peaks. After ABC rejected the series, Lynch — with the help of a potpourri of funding from different sources — turned it into a feature film, which was released in October of 2020.
The film starts as the story of Betty (Naomi Watts, in her first major role), a young ingenue who has arrived in L.A. after winning a jitterbug contest in her hometown. Living in the home of her actress aunt, she’s soon joined by “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring), who shows up not knowing who she is, but with a big bag of money and a mysterious blue key.
There’s also a movie, in which a young director (Justin Theroux) is under pressure from mobbed-up financiers to cast a certain actress, as well as various seemingly unrelated crime plots.
The film contains several of Lynch’s best scenes, including the bravura sequence:
There’s also the “monster behind Winkie’s” scene, which seemingly has nothing to do with anything else in the movie, but plays like a masterclass in writing: Lynch writes an entire scene talking about the scare that’s coming, and it doesn’t detract from the payoff at all:
That actor, Patrick Fischler, also celebrated the anniversary:
And I’ve always been partial to the scene with The Cowboy. It’s the type of scene, plot wise, that takes place in almost every crime film, but leave it to Lynch to look or sound nothing like any of the others:
Then, immediately after the Club Silencio scene, the film seems to reset, with the characters having different names, and with the film taking on a different, much darker tone in its final 25 minutes. Watts is no longer a smiling ingenue, but rather bitter, depressed, and unhealthy-looking.
What’s the meaning of this? The most popular theory is that the bulk of the film is a dream sequence/wish by Watts’ character, presenting an idealized version of her life, in which she’s in love with a beautiful woman and is a successful actress. The mob stuff is supposed to be her justification as to why “Camila Rhodes” is more famous than she is. As for what Club Silencio means? Who knows.
David Lynch is now 75 years old. He’s only made one feature film in the two decades since Mulholland Dr., the 2006 oddity Inland Empire, and his 2017 Twin Peaks revival series felt a lot like a career-capping achievement, even though he’s allegedly working on a series for Netflix. But Mulholland Dr. will likely be remembered as one of his most bafflingly brilliant works, in a career full of them.