Note: Due to the constant name changes in the film, I’ll be referring to the actors’ names as opposed to the characters’.
Everything Lynch wrote and directed before making Mulholland Drive was bringing him to this masterpiece. The film combines all of Lynch’s positive attributes and none of his negative ones. Gone are nonsensical, abstract sequences, gone are inappropriate shifts of tone such as in Wild at Heart, gone is the occasional silliness from Twin Peaks, and gone is the frustration found at times in Eraserhead and Lost Highway.
Mulholland Drive is Lynch’s best film and one of the best films to have been made in cinema history. It is my personal favorite film and is probably one of the top three pieces of art that has influenced my life. There is no experience similar to watching Mulholland Drive, at least not for yours truly. Even Lynch’s other films don’t quite stack up to this viewing experienced and, as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’ve been reading all these retrospectives (thank you!), I found all his other films quite transformative.
That’s not to say the film works for everyone. I showed my parents the film and I’m fairly sure they thought I should double my therapy sessions because they had no idea why I enjoyed it. On the flip side, I’ve recommended it to friends and they’ve come back more than satisfied. One good friend of mine had seen it when it originally came out and disliked it. At my urging, he checked it out once more and came back saying he loved it the second time around now that he wasn’t going in with his own expectations and simply allowed the film to wash over him.
The plot to Mulholland Drive can be confusing on first watch, but a second viewing makes the overall storyline remarkably clear while still leaving room for ambiguity of individual scenes. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to outline my take on it but you don’t have to agree with all my conclusions, of course; it’s not the type of film where we should all arrive at the same point.
The opening moments feature Naomi Watts’ character placing her head on a pillow; she’s about to sleep and dreams will soon follow. Many films both show us and tell us plot development but Lynch has always preferred the show don’t tell route. We’re never told she’s having a dream; we’re just briefly shown it. This grates some viewers, but I like the challenge. Lynch respects the viewer and knows a more challenging film will end up a lot more rewarding.
But I digress.
The first two thirds of the film are a fantasy’s of Naomi Watts’. She meets, falls in love with, and has sex with a beautiful and mysterious woman played by Laura Harring. Together, they bond over the mystery of Harring’s past as their personal relationship grows stronger. Meanwhile, Justin Theroux plays a director whose life is pretty consistently falling apart. His movie is on the rocks, his wife is having an affair with Bill Ray Cyrus (who is surprisingly perfect for the role he plays), and his bank accounts get frozen when he refuses to cast the lead actress he’s told to.
Why is Theroux going through such hell in Watts’ dream? Because in reality Theroux is Harring’s boyfriend and Harring and Watts are no longer in a relationship. At one point they were, during which Watts clearly became obsessed with Harring, but Harring did not feel the same way and left Watts (although she’s possibly teased her along afterwards but that’s your call as it’s purposely vague). After Watts wakes up, when the figure of the Cowboy literally tells her it’s time to get up, we see this reality and it’s heart wrenching to watch.
Nothing better captures this than Watts’ entrance to Harring’s party. Take a look:
This is probably my favorite cinematic scene. The score by Angelo Badalamenti is majestic, capturing so much emotion. Watts has never put in a better performance as we see her confusion as she wonders just why Harring is doing this. Then, Christ, for a moment her face changes to pure joy and she knows she has Harring back! It’s all come back! The glorious, painful romance has returned.
The music swells before being brutally cut off as the two enter the party and Theroux joins them, kissing Harring. Watts was wrong. Harring isn’t rekindling the romance at all. It was just a passing moment, a brief glimpse of ecstasy, a quick trip down a nostalgic path.
I’m getting emotional just writing about the scene. I’ve rewatched it so many times, maybe I’m masochistic, and it never ceases to hit me hard. Lynch allows the walk, which is without dialogue, to go on for about a minute, lingering on the women’s movements, on their facial expressions. Any shorter and this scene wouldn’t have the same impact. I’ve spoken before that Lynch sometimes has problems with pacing but his comfort with letting a scene play for a while plays out in spades here.
After Watts realizes Harring is still spurning her, she has her killed by an assassin. Unable to deal with her actions and the loveless future she’s facing, Watts takes a gun and kills herself. End of film. Silencio.
Okay, so why not just present that in a straightforward fashion? Why have a solid chunk of the film be a dream? Why not stick in reality and have maybe a five minute dream sequence? Also, why scare the shit out of us with the bum behind the dumpster?
The reason Lynch allows the film to play out the way it does is because he’s much, much more interested in emotional truth than linear plot. He wants to reach into you and force you to experience what the characters experience, to feel their joy and pain. If you’re too focused on having everything put in a neat order then there’s no way this film will work for you. If you’re not, and you’re fine with letting the film wash over you, then you’re going to be moved in a more honest, transformative way. All writers are manipulative to some extent, but Lynch is one of the least manipulative because he makes you take a different approach to film than you might be accustomed to and therefore are not reacting to stock scenes that many people find comforting when they watch cinema. If you’re willing to take a leap with Lynch, though, you’re in for a wild ride.
For instance, should Lynch have sliced away most of Watts’ dream then we’d be losing out on her character. One of the oldest writing rules (and this goes for film as well as anything else) is show; don’t tell. Lynch takes it to the extreme. He doesn’t have Watts give a monologue on her feelings. He shows them to us. He shows us how she wants life to be, shows us what she feels she’s missing out on. In a way, this is the story of all of us when we’re in our darkest moments, when we’re wondering why life didn’t turn out how we thought it might. Sadly, Watts is stuck in this illusion, constantly being taunted by the dream of what could have been.
A key scene to understanding the effect of Watts’ dream is the one in which Watts and Harring go to the Club Silencio and listen to Rebekah del Rio’s gorgeous rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” after the two hear a bit of word play from a man who looks startlingly similar to Tim Curry.
The Club Silencio segment does a lot of work for the film. First, it’s the last real romantic moment we see Watts and Harring have before it all goes to hell. Seeing them holding each other, crying, as del Rio sings is a moving moment for even the most hardened of individuals. Watts’ dream has been gradually breaking down, the speech not-Tim Curry gives points right to her illusions, yet it gets one last moment of perfection. The perfection ends when the blue box appears in her purse. Who put it there? No one. It’s just signaling the end of her dream. The gig is up. When del Rio faints on stage the music goes on, just as life goes on despite Watts’ reservations.
Without the story leading to Club Silencio, the impact would not be the same. You absolutely need to see every moment of Watts’ dream (delusion?) to emotionally understand her by the time the last act comes around. This isn’t an action film or even a mystery film; it’s all character and Lynch dives right into the psyche of our lead, making other psychological films suddenly pale in comparison.
As important as it is to see Watts’ ideal life, it’s also imperative that we see where it breaks down. There’s a snag in her dream pretty early on. On the plane trip to LA, Watts becomes friendly with an elderly couple who tell her she’s going to be a huge star and they can’t wait to see her on the big screen. Then the couple get in a car and silently laugh at her dreams.
It’s a chilling, nasty piece of work and one only Lynch could think up. We go from the hippy-dippy lovey-dovey chat between Watts and the couple to an almost b-movie moment of villains laughing. The fact that their laughing is silent is what sells the scene. Had we heard the couple laughing the scene wouldn’t work nearly as well.
This scene works on multiple levels and we’ll bring up another one later on. For now, let’s talk about how it relates to Watts’ dream. You see, even in her dream, Watts knows this isn’t real. There are times when she fools herself but it doesn’t last for long, there’s always something creeping in, telling her this is a bullshit fantasy and she’s taken a horrendous turn in reality. The laughing couple is simply one of many but it’s one of the most striking. The couple sinisterly laughing at Watts’ fantasy lets us know that we’re supposed to pity Watts and not take what she says and does seriously.
The same goes for the scene with the bum at the back of Winkie’s Diner. The first time the bum appears Watts isn’t in the scene. Instead, we’re with two seemingly unimportant characters. Why? Well, later on we find out that one of those characters is in Winkie’s Diner when Watts makes the deal to have Harring killed. In her fantasy, it’s someone else who has a terrible experience there.
I’ve seen some argue that the bum is actually Watts’ character in the future. It’s an interesting idea but I don’t know that it stacks up since we do see Watts kill herself. Is the suicide also a fantasy? Possibly, but I have a hard time reading it as such. Still, I can see the possibility of this reading and love that the film can yield various readings that are all plausible.
This scene is also one of the few outright scary moments of the film yet the atmosphere lingers right up to the end and you’re always expecting a horrific event to happen. This is one of the rare times Lynch uses a “jump scare” in his films and it works well here. Horror directors should take note that when it comes to jump scares, less is really more (this past summer’s horror film The Conjuring seemed to take some note of this and one of the all-time horror greats, The Shining, about which more in a moment, has relatively few jump scares).
Lynch also returns to a trick he’s used to terrorize the audience with in the past: having the camera act as a character’s eyes. Like in Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive has moments where we see from the character’s point of view, which means the character is not on screen. This removal of the character places the audience further in the scene and makes them feel as if they are doing the action as opposed to the character. This effect is as unnerving in Mulholland Drive as it is in his previous films. However, like with the jump scares, Lynch knows not to overuse the effect to the point it becomes routine.
The clash of romance and horror could overwhelm the film, resulting in it becoming too scattered, like what happened with Wild at Heart. Lynch avoids the problems of Wild at Heart because, while there are certainly surreal events, the characters in Mulholland Drive don’t reach the ridiculous heights that the ones in Wild at Heart do. When moments shift from earnestness to horror, Lynch plays it as jarring as opposed to normal. In Wild at Heart I often felt like I was missing the joke, like I’d not read the right pamphlet beforehand. Not so with this film. Here every moment plays honestly. When we go from the optimism of Naomi Watts to the elderly couple laughing in the car, we’re startled by the change but at no point am I wondering if Lynch doesn’t want us to be startled. He does! The changes in tone exist to unnerve, similar to Frank Booth’s extreme arrival in Blue Velvet, which upended all the quirky mystery moments that came before. A sudden shift in tone just to mess with the honest feels like dishonest storytelling; a sudden shift in tone with a point can work wonders.
Mulholland Drive has a fair bit in common Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The two films have very similar opening scenes. The slow panning over setting brings us slowly into an otherworldly place, one where events will not operate in quite the same way they do in ours. The Shining also loves to play around with fantasy worlds, such as Jack Torrence’s imagining of a bartender, one who acts as a warning to us of the evil lurking just under the surface. Similar to the ominous scenes of Mulholland Drive, Kubrick also develops scenes that have no obvious violence or threat to disturb the audience. Perhaps most memorable is the moment when the former caretaker, the very dead Delbert Grady, escorts Jack to the restroom and tells how he his family had to be “corrected.” What makes this doubly curious is that the manager of the hotel spoke of Grady earlier in the film, but referred to him as Charles Grady; we again have the changing of names.
I mention the similarities for two reasons. One, Kubrick was massively influenced by Lynch when making The Shining, showing the cast and crew Eraserhead and saying this is how he wanted The Shining to feel. While I don’t know if Lynch was influenced by The Shining I do think it’s rather neat that the atmosphere and techniques of it ended up in one of Lynch’s films after Kubrick had been influenced by one of Lynch’s earlier films. It’s a neat symmetry between two of cinema’s greatest directors.
Second, I think it’s worth noting that as odd as Mulholland Drive is, it’s not an impossible film and one that is being difficult just to piss off the viewer. There have been many films, some of which, like The Shining became quite successful, that are difficult and challenge the viewer, forcing them to experience the plot of the film in a different way. Kubrick has us follow Jack Torrence by letting us see some of his hallucinations and dreams just as Lynch does with Watts, giving us a look into her soul.
That’s not to say Mulholland Drive operates only on an emotional level. Far from it. Beyond just making us feel Watts’ varied emotions, Mulholland Drive also works on an intellectual level. There are many points to be made about Hollywood, fame, and so on, but I think we can go even larger and look at Mulholland Drive’s takedown of another dream, the biggest dream of all: the American Dream.
Now before you flee, wondering what the hell I’m on, consider that the film is all about the unraveling of a dream, a dream that takes place in Hollywood, where “anyone” can become famous. Consider that the film has an ominous cowboy, a fixation with 50s and 60s America, and all of a sudden the idea that this film is making a comment on American values isn’t so far-fetched. I’d go so far as to say the takedown of Watts’ dream wouldn’t work nearly as well and hit nearly as hard if it did not also act as a takedown of a dream many of us can relate to in some fashion. Will all the audience members pick up on this consciously? No, and that’s fine as they’ll understand the theme emotionally.
I wrote before concerning the moment when the old couple laughs at Watts’ dream. This can be read as her psyche breaking down, but it can also be read as those “in the know” laughing at those who believe they’re going to achieve their, in this case ill-defined, dreams. That Watts’ dream is ill-defined is important because the American Dream is similarly vague. What the American Dream is varies from person to person and it’s appropriate that Watts doesn’t seem to be too concerned with her acting craft, but rather with becoming a famous actor.
And she fails when it comes to that dream. Miserably so. It leads to a murder and her eventual suicide. The moment when she decides to kill Laura Harring occurs when she’s at a party with the rich and famous and realizes she’ll never be one of them. When Harring kisses Theroux and then Melissa George, Watts realizes that she’s never going to reach their stratum, she’s not going to become famous, and where she is now is likely as good as it’ll get. During this moment, Ann Miller, Theroux’s mother, gives her a look of such pity, as if she’s able to see all of Watts’ future. Perhaps she can.
This is another heartbreaking moment in a film filled with them. Here we see what failure can do, when you’re in a system that doesn’t really care about your wellbeing. This is about failing to meet your dreams and how you react to that result. Watts fails to have her dream woman and fails to have her dream job. It destroys her world and forces her to create a fantasy one, one which cannot hold for long.
Seen this way, the ending of the film is practically inevitable. Of course, Watts’ disillusion would lead her to commit suicide. How could it not? She’d been promised so much only to find out that it’ll never come; she was lied to her whole life.
The feeling of disillusion permeates the film well before the ending and is readily apparent in two scenes with Justin Theroux during Watts’ dream wherein she gives him a host of problems that she had in reality. The first important scene is his meeting with the producers of the period film he is making. The producers first tell him that they are there just to discuss possible casting choices regarding the lead actress. When an apparent Mafioso who has pull with the producers enters and gives Theroux a picture, declaring, “This is the girl,” it’s clear that Theroux doesn’t have the power he thought he did. He’s a high level director but in one moment the Hollywood machine that has supported him turns very suddenly against him. Once Theroux tries to act on his own artistic instincts, the system swiftly shuts him down.
Adding to the scene, is that it’s the recasting of the main actress being discussed and not the main actor. It’s almost as if the female part can be played by anyone and it doesn’t particularly matter to the producers and those with the money whether the person they pick has talent. In a movie that stars two terrifically talented women who put in performances that best almost all others, it’s clear Lynch is making a very definitive statement on the way women are seen. Watts has arrived in Los Angeles to achieve a dream, but the behind the scenes machinations have little use for the dreams of anyone and certainly not for women. Theroux sees multiple actresses, one of whom he clearly thinks is talented, but is forced to cast the woman he’s been told to. Theroux is now just another part of the machine.
The second important moment with Theroux comes with the arrival of the Cowboy. After the production puts a hold on Theroux’s film and bank account, he’s told to go and see the Cowboy who is at a literal ranch. It’s a fabulous scene, both eerie and hilarious. Take a gander:
What’s immediately intriguing is the use of a cowboy. Normally shown as heroes, the Cowboy in Mulholland Drive is an ominous, threatening figure, even if he does not raise his voice or act violently. He states that if Theroux sees him twice more than “you did bad.” Theroux does not see him twice more, but the audience does. This is not the first time Lynch has deconstructed the image of cowboys. If you recall, Frank Booth in Blue Velvet had a number of similarities with cowboys and he was one of the most monstrous figures Lynch ever put on screen.
The dialogue of the Cowboy is also intriguing. He tells Theroux that a man’s attitude greatly affects his life and then proceeds to reinforce who Theroux needs to cast as the lead actress. So what type of attitude does Theroux need to succeed according to the Cowboy? A subservient one. Forget risk taking, forget integrity, forget inspiration. The Cowboy’s statement is clear: to succeed you need to be subservient to those in power.
Theroux’s disillusion nicely dovetails with Watts’ own fall, creating an interesting tapestry of the various elements at play in Mulholland Drive. What initially seems like a confusing, almost impenetrable film, becomes a tragic epic with much to say on closer examination. The amount of feelings Lynch has the audience experience is breathtaking. All films can’t be like this, but it’s important that we have some that are.
Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.