Mulholland Drive (United States/France, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There was a time when David Lynch made coherent, challenging motion pictures. Love it or hate it, there's no doubt that Blue Velvet was one of the most talked-about motion pictures of the 1980s. Some consider it to be a masterpiece, while others view it as exploitative trash. Nevertheless, at least the narrative makes sense. The script requires the viewer to pay attention, but everything ties together in a sensible manner. Something similar could be said about Lynch's next outing, Wild at Heart. It's a little more out there, but still not totally outrageous. Next came "Twin Peaks", the television series that started out as one of the most compelling hour-long dramas ever to air on a network before devolving into silliness. Lost Highway followed on the heels of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, with neither picture telling a linear or comprehensible story. The Straight Story seemed to put Lynch on a different course, but, with Mulholland Drive, the filmmaker is back to his old tricks.

Mulholland Drive started life as a pilot for a TV series. When ABC rejected it outright, Lynch elected to shoot a series of new, lurid scenes to provide an ending of sorts. Watching the final project, it's easy to determine where this "break" occurs. The first 105 minutes of this movie are engrossing, and, for the most part, intelligible. There's no content that would be deemed unsuitable for television. Then, just as things go off the deep end, slipping into the realm of the incoherent, the two lead female characters remove their clothing and spend most of the final 40 minutes topless. As a TV series, Mulholland Drive might have been compelling stuff; as a movie, in large part because of Lynch's excuse for an "ending", it's a mess.

The film is structured as a mystery set in Hollywood, although, in typical Lynchian fashion, this version of Tineseltown is decidedly dark and skewed. The plot weaves together several strands: a young, fresh-looking Canadian girl who has come to La-la land in search of stardom; an established actress who avoids being murdered by an act of dumb luck, and loses her memory as a result; and a director who is being forced by ominous powers to cast a particular woman in his movie. It's all intriguing stuff. The cast is made up largely of unknowns: Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring. Robert Forster and Dan Hedaya have what amount to cameos (despite prominent billing - one assumes that had this become a weekly series, they would have been more evident).

The film is drenched in atmosphere. That shouldn't be a surprise. Credit the cinematography of Peter Deming and the score by Angelo Badalamenti. Mulholland Drive is filled with its share of "Twin Peaks"-ish moments. But, after a promising start and an engaging midsection, there's the third act to deal with. And it's not a pretty sight. Lynch cheats his audience, pulling the rug out from under us. He throws everything into the mix with the lone goal of confusing us. Nothing makes any sense because it's not supposed to make any sense. There's no purpose or logic to events. Lynch is playing a big practical joke on us. He takes characters we have come to care about and obscures their fates in gibberish. Some people will undoubtedly decide this is all very deep and will find hidden meanings in everything, but they're giving Lynch too much credit. This is not good filmmaking; it's immature and wasteful.

I suppose on some level I still want to recommend Mulholland Drive - it's a wonderfully stylish film, the score is incomparable, and the first two-thirds border on brilliant. But I despise with a white-hot passion what Lynch did with the ending. I was simmering with fury when I came out of the screening. And I wanted to throttle one critic who began chirping about the wonderfully existential manner in which things are "wrapped up". This is one route best taken by die-hard Lynch fans only. The rest of us can stick to the freeway.

Mulholland Drive (United States/France, 2001)

Director: David Lynch
Cast: Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Ann Miller
Screenplay: David Lynch
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 2:26
U.S. Release Date: 2001-10-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1