Mulholland Dr., David Lynch’s nightmarish take on Hollywood and the pursuit of the “American Dream,” is impossible to pigeonhole as belonging to a particular genre. The film is part black comedy, part mystery thriller, part psychological drama, part horror movie; in fact, Mulholland Dr. boasts one of the most horrific endings ever filmed.
Ultimately, what matters is that this amalgam of genres has turned out to be a long, bizarre, and brilliant effort, as screenwriter-director Lynch takes the viewer on a journey through an ambitious actress’ psyche; the most haunting such journey since the one undertaken by faded silent-screen star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. more than half a century earlier.
Curiously, Mulholland Dr. was to have become a television series, but it got canceled because ABC was displeased with the pilot. Enter Studio Canal with the necessary funds to allow Lynch to transform his failed pilot into a feature film. Taking a radically different route than Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a successful TV series that led to a poorly received feature in 1992, Mulholland Dr. went from failed TV series to major critical hit upon its 2001 big-screen release. (Note: Spoilers ahead.)
Essentially the story of two women, Betty (Naomi Watts), a young Canadian who dreams of becoming a great actress and a big Hollywood star, and Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a woman who lost her memory after a deadly car accident on you-know-where, Mulholland Dr. frequently branches off into the off-kilter universe of several disparate characters in the underbelly of Los Angeles. Those include an incompetent hired killer (Mark Pellegrino); an arrogant film director (Justin Theroux) at odds with the Mafia; an entertainer (Rebekah Del Rio) who collapses after singing “Crying” in Spanish; and a creepy, cryptic cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery).
As the film progresses we discover that all those people – and more – are hallucinations in the fast-deteriorating mind of Diane Selwyn (also Watts), a disillusioned actress wannabe who, after being dumped by her lover (also Harring), is about to fall into the bottomless abyss of broken dreams.
For this cautionary Hollywood tale, Lynch takes a step back from the corny, linear style of The Straight Story, reverting instead to his surreal approach in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Actually, “surreal” is not quite the right word in this case. The dream sequences in Mulholland Dr. should be labeled “hyper-real” for they are (usually) grounded on reality – but an overblown reality, presented in caps, in bold, and underlined. Everything, from Betty’s goody-goody persona to the explosion-like sounds of car crashes, gunshots, and punches, is an exaggeration of reality itself.
This not-quite-real-nor-totally-unreal atmosphere is immeasurably enhanced by Lynch’s frequent collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti, who composed the picture’s haunting score, and by Peter Deming’s exquisite, slightly askew cinematography. But despite all the talent involved behind the cameras, Mulholland Dr. would have been a pale version of its brilliant self without the presence of British-born, Australian actress Naomi Watts.
Watts, in her first important role in a major motion picture, is a revelation. For starters, she manages to make her psychotically la-la-landish Betty a likable, three-dimensional character – and that is no small feat. The fact that Diane looks, sounds, and acts so different from Betty earns Watts even more points, though the most astounding aspect of her performance is that Betty’s innocence and hopefulness is clearly discernible underneath Diane’s bitterness and disillusionment.
Therefore, instead of coming across as a vindictive villainess, Diane is perceived as a tragic victim of Mulholland Dr.‘s Wicked Witch of Broken Dreams. She is Betty through the looking glass – or maybe vice-versa. Either way, Watts’ Diane stands next to Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond and Ronald Colman’s Shakespearean actor in A Double Life as one of the greatest and most tragic representations of self-delusion on film.
Other directors who have aimed for Lynch’s style of hyper-realism, from Spike Jonze to Paul Thomas Anderson, might want to watch (and rewatch) Mulholland Dr. for inspiration. Admittedly, the acting of some of the supporting players is hardly top notch (though it is a pleasure to watch veteran Ann Miller in what turned out to be her last feature film role), and Lynch does let his old self-indulgence get in the way every now and then. But even if certain scenes could have been shorter while others could have been excised, they do not detract from the whole. That is because the director-writer never loses sight of the psychological undercurrents of his characters or of the purpose of his tale.
“I’m in this dream place,” Betty exclaims shortly after her arrival in Los Angeles. Lynch then spends the next two and a half hours showing us that L.A., Hollywood, the luxurious Mulholland Drive, and all they represent are, in fact, the stuff that nightmares are made of.