Laura Elena Harring,
Michael J. Anderson,
Billy Ray Cyrus,
Sean E. Markland,
||Oct 8, 2001
|Official website [external site]
Chicago Tribune Michael Wilmington
In David Lynch's masterfully bizarre "Mulholland Drive," we're plunged into a Hollywood nightmare, a mad miasma of recycled noir archetypes and fractured dream logic. Lynch is at his most characteristic weird, macabre, superbly unsettling in this strange, creepy tale, as he conducts us on a tour of the seedy side of Los Angeles' dream factories and palm-lined streets. Mulholland Drive is the name of the serpentine roadway that winds around the Hollywood Hills. The movie begins there and continues below, in the world of movieland wannabes, gangsters and tourists trapped in that febrile L.A. area beneath the Hills and above Sunset Boulevard.
The story, which unwinds with sinuous, fearsome inevitability, suggests a lot of familiar Los Angeles tales: the classic Hollywood film noirs, Raymond Chandler's mysteries and Nathanael West's muckraking movieland fantasia "The Day of the Locust." It's also a sort of lesbian "Alice in Wonderland," except that here two Alices Naomi Watts' bright blond actress-hopeful Betty Elms and Laura Harring's mysterious brunette fugitive Rita are pulled down a Lynchean rabbit hole of double meanings and dark secrets. To say that nothing is quite what it seems in this jarringly personal and original film is a wild understatement. Lynch shared the Cannes Best Director prize this year, and he exploits all his obvious strengths here: his ability to toy with our subconscious, awaken unnamable fears. Like "Eraserhead" and "Blue Velvet," "Mulholland Drive" takes us to a hair-raising alternate world or, more precisely, two alternate worlds, the second more terrifying than the first.
From its opening images frenzied jitterbugging couples against blank backgrounds and then a sudden plunge into L.A.'s deepest, darkest night the movie has the irresistible pull of a neon nightmare. Lynch begins with an archetypal noir situation: a nameless figure fleeing killers in the dead of night. Rita, a brunette in an evening gown, escapes her captors after a fatal nighttime car crash with some drunken teens on Mulholland Drive, somewhere near the Hollywood sign. Exhausted, by morning she makes her way to an apartment courtyard below, finds a door open and collapses on the bed inside.
Meanwhile, the apartment's future inhabitant arrives at LAX airport: bouncy Betty, from a Canadian town called Deepwater. Betty, a prospective actress, plans to stay at her aunt's temporarily vacant apartment while looking for acting jobs. She's played with such buoyancy by Watts that she might be Doris Day's niece. (Though Day isn't around, Lynch has recruited MGM tap-dance legend Ann Miller to play the aunt's landlord, Coco, a gabby, gossipy lady in a billowing dress.) Betty, shocked, discovers her uninvited houseguest nude in the shower and, when asked who she is, the confused young woman, apparently amnesiac, responds with a name she saw on a "Gilda" movie poster nearby: Rita (as in Hayworth). Instinctively sympathetic toward each other, Betty and Rita join forces to try to unravel what happened to learn who is chasing and trying to kill her.
Like "Memento," "Mulholland Drive" is an amnesiac noir in the tradition that goes back to "Spellbound" and "Somewhere in the Night" and though it's less structurally complex than Christopher Nolan's sleeper hit, it's ultimately more mysterious, as Lynch begins piling on sexual provocations and plot complications.
Watts, an Australian actress ("Flirting"), is splendid, peeling off one psychological layer after another. The rest of the cast is impressive as well, easily moving from noir archetype to enigmatic naturalism and back again. Familiar Hollywood faces keep popping up: Miller, Diane Baker, Lee Grant, Chad Everett, Billy Ray Cyrus, Monty Montgomery (in a blood-chilling cameo) and, as a truculent cop, Robert Forster. The same local gangsters pursuing Rita (played by a motley crew that includes Dan Hedaya and the film's composer, Angelo Badalementi) are seen harassing an obstinate young film director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), pressuring him to hire as his star an actress he doesn't want named Camilla Rhodes. When he refuses, ignoring their menacing command that "This is the girl," Adam's life begins to disintegrate.
In the film's strangest and most stunning sequence, Betty and Rita wind up in a threadbare, nearly empty nightclub, with a hypnotically awful emcee and lip-synching performers, one of whom gives a devastating rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" and collapses on stage. Earlier on, two suspiciously clean-cut men are shown in a tacky, sunny L.A. diner, one relating a terrifying dream about a monstrous man who appears in the diner's parking lot a dream that begins to come true in real life.
But what exactly is "real life" in "Mulholland Drive"? Just when we think we've found our way around this labyrinth, Betty opens up an actual magic blue box, and we're thrown into a new nightmare. All the characters reappear again, this time with new names and personalities in entirely new situations but with the same recurring backdrops.
Nobody creates cinematic nightmares like David Lynch, and "Mulholland Drive" which was originally conceived and partly filmed as a TV series pilot (which ABC rejected) is one of his most intense and scary. It's also one of his most baffling, bewildering many early viewers, so perhaps we should offer a key. (Movie fans who don't want to know too much beforehand should stop reading here.)
Lynch confirmed, when I talked to him at Cannes, that one section of "Mulholland Drive" is clearly intended as dream and another as reality though I'll leave it to you to decide which is which and why.
On another level, though, everything in "Mulholland Drive" is a nightmare. It's a portrayal of the Hollywood golden dream turning rancid, curdling into a poisonous stew of hatred, envy, sleazy compromise and soul-killing failure. This is the underbelly of our glamorous fantasies, and the area Lynch shows here is quite realistically portrayed. He gets the feel of these streets, sunlit and angst-ridden, exactly right.
In "Straight Story," Lynch gave us his vision a beautiful one of America's bedrock heartland rural community life. Here is his vision of the corrupt city, the bewitching, mercenary world of the movies and both the predatory moneymen who feed off them and the blind dreamers who flock to them like migratory birds seeking the warmth of the sun. These worlds the light of "Straight Story," the dark of "Mulholland Drive" are the extremes of Lynch's imaginary universe. Fascinatingly, he seems to love them both.
Directed and written by David Lynch; photographed by Peter Deming; edited by Mary Sweeney; production designed by Jack Fisk; music by Angelo Badalementi; produced by Mary Sweeney, Alain Sarde, Neal Edelstein, Michael Polaire, Tony Krantz. A Universal Focus release; opens Friday, Oct. 12. Running time: 2:26. MPAA rating: R (violence, language and some strong sexuality).
Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn Naomi Watts
Rita/Camilla Laura Harring
Adam Justin Theroux
Coco Ann Miller
Detective McKnight Robert Forster
Vincenzo Castigliane Dan Hedaya