Combustible Celluloid
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With: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe, Katharine Towne, Lee Grant, Scott Coffey, Billy Ray Cyrus, Chad Everett, Rita Taggart, James Karen, Lori Heuring, Melissa George, Patrick Fischler
Written by: David Lynch
Directed by: David Lynch
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and some strong sexuality
Running Time: 147
Date: 05/16/2001

Mulholland Drive (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Driving Us Crazy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Lynch doesn't make clean, linear mysteries like Hitchcock did. He's more interested in the chemicals that swirl around in the brain while watching a suspense movie or going through a nightmare. He wants to bring you inside of his own head to experience irrational fears, half-completed thoughts, and nightmarish flip-flops of logic.

Lynch's virtuoso ninth feature film Mulholland Drive (for which he co-won the Best Director honor at Cannes) delivers the suspense and the tension, but you'll find -- more often than not -- your train of thought will be derailed as you slam into a dead end in this dark labyrinth of a movie.

Mulholland Drive resembles Lynch's earlier works Twin Peaks and Lost Highway more than just a little bit, and it fact, it was originally intended as a TV series. It begins with a mysterious brunette (Laura Harring) surviving an attempted shooting and a car accident on L.A.'s Mulholland Drive. Dazed, she wanders through the brush and down the hills until she finds a welcoming sight, a woman loading up her car, apparently going away on a trip and leaving her house empty. She crawls into the still-unlocked house and hides under a table.

Across town, Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) arrives at LAX, never having seen the big city before. ("Oh!" she breathes as she sees the big "Welcome to L.A." sign, "I can't believe it!") Lynch plays magical angel music on the soundtrack letting us know that wide-eyed Betty believes she's in paradise. She has a small old lady on her arm. We learn quickly that Betty doesn't even know this old soul -- that they spent the flight chatting and became fast friends. As Betty drives away in a cab, Lynch shows us the first nightmare shot; the old lady and her husband grinning ghoulishly at the camera and at each other.

Betty is staying in her aunt's place, which is (of course) the very same house that the brunette has found refuge in. The brunette, who quickly adopts the temporary name "Rita" (after Rita Hayworth on a Gilda poster), has lost her memory and seems to be in big trouble. We know that Betty (who wants to be an actress) has too big a heart to not help, so the two women enter the Lynchian underworld of nightmares.

Besides this main storyline, Lynch opens several other threads. One features young aggressive movie director (Justin Theroux) who resists the mob's influence in casting his film. He meets with a puzzling figure called "the Cowboy" who tells him "you'll see me one more time if you do good, and you'll see me two more times if you do bad."

Michael Anderson (the backwards-talking dwarf from Twin Peaks) appears as a mysterious, otherworldly movie mogul who lives behind a glass wall and communicates through a telephone headset. These scenes just hint at the possible layers of weirdness that the movie business might be capable of sinking to.

Another chilling storyline begins with two men meeting at a cafe, and one describing a nightmare he's had about meeting a scary man. In addition, the brilliant character actors Dan Hedaya (Clueless) and Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) appear in one scene each. (Presumably they would have returned for more had this been picked up for a TV series.)

If you're confused now, just wait until the two-thirds mark, when Betty and Rita suddenly switch to entirely different characters in a new time period (not unlike the title character switching sexes halfway through Virginia Woolf's Orlando or Bill Pullman's dual personas in Lost Highway). However, when I saw the film a second time, all these threads somehow come together at the end. I won't say that they "make sense," as this is David Lynch's world after all, but all the loose threads do logically and cohesively tie up.

I was so impressed by Lynch's bold new direction on his last picture, The Straight Story, that I was initially a little disappointed that he reverted back to an old formula for Mulholland Drive. But I was soon thrilled by the sheer potency and fearlessness of this new film. It reminded me of my favorite director, Howard Hawks, who remade his masterpiece Rio Bravo (1959) two times -- just because he could and because he knew he could do it well.

Hence El Dorado (1967) was one of the best films of its year not because it was groundbreaking, but because it allowed us to spend quality time with a master filmmaker, doing what he does best. Mulholland Drive feels just like that. I hope Lynch continues to explore other roads, but for now I'm happy here.

DVD Details: If you purchase only one movie from 2001 on DVD, it should be Mulholland Drive, because it's the one that benefits the most from multiple viewings. I've seen it three times now and its mysteries are only just beginning to jell for me. It has to do with subconscious dreams vs. celluloid dreams, as seen through the eyes of blonde Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts), though it's far too complicated to explain in just a paragraph. The DVD contains ten "clues" from Lynch as to what to look for in the film, and a very weird trailer. Lynch purposely did not include a commentary track, or even chapter stops, to get you to watch the film all the way through and to discover it for yourself.

Twenty years later, in 2021, the Criterion Collection released a stellar two-disc set, including a 4K transfer and a Blu-ray, with a just-about flawless transfer and audio. I hadn't seen the film since the old 2001 Universal DVD, and there's no comparison. It includes a trailer, 25 minutes of on-set footage, a deleted scene, and several interviews, including a new one with Watts and Lynch, and one with composer Angelo Badalamenti. The thick liner notes booklet includes excerpts from Chris Rodley's book Lynch on Lynch. Highly recommended.

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