The story is hardly straight in “Mulholland Drive,” the compelling but intentionally inscrutable return of the “weird” David Lynch that will please his hardcore fans even if it has them scratching their heads as well. After methodically building for an hour and three-quarters to a mesmerizing level of emotional intensity and narrative fascination, pic makes a severe and unwelcome turn down a lost highway, never to return to the main drag. All one can do is shrug and accept that this is Lynch’s way, that he’s not one to explain or tie things together. But this is what will prevent a general audience from accepting what is, for much of the time, a genuinely ominous and suspenseful thriller. Good results look likely on the specialized circuit internationally and down the line on home screens.
It’s been five years since Lynch was last heard from in his trademark mysterious vein, and it’s satisfying to tap into it again; when he’s on, as he is for a good long stretch here, the confident strangeness with which he tells his roundabout tales of creeping dread and unexplainable events still retains its potential to intrigue and startle. One can hope that Lynch might use the momentum from this work to return from the relative career doldrums he experienced in the 1990s to a more productive ’80s-style groove.
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“Mulholland Drive” wasn’t originally intended as a theatrical feature at all. Born as a pilot for a TV series, it was rejected by ABC and apparently dead when StudioCanal, French producer Alain Sarde and exec producer Pierre Edelman took it over and pumped $7 million more into what had been an $8 million venture, for additional shooting and a new round of post-production. Some of the dangling story threads and isolated characters (such as the likes of Robert Forster’s barely seen detective and a scraggly “monster”) could conceivably be attributed to their planned long-range use on TV. But what’s now onscreen cannot be mistaken for anything other than a real movie that, especially due to its terrific soundtrack, will best be experienced in a theater.
Early going slowly establishes what long remain three distinct storylines. Yarn instantly plunges deep into Lynch territory as a striking dark-haired woman (Laura Elena Harring) miraculously escapes death not once but twice within seconds; as she is about to be shot by drivers of the limo in which she’s riding at night, the car is rammed at high speed by some joy-riding teenagers.
Emerging with only a head cut, the woman crosses Mulholland Drive, the winding road along the top of the mountains separating the Los Angeles basin and the San Fernando Valley, and makes her way through the brush down to town, where she eventually sneaks into the apartment of an older woman who’s about to get into a taxi for the airport.
That same morning, an almost comically cheery blonde named Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives from Canada at LAX, the latest of the countless pretty girls who have ever come to Hollywood hoping to become a star. Her aunt has arranged an audition for Betty the next day and is letting her stay at her apartment, the very same one that the injured brunette has entered. Far from being upset at finding a stranger therein, the naively unsuspicious Betty is generous to this strange woman, who has amnesia and takes the name “Rita” from a Rita Hayworth film poster.
Second narrative strand sees hotshot young director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) being informed by his financiers, the Castigliani brothers, that he must use an actress named Camilla Rhodes in his new film. In a bit that’s virtually a Lynchian self-parody, the threatening brothers seem to be doing the bidding of a weird, wheelchair-bound man with omnipotent powers.
Third point of focus is a scruffy young man who guns down an apparent friend in an office and quickly kills two more people in a sequence of extreme absurdist comedy.
By the time attention comes back to beautiful Betty, you just know that, with all the sinister goings-on in the Lynchian demimonde of Los Angeles, this girl isn’t going to remain sweet, guileless and uncorrupted for long.
Lynch cranks up the levels of bizarre humor, dramatic incident and genuine mystery with a succession of memorable scenes, some of which rank with his best. Adam, furious about being told who to cast, returns home midday to find his wife in bed with the gardener; instead of being able to take the moral high ground, he’s the one who gets verbally and physically abused. He subsequently has a late-night meeting with the Cowboy (film producer Monty Montgomery in a fantastic cameo), another mysterious authority figure, who reiterates the importance of casting Camilla Rhodes and, in a drawl of bottomless malevolence, tells him, “You will see me one more time if you do good. You will see me two more times if you do bad.”
Unsurprisingly, Adam casts Camilla Rhodes, but not before exchanging very meaningful eye contact with Betty, who has been sent over to the studio after a stunningly intense audition. Rita, meanwhile, has decided that her real name might be Diane Selwyn, and she and the tirelessly helpful Betty track down an apartment occupied by a woman of that name, only to find her dead. After Rita abruptly cuts her hair and dons a Betty-style blond wig, the film’s long windup reaches its grand crescendo in a surprising erotic interlude that is not only pretty hot but features one of the great lines of the new century.
After this, however, the film jumps off the solid ground of relative narrative coherence into Lynchian fantasyland with a maddening musical sequence in a theater where everything is prerecorded. “This is not working,” one of the lyrics goes, and many will be tempted to turn this phrase upon the film itself, which shortly reveals Betty, who’s now known as Diane, as a hardened, used-up bit actress who’s terribly jealous of Rita, who’s now known as Camilla. Adam and the hitman also reappear, and suffice it to say that, for the final 45 minutes, Lynch is in mind-twisting mode that presents a form of alternate reality with no apparent meaning or logical connection to what came before.
Although such tactics are familiar from “Twin Peaks” and elsewhere, the sudden switcheroo to head games is disappointing because, up to this point, Lynch had so wonderfully succeeded in creating genuine involvement. The sense of L.A. as an inviting but sinister trap is palpable from the opening scene, and the writer-director’s keenly expressed atmospherics are kicked to an even higher level by Peter Deming’s fine lensing, Jack Fisk’s production design and Angelo Badalamenti’s dread-inducing synth score.
But giving the film its most unanticipated boost is the performance of relative newcomer Watts as Betty. The English-born, Aussie-raised actress at first comes across as a one-dimensional goody-goody, so all of her character’s progressions — to genuinely protective and reliable friend, to actress of unexpected intimacy and depth, to open and responsive lover — are surprising and gratifying. It’s a stunning starring debut, one that should decisively put Watts on the Hollywood and international map.
Much less is required of Harring, but she holds the screen very nicely, and even offers a haunting echo of Rita Hayworth in her dual American/Latin persona. Theroux is wryly self-deprecating as the too-cool young filmmaker who has the rug pulled out from under him more than once, and vet Ann Miller appears as the landlady at Betty’s Hollywood abode.