MULHOLLAND DRIVE (or MULHOLLAND DR., depending on the source) is a Rorschach test for moviegoers. Fans of the previous films of director David Lynch will delight in the absurdity and the nightmarish scenario that invokes the filmmaker’ s best work (such as BLUE VELVET). Those new to this bizarrely unique voice may be puzzled by the film, which doesn’t really have a singular interpretation. Even his actors have confessed in interviews that they didn’t always know what was going on. Lynch’s films are dystopian dreams that aren’t always meant to make sense. Comparable to Richard Linklater’s WAKING LIFE which depicted the world as a lucid dreamscape, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, the centerpiece of the 2001 New York Film Festival and co-winner of the directing prize at Cannes, relies on how much the audience is willing to bring to the effort. If one doesn’t try too hard to figure out what’s happening and instead just lets the film wash over them, they will be richly rewarded.
Much ink has already been spilled about how this film originated a pilot for a proposed television series, along the lines of Lynch’s quirky TWIN PEAKS. When the network (ABC) saw the footage, though, skittish executives decided to pass on the oddball project. For all its critical acclaim and Emmy nominations, TWIN PEAKS was never a real ratings winner and in this highly competitive world, a strange and off-kilter piece with appeal to a cult audience doesn’t stand a chance (witness FREAKS AND GEEKS). Lynch tried shopping the pilot to other networks but even cable outlet reportedly balked at it. Normally, that would be the end of a project, but Lynch was lucky; he was approached by producer Alain Sarde who offered additional financing. Reassembling his cast (with some new additions), Lynch shot new footage and edited together this harsh view of life in Hollywood.
From its opening credit sequence of 1950s AMERICAN BANDSTAND-style dancers to its first shots of a limousine snaking through the darkness of the titular road (which also calls to mind the opening sequence of Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic SUNSET BOULEVARD), MULHOLLAND DRIVE is staking its territory as a dreamscape. (Director of photography Peter Deming deserves special kudos for his excellent efforts.) The passenger in the limo is an attractive dark-haired woman (former beauty queen and soap star Laura Elena Harring) who is targeted for murder. Before the deed is done, though, she is rescued when a car filled with drunken teenagers crashes into the limo. Emerging shaken but seemingly unhurt (except for a nasty gash on her head), the woman flees into the darkness and takes refuge in an apartment building. In a Lynchian world, for every dark-haired beauty, there has to be a contrasting golden girl and here it is Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), an overly cheery wannabe actress who has just arrived from Deep River, Ontario. (Lynch fans know that Deep River was also the name of the residence of Isabella Rossellini’s character Dorothy Valens in BLUE VELVET.) The dark-haired woman, who takes the name Rita from a poster for Gilda, is suffering from amnesia. Intrigued, Betty decides to help her and the pair set off as amateur detectives, a distaff Hardy Boys if you will.
Because roughly the first 90 minutes consisted of material shot for the pilot, other plot strands are introduced, some which by necessity are dropped. For instance, Robert Forster is barely glimpsed as a detective investigating the car crash, and Lee Grant as a psychic neighbor of Betty’s has a blink and you’ll miss it scene. There’s also a subplot about a man literally scared to death and a film director (Justin Theroux) who is being forced to hire an actress for his film while his marriage crumbles.
Lynch takes a bold leap at that halfway mark by having Betty and Rita deepen their relationship. There’s one astonishing shot of the actresses where their faces are at such an angle as to create one. After going to the Club Silencio where a woman lip-syncs to a Spanish-language version of "Crying," the film shifts gears. The remainder of the film inverts much of the previous action, leaving the audience to figure out which (if either) was a dream.
MULHOLLAND DRIVE is bold and audacious filmmaking from a master director. Lynch peppers the film with comic moments that border on the absurd, but, if one contemplates a dreamscape, comedy should be of that ilk. He has selected a terrific cast of relative newcomers and veterans. Harring plays off her own dual cultural heritage (she was born in Mexico and raised in Texas) by selecting Rita Hayworth as a role model. Having to play the rather difficult character of an amnesiac, she manages to ground the role in a reality that is both touching and mysterious. Watts perfectly projects the chirpy naiveté of a small-town girl on her first trip to the big city and later delves into the darker side of her character. There is one particularly impressive scene in which Betty has to audition for a role with a sleazy older actor (well captured by Chad Everett) and Watts demonstrates enormous capabilities by playing the role on several levels at once. That scene alone should catapult her to stardom. Theroux is impressive as the conflicted director and there are fine cameos from Dan Hedaya and composer Angelo Badalementi (whose atmospheric score ranks as among his finest) as a pair of strong-arming gangsters. Ann Miller is a hoot as a snoopy landlady.
How one ultimately reacts to MULHOLLAND DRIVE will depend on one’s attitude when one sees the film. In fact, like the equally demanding MEMENTO or DONNIE DARKO, this film requires multiple viewings to fully grasp the various levels on which it operates. After toying with similar themes in his earlier works, notably the confusing, messy LOST HIGHWAY, David Lynch appears to have distilled his vision of an uncontrolled universe into a compelling and fascinating motion picture.
Rating: A- MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and some strong sexuality Running time: 174 mins.