Mulholland Drive

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya
Rated: R

View him as you like — preposterous self-indulgent fake, cinematic visionary, or deeply disturbed individual — there’s no denying that David Lynch is unique. Nobody makes movies quite like his. Perhaps nobody wants to. At his best (The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet), his work is challenging, thought-provoking, and shot through with keen, albeit often peculiar, insight. At his worst (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway), his work tends toward the incomprehensible (weird-for-weirdness’ sake) and repellent. I commented to one person that I’d consider Mulholland Drive a success if it merely didn’t leave me feeling like I needed a bath after it was over. I’m happy to say that it’s a success far beyond that small accomplishment. Lynch’s latest is a haunting, deeply sinister work that perhaps lacks the point of Blue Velvet, but may outdistance it in terms of mood and staying power. Not that Mulholland Drive is anything like a normal, straight-forward narrative film. Its plot is almost impossible to follow. It’s less a plot than a series of interconnecting vignettes and situations that, more or less, follow the fates of Rita (Laura Harring), an amnesiac fleeing from a murder attempt that was foiled by a car wreck, and Betty (Naomi Watts), a wide-eyed innocent in Hollywood hoping for stardom. The storyline — such as it is — takes an abrupt turn about two-thirds of the way through the film and leads to a kind of closure without an actual ending. The film has a strange genesis. It started life as a TV pilot for ABC. The network — obviously hoping for another Twin Peaks — was understandably non-plussed by the extreme nature of what Lynch handed over and declined the project. When the chance came for Lynch to salvage Mulholland Drive by turning it into a feature, he took what he had and fashioned a kind of final act — in Lynchian terms — for it, resulting in possibly his most strangely compelling work to date. Part of the reason the film works as well as it does may lie in its TV origins. As Twin Peaks proved, television forced a certain amount of discipline on Lynch, and even while Mulholland Drive pushed the envelope for TV, it retained some of that discipline. Plus, the requirements of TV seem to bring out an interesting side of Lynch. Knowing that he has to fulfill at least the bare essentials of a narrative form, he does so in a grudgingly humorous manner, deliberately overplaying his characters and giving them scads of intentionally insipid dialogue that would have shamed Ed Wood in its awkward structure. In so doing, Lynch’s work takes on a bizarrely comedic slant that mocks the very requirement it honors. That is one of the strengths of Mulholland Drive,but only one. For a change, Lynch’s caricatures are here also recognizable as characters — even though by the end of the film it’s no longer even clear who is who or who is even real. But the fact that Lynch at least introduced us to vaguely believable characters gives them the kind of solidity the stock Lynchian weirdos often lack. To some extent, Mulholland Drive is a re-shuffling of some of the themes of Blue Velvet, an examination of the corruption that lies beneath the surface of the normal — only setting it in L.A. rather than Lumberton makes that a different prospect, since corruption is a given in this locale. Not to worry, Lynch will subvert that before the film’s end and make you question if you even know where these things lie. Nothing in the film is quite normal, yet all of it is very normal. The film is obsessed with the existence of the sinister and unsettling in the most common of everyday things. That which ought to be sinister in the film — a hapless hit-man who has to keep eliminating witnesses, a bizarre underworld power known as “The Cowboy,” etc. — is more comically unsettling than sinister. But, apartment complexes, the furnishings and fixtures of rooms, a fast-food restaurant all exude an inexplicable evil. The last sections of the film where Lynch ties his vignettes together — including the addition of a Hellraiser-like box that acts like a portal to another dimension (and like the one in Hellraiser ends up in the keeping of a scroungy vagrant) — is apt to disorient many viewers. But that, of course, is the point in this strange, rich, funny, and sometimes maddening film.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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7 thoughts on “Mulholland Drive

  1. Steve Shumate

    Mr. Hanke:

    As much as I normally enjoy and revere your work, it has taken a while for me to forgive you giving this crapfest a 5-star rating.

    I went into it excited and open-minded, and came out of it wanting to kick my own ass for flushing two hours of my life, and several dollars of hard-earned money down the toilet.

    In the words of Kim Novak, I think I could eat a box of Kodak and puke a better film.

    Your otherwise reverent fan,


  2. Ken Hanke

    Ah, Steve, if I’m not mistaken you’ve quoted my friend Barry Sandler (granted Miss Novak said it onscreen). It is from THE MIRROR CRACK’D, isn’t it?

    I will have to admit I rethought this film some when I saw it again — not to the degree of feeling about as you did, but my enthusiasm was somewhat dimmed. Oddly enough, it made more sense to me on that second viewing, and somehow I liked it less for that. I wonder how I’d feel about it today?

    Interestingly, this film generated one of my first pieces of hate mail from someone who was deeply offended by it (and its “obsession” with matters “scatological,” which I still don’t get). So offended was this viewer that the same letter — with a few variations — was sent to the Fine Arts Theatre for showing it. (I tried to get theatre manager Neal Reed to write back with that great line from IT’S IN THE BAG — “You understand we don’t MAKE these pictures, we just show them” — but he remained unconvinced of the wisdom of this.)

    In any case, I’m sorry to have contributed to an unfortunate experience for you, though one bum steer in 7+ years isn’t perhaps too bad. Or is it? Regardless, I certainly thank you for the kind words — and the forgiveness.

  3. Steve

    Yes, that quote was from THE MIRROR CRACK’D, thanks for noticing. Of course I should have properly quoted the writer, and not the actress, thank you for the correction.

    That little bitch-fight between Kim and Ms Liz made it one of my favorite Christie adaptations ever, although the usually incandescent Lansbury was a pretty awful Miss Marple, I thought. So chucklingly smug and self-congratulatory. I’m a Joan Dickson man myself.

    You’re also quite right to point out that your track record is excellent. Far more reliable than Ebert, usually.

    Yours in continued admiration.


  4. Ken Hanke

    I didn’t think of it so much as a correction, but as additional information. And if I didn’t know Barry, chances are good I wouldn’t have been able to toss off the name of the writer like that. (Here’s a case where I can name a writer, but not the director; it’s usually the other way around.)

    I actually tend to prefer my Miss Marple on the printed page, though I do enjoy those 1960s movies with Margaret Rutherford, despite the fact that they’re pretty much travesties so far as Christie is concerned. On the other hand, I’ll be trying those newer TV adaptations with Geraldine McEwan, ‘cuz my daughter sent me the set that has the episode with Ken Russell in it.

    And thanks again, for your good thoughts.

  5. willibo

    Mr. Hanke,

    You were dead on with your critique of Mullholand Drive. One theme I enjoy in all his films is the way he juxtaposes innocence with evil (ying and yang). He evokes visceral reactions like the Sheriff and FBI agent drinking a cup of coffee only to discover a fish was put into the pot. Blech!
    By the way, I enjoy your reviews. You have an interesting style and seem genuine.
    Do you have any words of advice for a budding writer?
    Thanks in advance.



  6. Ken Hanke

    By the way, I enjoy your reviews. You have an interesting style and seem genuine.

    Thank you.

    Do you have any words of advice for a budding writer?

    A writer in general or a movie critic? I’m not sure I’m qualified to offer advice on anything other than the latter. In which instance, you might find this of some interest —

    Beyond that — well, you paid me the compliment of saying I seem “genuine,” and I think I am pretty much that. Be that. Don’t pander. Don’t try to write what you think people want to hear. I don’t mean you should discount what people like. You’re not operating in a vacuum and it’s fair to say if you think something will appeal to a lot of people, but don’t pretend you love it if you don’t. Remember that it’s not enough to love or hate a movie — you have to be able to say why.

    Read everything you can about movies — and don’t neglect the older texts. There’s still much to be found in Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art and Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema, even if they are “outdated.” Historians like John Baxter and William K. Everson will always have something worth hearing to say, even if you don’t always agree with them or find they have blind spots and hobby horses. (I may well do a “Screening Room” on this topic — possibly even this week.)

    Watch as much as you can. That’s easier now than it ever was —

    Go outside your comfort zone. Try movies that you don’t think are your cup of tea. See if you can at least understand why a movie like Trouble in Paradise (1932) is considered great, even if it might not be the kind of thing you like.

    Be prepared to be abused. There’s a price you pay for writing and being published. Yep, you get to have your say (if you’re lucky), but folks are going to have their say right back at you. In the days of the internet, this is more true than ever. It took a lot more effort in the old days when you had to type a letter and mail it. Now, you can put a critic in “his place” without ever leaving your desk. It will happen to you. If the writer raises valid points and is civil, you owe that writer the courtesy of an equally civil response. If the writer posts something like, “You’re a homo, I hope you die soon,” which I’ve actually seen posted, you’re better off not responding.

  7. montii

    I just don’t understand why this film did so much better than STAY. They just seemed so similar to me.
    Or maybe it wasn’t as much as this movie doing better, but STAY doing worse… a lot worse. At least to other critics. Either way, it confuses me.

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