In David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., the nightmare stalks the dream, brutally pouncing only after maiming its prey with false pretenses and conflicting identities. Seething with spite and deceit, the nightmare watches as hope builds, ambition blossoms, and talent formulates, undermining a romantic origin story with a horrific dose of alternate reality. The main weapons are chance and circumstance, fabricated dimensions of an evil master plan without motive or meaning; just control over all fabrics of life. Everything comes crashing down, but when and where is always up for debate. But who’s the villain behind the nightmare?
This question in particular makes it downright misguided to try and describe the film’s plot, even foolish to put too much stock in what physically happens onscreen. Lynch’s Hollywood horror show finds just as much importance in what’s not shown, within the other dynamic realms occurring above and below the “actual” story. This makes the film simultaneously confounding and intriguing, highlighting our futile need to explain and label every narrative burst, all the while slipping us mickeys of biting dark comedy and traumatizing terror.
Like every David Lynch film, Mulholland Dr. establishes an unmistakable atmosphere of tension and discomfort, creating ambiguity out of slow dissolves and potent audio reflections. But here, Lynch litters the terrain with diabolical moments played out in specific Los Angeles locales – Mulholland Dr., Pink’s Hotdog Stand, Hollywood Blvd. – populated by characters working within an industry of artificial prowess, just on the cusp of perception and “reality.” Lynch even cuts to birds-eye-view shots overlooking downtown Los Angeles, perfectly complimented by Angelo Badalamenti’s rhythmic tones that seem to reverberate from the concrete jungle below. This place is alive on the outside but dead on the inside, hollow, devoid of spirit, consuming all newcomers (Betty) while spitting out the tainted weak (Diane). Hope and tragedy seem to be etched into the Hollywood sign, both a welcome mat and a warning.
As the aforementioned flip-sides to the same character coin, Naomi Watts brilliantly fluctuates between bombshell fox, naïve lamb, and cracked out serpent. She represents Lynch’s warped timeline at its most surreal and her arc is both the film’s dark passenger and brightest star. Lynch often uses close-ups of the eyes during his shot-reverse-shot sequences, and Watts’ orbs seemingly emote different responses each time. She is both a casualty of this strange moviemaking war and its most dangerous soldier. Ultimately, Lynch sees Hollywood as a charming gentlemen caller with flowers in one hand a knife in the other, and Betty/Diane fall head over heals for this dangerous illusion.
If everything in Mulholland Dr. is a recording, a performance, a dance with the devil, then the ultimate tragic outcome is both necessary and fitting. Lynch’s mosaic amplifies the gravity of actions while masking the emotions under the surface, constructing caverns of possibilities evoking fear in even the “safest” places, not to mention the ones sketchy to begin with (the alley outside of Winkie’s for example). The weirdness factor becomes more and more a character itself, challenging how a viewer should feel or respond to the disjointed jumps in logic and tone. Mulholland Dr. recalls the most challenging aspects of Art Cinema while seeping itself in the very institution it aims to skewer.
The art of magic and trickery turns horrific in Mulholland Dr., drowning out the potential light of artistry with the darkness of intimidation and greed. Throughout the film the Hollywood industrial complex becomes self-aware, changing the outcome of the story, morphing characters into doppelgangers, shifting locations, and obscuring murder and revenge through the lens of a camera. Lynch understands this fragmented side of filmmaking; a process fraught with judgment, power, and deception, but perfect for creating invigorating entertainment. When in the wrong hands, The Cinema can terminate dreams and purvey nightmares, leaving endless human wreckage in its wake. Most amazingly for Lynch, this realization never fully explains the true evil behind the curtain, or behind the camera.