Included with the original DVD release of Mulholland Drive was a note giving David Lynch’s “10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller.” These were teasing vagaries like “Where is Aunt Ruth?”, “Who gives a key, and why?”, and “Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits.” As provocative as these clues are, none are particularly helpful when it comes to deciphering the mysteries of this mesmerizing film. Still, as points to ponder, they do add even further dimensions to one of the best, most fascinatingly perplexing films from a director who knows a thing or two about fascinating and perplexing films.
Leading up to the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Mulholland Drive, which does not include these clues but does contain interviews, a deleted scene, and behind the scenes footage (as per Lynch’s home video instructions, however, there are no chapter stops), there was much online anticipation and discussion concerning the film. One repeated refrain was that it is a typically uncategorized horror movie. Certainly, like most of Lynch’s work, there are more than a few unsettling moments, with the threat of danger looming in one sequence after another, and at least one stunning jump-scene works just as well after repeated viewings as it did upon seeing the film for the first time. But if one is going to place Mulholland Drive into the horror genre, one must also accept that it is just as much, if not more, a comedy.
In fact, to think of Mulholland Drive as a strictly horror film is to take both Lynch and the film itself far too seriously. As evidenced by the aforementioned clues and their almost comically unhelpful suggestions, as well as Lynch’s own penchant for coy, self-analytical ambiguity and the film’s inclusion of The Cowboy, the hokey, mannered dialogue, the moments of overt absurdity (miniature old people gyrating their way out of a blue box), and the mere appearance of Billy Ray Cyrus, Lynch is obviously having some fun with the film and its prevailing craziness. There are times when even the fictional characters seem bemused by what others are saying and the strange way they behave. This potential for cross-genre categorization owes a good deal to Lynch’s distinct approach toward both humor and horror; no one else out there has quite the same sense of what is funny and what is terrifying, and no one else so creatively mingles the two. A pervading unease may emanate throughout the film, particularly in its later sequences, but when you have a scene featuring a rather heavyset woman being accidentally shot and thinking it was simply a ferocious bite of some sort, it is hard to be too caught up in any conventional notion of fear.
As generally bizarre as the many elements of Mulholland Drive are, there is, at first anyway, an established story. Betty (Naomi Watts, in a breakthrough role) arrives in California fit to burst with fantasies of stardom and the wide-eyed wonder of naive Hollywood dreams. Unexpectedly greeting her at her aunt’s house is the mysterious “Rita”—not her real name—played by Laura Harring, who is suffering from memory loss following a car accident. Together, the two try to unscramble Rita’s confusion and piece together the disjointed puzzle of her life. In time, they also fall in love. The major side plot involves the tumultuous casting for a film, and the difficulties this process causes for director Adam (Justin Theroux), who, much to his chagrin, becomes beholden to the men pulling the strings behind the production, and maybe even behind more than that (among the shady figures is iconic Lynch actor Michael J. Anderson as Mr. Roque).
For a time, there looks to be a relatively straightforward trajectory of storylines. Despite the occasional moments of outward irrelevance, those illogical scenes that may only marginally become significant, the predominant stories join in a basically rational confluence of narrative. But by about the 90-minute mark, something happens. After Betty and Rita visit Club Silencio, an uncanny theatrical venue Rita suddenly wakes up speaking about, and the camera soon thereafter zooms into an inexplicable blue box, from there, nothing is ever quite the same. The film concludes with an onslaught of disparate sequences bearing only confounding resemblance to the previously assumed plot, bringing together a convergence of identity confusion, creation, and collusion. Certain familiar elements and characters reappear, but rarely, if ever, in their previous context, and to what new purpose they now function is never quite clear.
The opening sequences of Mulholland Drive are filled with clichéd dialogue resembling something between an antiquated melodrama and a poorly written soap opera (again, making it very funny), and Watts especially excels in these early sections, where her sugary sweet persona is enhanced by the kind of purposefully bad acting only good actors can do well. Here and continuing on, behavior is peculiarly exaggerated, with erratic laughter, eccentric actions, and characters displaying no trace of naturalism whatsoever. The dialogue is just plain enough to be comical, and just odd enough to be creepily ominous: “Could be someone’s missing, maybe,” “Someone is in trouble. Something bad is happening,” etc.
Like the dialogue, some of the more memorable moments in the film deftly ride the generic line of comedy/thriller, as in the hilariously intense Luigi Castigliane espresso scene (Luigi played by Lynch composer extraordinaire Angelo Badalamenti), and the famous Winkies sequence, with its foreboding conversation about a frighteningly realistic dream and a man who perhaps lives behind the establishment. Scenes like these are among the most impressive in the film, but the question is, are they in accord with the film’s larger premise? Not necessarily. But do they heighten the movie? Absolutely.
This sort of necessity of the unnecessary seems to fly in the face of standard narrative conventions, but in Lynch’s omniscient hands, it contributes to part of why a film like Mulholland Drive is so enthralling. The film is designed to encourage inevitable attempts at interpretation and understanding, but it is largely a futile effort to find a rhyme and reason for everything. Why Lynch is so exceptional, then, is that despite this awareness and acceptance of a never realized complete comprehension, one still wants to go back and attempt to figure it all out, even if it becomes readily evident that to do so would be an impossibility. His films manage to coalesce in spite of the randomness, so that while by the end of the film much is left uncertain, everything still seems, in an odd way, unified. Lynch presents a world that is so detailed and so expertly realized that it is thoroughly acceptable, even as it is paradoxically implausible.
In the Criterion interview with Watts, she says the titular road carries with it symbolic connotations of being a place where both great things and bad things can happen. Aside from just Mulholland Drive, the film is a haunting love-letter to much of what defines Los Angeles, the sights and sounds of which Lynch has long had a stated affinity. Shots of the cityscape with its patches of light and darkness give the film a surreal sense of location, a depiction of L.A. as if in a dream (clearly befitting the film’s tone and Betty’s own declaration of the region being a “dream place”). It also has to do with Lynch’s visual sensibility, which though at times can be rather flashy is often also skillfully subtle. Go back to that Winkies scene. Adding to the tension there, building on an understated anxiousness, is a hovering, restlessly mobile camera. Its impact is effective, but it’s only obvious if one really looks for it; otherwise, it is simply felt psychologically as part of the audio/visual tapestry of the film. This is what Lynch also speaks about regarding his distinctive union of image and sound, and the investigation of what comes first and how the two connect. Most notably due to Badalamenti’s immense contribution, the sound design of Mulholland Drive is superb in its mixture of score, diagetic sounds, and ambient noise. In separate interviews, Lynch and Badalamenti speak of capturing or creating a “mood,” and as much as anything, this dense atmospheric quality is what makes Mulholland Drive so unnerving.
Amidst the general plot of the film, springing up from time to time and expanding the overarching mystery of the picture, are seemingly arbitrary inclusions of unusual characters, settings, or props. Details like an untouched breakfast, a familiar ashtray, a phone, a blue key (the same shade of blue that repeatedly appears throughout the film), all lead us to assume—and to subsequently search for—a veiled implication based purely on their recurrence and Lynch’s stress of their presence via calculated close-ups. In his interview with the director, Chris Rodley points out the movie’s obvious clues, but also notes, “there are many other things that are important visual and audio indicators that are not obvious. So at times it does seem as if you’re delighting in teasing or mystifying the viewer.” Lynch denies this notion: “No, you never do that to an audience. An idea comes, and you make it the way the idea says it wants to be, and you just stay true to that. Clues are beautiful because I believe we’re all detectives. We mull things over, and we figure things out. We’re always working this way. People’s minds hold things and form conclusions with indications. It’s like music. Music starts, a theme comes in, it goes away, and when it comes back, it’s so much greater because of what’s gone before.”
David Lynch has embarked on a number of side ventures—painting, coffee, music—but he is a man born to make movies, and one sees this with Mulholland Drive in his complete mastery of all aesthetic facets, from lighting to framing to camera movement, to say nothing of the stories he develops and the singular worlds he subsequently creates. Whatever his intentions, and however much he chooses to acknowledge his cinematic mischievousness, one thing is certain: such inscrutability is enough to keep many, including myself, coming back to his work—and this film in particular—over and over again.