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‘Mulholland Drive’ Is Still David Lynch’s Crowning Achievement

Twenty years after the release of the director’s gloriously specific and frustrating masterpiece, it stands as an unparalleled, idiosyncratic work of cinema

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

In 1999, David Lynch released The Straight Story, a road movie that was also a detour into G-rated territory; as signs of the impending Y2K apocalypse went, the guy behind Eraserhead working for Disney was suitably ominous. Two years later, though, Lynch returned to mind-fuck form with Mulholland Drive, a Los Angeles–set story about an aspiring actress trying to help a beautiful amnesiac rediscover her identity while showing the town’s power brokers that she’s ready for her close-up. “David Lynch has been working toward Mulholland Drive all of his career,” wrote Roger Ebert, a longtime skeptic of the director’s neo-surrealist style and methodology. When the film was released in October 2001, it proved to be a surprisingly potent box office force, grossing $20 million worldwide and spawning an online cottage industry of essays and explainers showing viewers how to make sense of its fractured, intractable narrative.

In the two decades since then, Lynch has produced other significant work, but Mulholland Drive still looks like the summative triumph described by Ebert: a movie that works equally well as a gateway into the director’s oeuvre or a culmination of his obsessions and fetishes. On the 20th anniversary of this inexhaustible masterpiece, here are 20 reasons to love it—or maybe 20 attempts to describe exactly what it is.

It’s Not TV

The smashed television set that inaugurates Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me served as a ready-made symbol of Lynch’s disillusionment with the prime-time establishment, which is why it was so odd that he tried to hook up with ABC on the first incarnation of Mulholland Drive. Originally written and shot as a 90-minute pilot, the project first enticed and then alienated ABC executives; in interviews, Lynch recalled how one suit with his finger on the green light watched the first cut standing up at six in the morning with coffee in hand. He hated it and canceled it on the spot. Given these beginnings, it’s easy to see why the resulting cinematic salvage job—mostly financed by French producers before premiering at Cannes in 2001—turned into such a sour allegory of L.A.’s assembly-line creative process, imagining a movie industry haunted by violence and despair and overrun at its highest level by thugs and know-nothings (one of whom is very particular about his coffee).

It’s a Highlight Reel

Great directors are repeat offenders, and their recidivism is unconscious. If Lynch is drawn toward the same types (and archetypes) in movie after movie, it’s not out of laziness or a lack of inspiration but a helpless devotion to his own artistic compulsions. Which is probably why his ninth feature checks so many boxes on the auteur scorecard, from the Hitchockian blonde/brunette dichotomy between Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring—shades of Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet—to the surreal criminal headquarters seemingly modeled on Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge to the persona-swapping imagery that’s straight out of Lost Highway. While it (happily) didn’t turn out to be Lynch’s last feature or actual magnum opus (that’d be Twin Peaks: The Return), Mulholland Drive feels like a grand summation of the director’s long-running themes and ideas about emotional and psychic instability, even as it twists and bends them into an exhilarating new configuration.

It’s … Robert Forster?

The car crash on Mulholland Drive that opens Mulholland Drive—in which a carload of teenagers smash into a luxury limousine—gives us two hallmarks of any good procedural: a bloody crime scene and a missing person in the form of Laura Elena Harring’s sole survivor, who stumbles out of the back of the limo bloody, battered, and in a catatonic trance. The detective who draws the case is played by Robert Forster, who was coming off an Oscar nomination for Jackie Brown and was arguably the biggest name in the cast. He then proceeds to do … nothing … except agree with his partner that, yes, it looks like somebody’s missing, maybe. Revamping his ABC material for the feature film format, Lynch was liberated to drop extraneous supporting characters and delete scenes, and the end run he does around cop-movie clichés by stranding Forster in a puzzling one-scene cameo is like a declaration of artistic principles. This isn’t going to go the way you think.

It’s Naomi Watts!

By casting the then mostly unknown Watts in the lead role of Betty Elms in Mulholland Drive, Lynch simultaneously made a star and a friend for life. Watch any video about their creative partnership and you’ll easily notice the mixture of gratitude and respect radiating off of Watts. In an interview with The Guardian in 2017, she recalled the late ’90s as a soul-destroying period in which casting directors continually blew her off. Then, suddenly, she was called to L.A. to audition for Lynch based solely on a headshot. “I saw someone who had a beautiful soul,” Lynch told the Los Angeles Times, and our first impression of Betty—introduced descending an escalator at LAX—is that of a blissful innocent, a refugee from small-town Canada (“Deep River, Ontario”) taking her best shot in the City of Dreams. That sunny, girl-next-door radiance is at once sincere and an act of pure subterfuge, and the key to Watts’s performance is how it keeps subdividing beneath the surface, revealing strength, loyalty, resourcefulness, and a ferocious self-possession on the verge of curdling into something decidedly non-innocuous. Betty is a cliché with unexpectedly bottomless depths, and as Mulholland Drive goes on, Watts takes the character—and us—into some seriously sunken places.

It’s a Throwback

Seeking shelter in a seemingly empty Hollywood apartment, Harring’s nameless amnesiac takes a shower and glimpses a reflection of a vintage movie poster in the bathroom vanity mirror: the statuesque Rita Hayworth as the title character in 1946’s Gilda. Later, when Betty asks her her name, she answers “Rita,” which not only aligns her with Hayworth’s character—a kept woman suffering in a loveless marriage—but the larger noir tradition that Lynch subsumes into his own L.A. story. Harring’s dark, furtive beauty is on a different continuum than Hayworth’s sultry strut, but she inhabits a similar femme fatale archetype. Like Gilda before her, Rita exists in Mulholland Drive as an object of desire, and even if Lynch ultimately uses Old Hollywood glamour to subversively evoke obsolescence and decay, he allows himself (and Harring) a few stolen moments of seductive beauty.

It’s a Horror Movie

No brief history of jump scares is complete without The Man Behind the Diner, a demonic hobo played by actress Bonnie Aarons beneath scraggly hair and greasepaint. After being alluded to fearfully by Patrick Fischler’s Dan as he recounts a night terror (“I hope I never see that face ever outside of a dream”), the Man—officially credited as Bum—leans suddenly and unforgettably into view, and like Twin Peaks’ Killer Bob before him, he’s ready for his close-up. Few filmmakers have Lynch’s ability to weaponize camerawork and editing against the audience. The Bum makes a return appearance during Mulholland Drive’s coda as a kind of cryptic puppet-master figure, recasting Dan’s anxious insistence that “he’s the one who’s doing it” as prophecy, but as with most of the movie’s finest bits, meaning doesn’t matter. What lasts is the feeling in the pit of your stomach.

It’s Billy Ray Cyrus?!

Before shooting the scene where his character, film director Adam Kesher, gets the shit kicked out of him by the pool guy who’s sleeping with his wife, Justin Theroux straight-up asked Lynch what was going on only to be told, “I don’t know, buddy, let’s find out.” “It’s like you’re on an escalator into a cloud,” Theroux recalled in a June 2021 interview this June with IndieWire.

That confusion mirrors his character’s: For the first hour of the movie, Adam is the most bewildered guy onscreen, an auteur with no control over his situation. As an addendum to his myriad on-the-job humiliations at the helm of a period drama being recast on the fly by shadowy showbiz gangsters, Adam’s cucking makes sense, but it’s the presence of pop-cultural punch line Billy Ray Cyrus as the other man that cinches the surrealism—the same subconsciously illogical effect David Chase tried for when he cast Annette Bening as herself in The Sopranos’ expressly Lynchian “The Test Dream.” Kudos to Billy Ray for nailing his role as the beefy, oddly chivalrous Gene, who tells Adam, “That ain’t no way to treat your wife, buddy,” before tossing him and his achy breaky heart out of his own house.

It’s Satire

In Lost Highway, Lynch had Robert Loggia’s Mr. Eddy assault a tailgater in full view of the Hollywood sign as a dig at what he perceived as thuggish industry sensibilities. In retrospect, that film, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire form a caustic trilogy about the business of filmmaking contextualizing Lynch’s drift away from mainstream modes of production. Mulholland’s plot pivots on the premise that the Mob runs La La Land, as Betty’s attempts at making it big are thwarted by a consortium of power brokers pushing a different starlet. “This is the girl,” insists Luigi Castigliane (Angelo Badalamenti), brandishing a glossy headshot at a meeting with Kesher while his brother Vincenzo (Dan Hedaya) threateningly informs the auteur, “It is no longer your film.” The crime-movie tropes are playful and absurd—as when Luigi demands and then regurgitates a “perfect” espresso from a studio executive—but serve the overall vision of a dream factory that’s corroded from the inside out.

It’s Frustrating (in a Good Way!)

Like his surrealist predecessor Luis Buñuel, Lynch understands the language of dreams—particularly the way that scenes glimpsed during sleep have no real beginning or end. What that means in Mulholland Drive is precious little exposition and even less closure, especially when it comes to subplots like the one where hitman Joe Messing (Mark Pellegrino) bungles a routine assignment and ends up killing a witness to cover his ass. That slapstick shoot-out is chaotic and horrifying, but most notably, it’s never mentioned again. The non sequitur shape of the storytelling is again partly a byproduct of the fact that so much material was shot as a TV pilot, but it’s also a perfect expression of how buried thoughts and anxieties enter our mind’s eye unbidden, and a challenge to audience viewing habits that require a strict 1-to-1 ratio of cause-to-effect. Frustration isn’t a bug in Lynch’s cinema, but an operating guideline.

It’s Naomi Watts! Part 2

For the first half of Mulholland Drive, we’re unsure whether Betty is really a “great actress” as she imagines herself, or is just another pretty face waiting to be disabused of her illusions. Rehearsing her big audition scene with Rita, she’s stilted, halting, and dubious about the material—it seems like the part is impossible to play. But when she gets her chance to read opposite sleazy, aged matinee idol Jimmy Katz (Chad Everett), an amazing thing happens: Betty’s good-girl act evaporates and this bundle of raw, exposed nerves emerges in its place, hotwiring the scene—and her scene partner—into the stuff of electric, psychosexual melodrama. “Don’t play it for real until it becomes real,” advises the hapless hack director, but Betty doesn’t need pointers to blur the lines between acting and being, and the confirmation of her talent comes with a hint that there’s something unsettlingly authentic behind all that technique. And of course, watching Betty become a great actress means watching Watts in the process of being one as well; like many scenes in Mulholland Drive, the audition serves nicely as a meta-commentary on itself.

It’s a Musical

Ever since Blue Velvet’s wryly chipper Hardy Boys pastiche, Lynch had been mining mid-20th-century pop culture for shivery effect. The use of Linda Scott’s hit 1961 single “I’ve Told Every Little Star” in Mulholland Drive ranks with his greatest coups. As Betty—flush with confidence from her audition—arrives for a meeting with Adam on the set of The Sylvia North Story, we see another starlet (Melissa George) in Doris Day drag lip-synching to Scott’s hit as a camera test. This, we recognize, is the girl, and Adam will have no choice but to cast her, even though the meaningful looks he’s exchanging with Betty during the performance hint that he’d rather give the new ingenue a shot. The slow cutting between George’s perky, ersatz performance in front of the lens and the longing glances happening behind encapsulate the gap between fantasy and reality that powers the film’s tragic dialectic. In this explicitly counterfeit context, the chipper “dum da dums” of the song’s open-hearted chorus are rendered ominous and haunting—doo-wop as a haunted funeral march.

It’s Softcore

There’s no way around it, so we might as well say it: The sequence where Betty and Rita go to bed together is extremely sexy, charged in equal parts by terror—the girls are coming off the discovery of a mouldering corpse in an apartment—and a tender sense of mutual dependence. “Have you ever done this before?” asks Betty tentatively, underlying the slightly stilted adult-entertainment vibes while inadvertently goofing on her partner’s amnesia; “I don’t know, have you?” is the breathy response.

Because Lynch has already established the luridness of his Los Angeles setting and proposed Betty and Rita’s friendship as an antidote to it, their plunge into unknown waters feels less prurient than exhilarating—the logical culmination of a plangent emotional bond. But there’s more going on here too: Rita’s blonde wig and the Bergman-esque post-coital shot showing the women’s faces blending together hints that what we’re seeing is a byproduct of Betty’s fantasy life—the wet dream of an unrequited lover, streaked with sweat and tears.

It’s a Musical, Part 2

“Llorando” translates to “Crying,” and chanteuse Rebekah Del Rio’s cover of the Roy Orbison standard is a genuine showstopper. For three minutes, the singer holds our hearts in her throat as she belts out a story of loneliness, abandonment, and melancholy that transcends the need for subtitles. But she’s not really singing: Like “Every Little Star” before it, “Llorando” has been lip-synched, a revelation that reduces Betty and Rita to red-eyed hysterics as they watch from the upper balcony at the enigmatic after-hours venue Club Silencio. If the song isn’t real, then neither, perhaps, is their love, and as Del Rio faints to the sounds of her own recorded voice, it’s as if the movie itself were getting shaken out of a reverie. Nothing beautiful is as it seems, and on the other side of “Llorando,” nothing will be the same. It’s an aria that concludes the dream story of Mulholland Drive and builds a bridge toward a nightmarish reality.

It’s a Puzzle

When Mulholland Drive was released on DVD, Lynch took the unusual—and self-contradictory—step of including 10 clues that he believed could help viewers “solve” the movie. Given the director’s characteristic and endearing averseness to explanation, the clues were taken by many as red herrings, but they do illuminate some of the film’s more elusive aspects, including minute details of production design (“notice the appearances of the red lampshade”) and geography (“notice the location of the accident”). After the scene at Club Silencio, Betty and Rita return to Aunt Ruth’s, where Rita uses a key to open a blue box, which the camera plunges into as if entering a wormhole.“Who gives a key, and why?” asks Lynch, simultaneously playing with his own mandate to “unlock” his masterpiece and drawing attention to Betty’s final attempt to help Rita solve the mystery of her own missing identity. It’s the last time in the film that Betty and Rita will be recognizable as the characters we’ve come to know and love, and it anticipates a second, more sinister exchange with a key that swaps out a gesture of support for one of vengeance.

It’s a Wake-up Call

Our reintroduction to Watts in the last section of Mulholland Drive is startling: hair darker and dirtier, teeth crooked, eyes blank and staring, she could be Betty’s reanimated zombie doppelgänger. Reality bites: This is Diane Selwyn, who shares Betty’s vocation and ambition but none of her surface charm. This is the woman who emerged during the audition, and who’s been lurking in the shadows all along—an antiheroine whose actual experiences in California are revealed as the grotesque obverse of all that’s come before. Instead of sweeping an amnesiac damsel in distress off her feet, she fell in love with a movie star—Camilla Rhodes, also played by Harring—and got dumped. Instead of being the victim of backstage intrigue, she channeled her frustrations into a murder plot that’s left her suicidally guilt-ridden. “Hey, pretty girl. Time to wake up,” a voice says on the soundtrack right before we meet Diane. That sudden, terrible jolt into awareness serves as Mulholland Drive’s pitiless, pitch-black punch line.

It’s a Remake of The Wizard of Oz

Lynch has spoken often of his reverence for The Wizard of Oz, and the simplest way to frame Mulholland Drive is as a modern transplant of the 1939 classic, with Betty/Diane as a tragic Dorothy manqué and the other characters in the first two-thirds of the film as projections of her dismal experiences in Hollywood. Whether or not this calculus adds up exactly, it plugs into the complex mixture of yearning and anxiety at the heart of The Wizard of Oz, whose heroine longs for escape only to discover that the world beyond Kansas is a lethal, frightening place. The difference is that for Betty/Diane, there’s no going back to Deep River, Ontario. Instead, she has to live—and die—with her demons in a motel room over the rainbow.

It’s Devastating

Assuming that the prevailing interpretation of Mulholland Drive as a suicidal woman’s subconscious attempt to put a happy face on bad times is accurate, the film’s sadness becomes inescapable; Betty and her intrepid optimism were never more than an illusion (or a delusion) and instead of being waylaid by Hollywood corruption, Diane was consumed by it to the point that her jealousy led her to take out a hit on her ex. If there’s something sadistic about the film’s downward spiraling structure, it’s also surpassingly humane; just because Mulholland Drive exposes its protagonist’s movie-addled coping mechanisms doesn’t mean that Lynch (or the audience) doesn’t understand or sympathize with them. It’s because we miss Betty that we feel for Diane. The latter’s abjection matters only because we can still see her alter ego flickering sweetly behind her eyes.

It’s Too Good for the Oscars

Despite getting plenty of love from critics’ groups, Mulholland Drive scored a single, lonely Oscar nomination for Lynch for Best Director. Today, the shutout of Watts from the Best Actress category still stands as an egregious snub. In 1987, Lynch had attended the ceremony clutching a piece of blue velvet for good luck before his outsider bid lost to Oliver Stone. Fifteen years later, he didn’t seem to care one bit about being bested by Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind—a choice that made sense only to the less-than-beautiful minds that make up AMPAS’s various voting blocs. In a famously off-the-cuff moment, Lynch could be seen commiserating with fellow legend and loser (for Gosford Park) Robert Altman, a game-recognize-game encounter that clarifies the difference between official and unofficial canonization. Has anyone watched A Beautiful Mind since 2002? Will anybody ever watch it again?

It’s Endlessly Rewatchable

It’s one thing to say that a movie requires multiple viewings in order to pull it together, but the last thing Mulholland Drive feels like is homework. Sensations of recurrence and déjà vu are key to the movie’s hypnotic power; what feels uncanny the first time around retains the same disarming feeling on the 20th revisitation. Not all of Lynch’s movies are so easy to fall into time and time again. But Mulholland Drive is brilliantly accessible, starting with its gorgeous, charismatic leads and extending through its voluptuously beautiful cinematography and score and its unmistakable tingles of noir precedent and pleasure. And because the clear standout moments—the songs, the audition, the sex scene, everything with the Cowboy—are so elegantly spaced out, you can enjoy it like a favorite album where it’s permissible to zone out in between the hits.

It’s an All-Timer

In 2016, Mulholland Drive was selected as the greatest film of the 21st century in an international poll conducted by the BBC, but the more significant showing may have come in 2012 as part of Sight and Sound’s long-running, decennial all-time list—the same survey that established Citizen Kane at the top of the historical pecking order back in the 1960s. Forty critics voted for Lynch’s film, placing it at no. 28, the second best ranking for any movie made after 1990 (after In the Mood for Love at no. 24). It’s strange that a film so designed to support multiple interpretations has cultivated such a broad consensus, yet it’s already a standard-bearer for contemporary American art cinema—a victory of individual creative vision over algorithmic calculations. Even as it reflects and refracts aspects of Lynch’s career before and since—and plays with Hollywood iconography of multiple eras—it feels singular and original. This is the film.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.