Which of the four options best applies to the following sentence?
“It is big, loud, full of talent, dazzling in its technical virtuosity, but completely rotten at its deepest core.”
a.) The United States
b.) Los Angeles
c.) David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive
d.) All of the above
The correct answer of course is “d.”
It is easy to see why Mulholland Drive is so acclaimed by serious film critics. David Lynch is a master at building a sense of dread and paranoia. The cast is superb. That Naomi Watts wasn’t even nominated for “Best Actress” testifies to the shallow, middle-brow consensus that usually dominates the Academy Awards. It also testifies to the film’s biting satire of Hollywood. The people who give out the Oscars, let’s just say David Lynch has their number.
Rarely has a film kept me on the edge of my seat the way Mulholland Drive did the first time around. As I watched it alone, at night, at home, I kept looking out the window, checking my backyard for prowling serial killers. When a cat, or a raccoon, set off one of the motion activated lights above the next door neighbor’s shed, I went into the garage for an axe. If there was something evil lurking about my house that intended to kill me, I wasn’t going down without a fight. As the credits rolled, I found myself disoriented, profoundly disturbed, unsure of my own identity.
The second time I watched Mulholland Drive, however, I just thought it was lame. I recognized that some of its most intense moments were cheap jump scares. Compared to George Sluizer’s great film The Vanishing, Mulholland Drive is a basically just a roller-coaster ride, and not a very good one. You can only enjoy it once. The Vanishing left me shaken for weeks. Mulholland Drive eventually made me feel like a rube, a country bumpkin who got taken in by a P.T. Barnum sideshow. The complex plot, the house of mirrors that promises, but fails to deliver, a narrative payoff, is a bit like getting “Rickrolled.” The joke’s on you.
In the end, Mulholland Drive is, like Chris Nolin’s Inception, a dumb movie for dumb people who think they’re smart. Nevertheless, I’d probably still recommend seeing it, mainly for two things.
If David Lynch reveals himself to be a puritan and a misogynist when he turns his gaze on women, he’s a gifted satirist when he examines men, especially male authority figures inside the American film industry. Justin Theroux’s arrogant young director reminded me of just how much I used to loath the late 1990s CG/Details style of dress. The terrifying, but doll-like cowboy, the mob connected studio-boss who dribbles espresso into a napkin like a baby dribbling up its mother’s milk, the shadowy dwarf who pulls the strings from behind the scenes were all devastating images of the powerful, yet ultimately hollow nature of American, corporate, popular entertainment.
Above all, what makes Mulholland Drive worth seeing at least once is Naomi Watts’ virtuoso performance, first as a small-town girl come to Hollywood to make her fortune, then as a jaded, angry failure, so full of rage, she’s ready to hire a hit man to kill her ex-lover. The skill with which the British/Australian Watts creates the character “Betty” goes deeper than satire. Watts doesn’t play the part as an Englishwoman acting like an American, but as an American acting the part of an American, aspirational ideal of “an American girl.” When the dream ends, when “Betty,” the fresh-faced starlet on the verge of her first big success, wakes up to find that she’s really Diane Selwyn, a miserable, failed actress who’s been in Hollywood entirely too long, we recognize the danger of “following your bliss,” that the “dream factory” is a scam. “People in the United States never quite become themselves,” Lynch seems to be saying. Caught up in the Puritan mindset, we are constantly trying to “improve” ourselves, so much so that we often erase our existence entirely. Even worse, we become monsters, and Hollywood is a den of monsters.
The contrast between Naomi Watts’ superb performance, however, and David Lynch’s too clever by half script, argues the opposite. The thing being satirized often looks better than the satire. It’s a contradiction the film never entirely overcomes. Mulholland Drive, like the United States itself, is never quite good enough for sum of its parts.