Like a prankster let loose in a puzzle factory, director David Lynch creates dysfunctional mysteries which defy the simple piecing together of a coherent solution. His puzzles may lack key pieces, have extra pieces, or fit together to create a disjointed, nightmare image beyond conscious understanding. Lynch's long journey down his lost highway has led him to a place of supreme confidence as a filmmaker. With his new film, Mulholland Drive, Lynch continues to mine the obsessive tropes of his earlier work (doppelgangers, dreams, dissociative disorders), but strikes new ground by openly exploring the two worlds of his own life: Los Angeles and "Hollywood."
Mulholland Drive most quickly brings to mind Lost Highway, Lynch's 1998 collaboration with novelist Barry Gifford. Like that earlier film, Mulholland Drive walks a line between ostensibly straightforward modern creepshow and retro noir mystery, as Lynch asks the audience to straddle conscious deduction and dream-like intuition. Lynch's heroine here, Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), fits the now self-conscious model of the typical Lynch hero: wide-eyed, apparently innocent, and pure of heart, but driven by dark desires which inevitably bubble to the surface.
Lacking only cartoon bluebirds around her head, the freshly-scrubbed Betty arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of movie stardom. Met at her new apartment by no less than Ann Miller (as kooky landlord Coco), Betty is given a key to a new life. It takes mere moments for the dream facade to give way to menace, as Betty discovers an univited roommate (Laura Elena Harring), an amnesiac who cribs the name Rita from a poster for Rita Hayworth's Gilda. Names are key elements of the mystery, as identities come in and out of focus like Lynch's floating camera.
Lynch develops many other characters, despite it being impossible to quantify the number of storylines. The most prominent of these is Adam (Justin Theroux), a sardonic, young filmmaker meeting with ominous resistance. Dan Hedaya, Lee Grant, and Robert Forster slink by briefly, and Lynch winks at the personal nature of his "L.A. Story" by casting longtime behind-the-scenes collaborators Angelo Badalamenti (who, as usual, scores the film) and producer Monty Montgomery as creepy henchmen.
As is the custom, everyone is already talking about what on earth Mulholland Drive could mean, while Lynch demurs that the film is what it is. Begin by imagining that a single story is being told in multiple ways throughout the film: a story of naive hopes, heartbreak, jealousy, and death. On another level, the film reflects the beloved and feared nature of Hollywood duplicity; like almost every Lynch film, Mulholland Drive contains a theatrical show within the show, but for the characters, the price of admission is fearfully high.
Just as Rita steals her identity from the starlet in her mirror, we look for our reflection in the movies; just like Betty, we all arrive in "Hollywood" full of false hopes, pursuing siren dreams. Finally, perhaps more than any other Lynch work, Mulholland Drive works on the level of elegant, frustrating puzzle box and as the object of dream surrender. Erotic, fear-ridden, and beautiful, Lynch's primal imagery has the abhorrent and alluring pull of death itself.