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Mulholland Drive   A+

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux, Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya, Robert Forster.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Imagine that you're dreaming. In your dream, you're with a good friend, but there's something different about them. You're in a house that's strangely familiar, but you're certain you've never been there before. Your friend leads you down a dark hallway and you follow. Something in your gut tightens. You stop and call out your friend's name, but you realize that you're alone. You can't breathe. You can see the light at the end of the hallway, a soft glow, and you know that something wonderful or terrifying (or both) is waiting for you just around the corner.

That kind of uneasy excitement is what I felt throughout the entire running time of Mulholland Drive, which may be the best film David Lynch has ever made. Sure, Lost Highway captured the bleak, nonsensical feel of a nightmare, but Mulholland Drive reaches another level entirely, playing on the emotions with a ruthless precision that's absolutely stunning.

In the movie, a naïve blonde named Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actress. As Betty is settling in at her absent aunt's apartment, she walks in on a woman taking a shower who calls herself Rita. Rita was in a tragic car accident the night before (on Mulholland Drive) and she can't remember who she is or anything about herself. Betty takes a liking to Rita and offers to help her unravel the mystery. While Rita and Betty are embarking on Nancy Drew-style adventures of self-discovery, a film director (Justin Theroux) is ordered to cast a specific actress in his new movie (or else) by a cryptic cowboy who doesn't like smart alecks.

But wait. It's not that simple. In the last third of the film, something happens that will inspire many moviegoers to throw up their hands in confusion and demand to know what the hell is going on (as if they hadn't already demanded that same thing five times before that point).

This is a movie that makes cinema feel exciting again. It takes you so deep into its world that it ceases being a movie and becomes an experience. It keeps you on edge, laughing in morbid delight at one moment, then recoiling in fear the next. Consider, for instance, the hilarious sequence in which a hit man's simple hit goes terribly awry, one little mistake starting a domino effect that causes things to go from bad to worse as he realizes that this just isn't his day. Then consider the harrowing sequence in which a guy slowly leads his friend to the alley behind a coffee shop to assure him that there's no scary-looking evil man back there, despite the evil man's ghastly presence in his friend's recurring dreams; this scene takes place in daylight, but I'll be damned if I wasn't cowering in my seat as they neared the corner of the building. Mixing a brooding atmosphere of ever-mounting dread with spurts of bizarre comedy is a delicate balancing act, but David Lynch, always the brilliant craftsman, pulls it off without fumbling even once.

Of course, it helps that he has two electrifying leads in Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring, whose on-screen relationship provides the backbone of the story; they even share one of the most genuinely erotic and moving love scenes in ages. It also helps that Lynch has a terrific director of photography in Peter Demming (who captured the chilling images in Lost Highway) and a haunting score courtesy of his longtime composer Angelo Badalamenti. All the elements come together perfectly, creating the closest thing to a daydream-cum-nightmare ever captured on celluloid. It's more potent and mesmerizing than any film in recent memory.

Mulholland Drive was originally intended as an ABC TV pilot, but ABC dropped it, so David Lynch got additional financing from elsewhere to do some reshoots and complete the movie for a theatrical release. The result is a near-perfect film, as darkly funny as it is frightening, though some moviegoers will be furious with Lynch's refusal to spell things out in a way that's easily understood upon first viewing. My suggestion is don't look for things to make perfect sense while watching the movie. Just savor the experience. Then, afterward, go out for a cup of coffee with a friend and talk about it. Then see it again. It's like a puzzle that might be missing some pieces, but you can't help but try to put it together anyway.

Review published 10.29.2001.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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