Like the thoroughfare of its title, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive winds through the Los Angeles night, its endless curves turning back on themselves, a snake swallowing its own tail. I'm happy to report that Lynch, who took a walk on the mild side with his last movie, The Straight Story, has returned to the wild and woolly confines of Blue Velvet and "Twin Peaks" ' that nightmarish dreamscape where innocent young boys peek through closet-door slats and a dwarf loses himself in a captivating frug. I'm also happy to report that Mulholland Drive isn't too woolly. Unlike the aptly named Lost Highway, it manages to stay on the road and obey most of the traffic signals. When Lynch is careful to ground his dreams in reality, there's no limit to the places he can take us. Mulholland Drive slithers off to infinity.
It opens at night with a dark-haired woman (former Miss USA Laura Elena Harring) in the back seat of a car. The car stops, and the driver pulls a gun on her. But before you can say "bang," the car's been hit by another car, and the woman, battered and bruised, heads off into the Hollywood Hills. Sunset Boulevard passes by, one of a thousand clues to a mystery we're not supposed to solve so much as luxuriate in ' i.e., Who is this woman? Suffering from amnesia, she winds up in a house occupied by Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), an eager beaver from some small town, who wants to make it in Hollywood. The blonde in Lynch's light-dark contrast, Betty takes it upon herself to help the dark-haired woman find out who she is. It's an investigation that will lead to the heart of darkness, if not to parallel universes. Fasten your seat belts.
Or don't, for Mulholland Drive cruises along at about 15 miles per hour. In fact, the movie's druggy pace might be sheer hell were it not for the scenery we pass along the way ' the lonely Hopper interiors, the inky blackness of La La Land refusing to go to bed. And were it not for the possibility that the key to the movie's many mysteries might lie just around the next bend. Lynch teases us by including an actual key ' a blue key to a blue box, the opening of which sends the movie into a whole new dimension. I'm trying very hard not to give too much away here, not that there's anything tangible to give away. Even the movie's production history is a glorified lark. Mulholland Drive began its life as a pilot for a television series, which ABC shelved rather than inflict on an unsuspecting public. Thanks to a French production company, Lynch was able to get the movie back and add nearly an hour of new material.
That new material, which leaves us wondering just whose head we're crawling around in (Lynch's, of course), turns the first two-thirds of the movie into a dream, not unlike the one Pam Ewing had that time on "Dallas," thereby wiping out the entire previous season. A cheap trick, to say the least, but it works here, both because the movie already felt like a dream and because it's about a dream ' a dream of becoming someone else, which is what acting and Hollywood are all about. Lynch references Persona, Ingmar Bergman's cinematic pas de deux on the melding of minds, but Mulholland Drive seems closer in spirit to The Big Sleep, the film-noir classic that left enough loose ends to destroy a lesser movie. If Blue Velvet was a Hardy Boys mystery, with Kyle MacLachlan as the boy detective, Mulholland Drive is a Nancy Drew mystery, with Watts as both girl detective and femme fatale.
Where did they find this woman? As an actress, she has an enormous range, from the heights of purity to the depths of depravity. And she makes short work ' then again, who wouldn't? ' of Chad Everett in a scene that would never have made it into "Medical Center." As the woman who's forgotten who she is, Harring is nearly as effective, if only because of her jaw-dropping beauty. Lynch has these two perform a lesbian-sex scene that will have aficionados of the genre applying damp cloths to their foreheads. But the movie's oneiric charge is hardly restricted to those particular fumblings in the dark. The whole thing is like an anxiety dream from which one is unable and unwilling to wake up. After Lost Highway and The Straight Story, it seemed like Lynch might never again escort us to the wee hours of the night, where good and evil are indistinguishable. It's nice to have him back.