“Have You Scene?” is a recurring column where I skip the big-name movies and instead explore the movies that might have flown under your radar.
Years from now, when film critics of the future lay in their beds and send their reviews out to the world through the computer chips embedded in their brains, the prevailing opinion may well be that Twin Peaks: The Return is David Lynch’s best work. This year’s The Return has been Lynch at the peak of his powers. It’s been horrifying, funny, confusing, artsy, and maddening all at the same time. Lynch has spent a career defining then redefining what film is while also consistently topping himself.
Lynch’s motion picture debut and obvious first greatest David Lynch movie ever was 1977’s Eraserhead. Filled with iconic imagery and strong sexual themes, Eraserhead still remains a subject of discussion forty years later. Lynch’s The Elephant Man was released in 1980. It was a critical favorite and the best David Lynch film ever. Over the years there were missteps (Dune), disappointments (Fire Walk With Me), and WTF moments (Lost Highway). All were good movies that most directors would be proud to have on their portfolio. (Well, maybe not Dune.)
David Lynch was different. It seemed like every few years, he would direct a movie that would make people say, “That was the best David Lynch film ever.” Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Muholland Dr. are all classics that stand the test of time. But Muholland Dr. stands out from all of Lynch’s other films. Muholland Dr. is the last best David Lynch film ever.
Released in 2001, Muholland Dr. was originally conceived by Lynch as a television show. Network TV executives passed on Lynch’s idea, so Lynch rewrote his project into a feature film. In retrospect, this ended up being the best thing that could happen. Some of the sexual themes explored in Muholland Dr. would push network television limits in 2017. Entire portions of Muholland Dr. would’ve been changed for television in 2001.
Muholland Dr. is a mystery where the setting, Hollywood, is a major character. You do not need to see the Hollywood sign to know where the movie is set. The houses and neighborhoods, the people and what they wear, the cars and skylines tell you exactly where you are. Lynch’s love for Hollywood and its lore can be seen in his direction of the movie. Shots of the city take the viewer back to a bygone era. Lynch’s direction brings an allure to Hollywood that was regularly seen before showing the sleazy side of Tinsletown became the norm.
Muholland Dr. tells the story of Betty Elms, an aspiring actress who is new to Los Angeles. The audience cannot help but root for Betty from her first appearance. Naomi Watts plays the role magnificently in the performance of her career, and brings a charm to Betty that other actresses may not have considered. Betty is strong without being naïve, curious without being stupid, brave without being reckless. Buffy the Vampire Slayer paved the road that Wonder Woman is now walking on, but Betty Elms helped laid down the foundation that got everything started.
When Laura Elena Herring’s Rita enters Betty’s life, a very cliché Hollywood story becomes a very Lynchian movie. Rita is an amnesiac on the run from… something. Or maybe something is on the run from her. Betty and Rita form a bond almost immediately upon meeting. Initially, it is built out of coincidence. Betty and Rita learn about each other as the film progresses and soon become friends. One of the stand out scenes in the film is when Rita helps Betty audition for a part. The chemistry between the two actresses is amazing. As the bond between the two becomes stronger, the audience becomes more involved. You are not just a viewer passively watching a movie. You want to jump through the screen to help Betty and Rita.
The movie twists and turns and keeps the audience guessing the entire time. Lynch cements his status as a horror icon with a jump scare for the ages. He then follows it up with a scene involving a hitman that seems to be played strictly for laughs. But nothing in the film seems out of place. The last twenty-five minutes of the movie are some of the tensest in movie history. After a genuinely tear-jerking scene that is sincere instead of manipulative, the movie proceeds at a rapid-fire pace. Moments happen long enough for the audience to get a feel for what is happening, but come so fast that the audience is as disoriented as Betty and Rita. As the ending credits roll, the audience is finally able to sit back from the edge of their seats, relax, and try to figure out what the hell just happened.
David Lynch has released one movie since Muholland Dr. 2006’s Inland Empire seemed to be David Lynch saying goodbye to feature films. Even at a mind-numbing three hours, the movie was still good- great even, aside from some moments that seemed too much even for a Lynch movie. However, neither critics nor fans rushed to say it was the directors latest, greatest film. No, Muholland Dr. still holds the top spot as the most perfect, most Lynchian, combination of confusion, comedy, and magic.