EW dares to explicate David Lynch's latest pretzel-logic thriller
Credit: Melissa Moseley

I don’t mean to gloat. But I’ve been feeling a lot smarter ever since I polled all my David Lynch-loving friends and found out that I’m the only one even hazarding a claim to having figured out the director’s latest puzzle, ”Mulholland Drive,” from top to bottom. So maybe I’m the Einstein of the Peakies crowd (that would be us unrepentant ”Twin Peaks” buffs to you) or maybe I’m just delusional. I should tell you that I did figure out the big secret of ”The Sixth Sense” about 20 minutes in — but like I said, I’m not here to brag.

If you didn’t get it in the slightest, most of the nation’s critics are unashamed to stand with you. ”A load of moronic and incoherent garbage,” wrote Rex Reed. ”Lynch seems as clueless as his characters when it comes to making sense of this anything-goes storyline,” crowed Dave Kehr. ”It’s just too annoyingly incomprehensible to recommend,” said the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s William Arnold. Even the critics who liked it tended to plead ignorance. ”It’s a dark dreamscape that needs to be experienced, not explained,” noted the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, ”…and even if it makes sense in writer David Lynch’s mind, he’d probably prefer that it didn’t in yours.” EW’s own Owen Gleiberman, despite giving it a high B+ rating in his review, was a bit put off by the final 45 minutes: ”The surreal final act is pure frustration — a pretzel that never connects with itself.”

With apologies to Steely Dan, I would venture that there IS such a thing as pretzel logic, and that Lynch imbues even his most confusing work with plenty of meaning, even if he’d sooner wear white T-shirts and sneakers in public than offer his interviewers an actual interpretation of anything. No matter. Like Sister Mary Ignatius, I am here to explain it all for you!


Here’s the crux: Everything that happens up to and including the point that sultry brunet Laura Elena Harring puts the key into that blue box and gets promptly sucked into it is a dream — specifically, the fantasy of psychologically troubled blondie Naomi Watts. And everything after that, pretty much, is reality. At the point 90 minutes or so in when Watts ”wakes up” and turns into a different person, it really does just come down to ”it was only a dream,” and everything we see from there on — albeit flashing back and forth in time — represents the tortured series of events that has brought her to this borderline psychotic break.

”If that’s the case,” you may be saying, ”why do some of the characters have the same identities throughout the movie but others, like the two leads, have dual identities before and after the split?” Good question. In the dream, Watts’ character, like a psychotic Dorothy in ”The Wizard of Oz,” has recast some of the real people in her life to try to create a happier and more innocent version of her own jaded story — but some of the characters and incidents in the dream do adhere to known reality.

Let’s tell the story in somewhat the reverse order that Lynch does. In the real world that we experience in the film’s final stretch, Diane Selwyn (Watts) is a young Canadian woman who won a jitterbug contest and came to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. On a casting call, she met and fell in love with Camilla Rhodes (Harring). But Camilla got the lead role and became a star, whereas girlfriend Diane has continued to languish in obscurity, surviving on bit parts Camilla throws her. Camilla is enough of a tart that she flaunts her cheating ways in front of Diane, and when she announces her engagement to an annoying director (Justin Theroux) at a dinner party, jilted Diane finally snaps and hires a hitman to murder her gal pal. But after the dirty deed is done, even as she’s told by a neighbor that detectives want to question her, Diane becomes as strung out as any junkie, indulging in a dream where she and Camilla have different, more innocent identities. When the reality of what she’s done again rears its ugly head, she can’t take the guilt and shoots herself.

This is a bit of a jolt after the first two-thirds of the movie, a ”Nancy Drew Goes to Tinseltown” fantasy scenario in which Diane remakes herself as wide-eyed, too-good-to-be-true ingenue Betty Elms, and the trampy Camilla is resurrected as Rita, a good-natured amnesiac who just barely escaped being murdered. ”Okay, but how about that whole subplot about the director being forced by some sinister Mob conspiracy to cast an actress named Camilla Rhodes (who, in the fantasy part of the film, is played by another actress)?” Easy: In Diane’s idealized — albeit psycho — dream, she imagines that her girlfriend Camilla got that starmaking part and she was shunted aside because the director was FORCED to cast Camilla, as the result of some huge treacherous plot. Better to believe that than that she’s a nobody because she’s untalented, right?

In some ways, this is essentially the same film as ”Lost Highway”: Someone jealously murders his or her lover, and then, unable to deal with the guilt, goes into such denial that he or she actually escapes into another identity to try to work the same story toward a happier, less homicidal conclusion. Lynch has said that ”Highway” was his version of the O.J. Simpson story, or: How far do you have to go to convince yourself that you’re not a murderer? ”Mulholland” mulls the same territory, albeit with some bisexual twists.

”Okay, I’ll buy all that,” you tell me, generously. ”But what is up with that Cowboy dude without any eyebrows? What in sam hill does HE represent, smart guy?” To which my answer is: Hey, listen, when it comes to interpreting Lynch, I’m only a genius — not a miracle worker.

Mulholland Drive
  • Movie
  • 145 minutes