It's a good thing he did: "Mulholland Drive," which earned the directing prize at Cannes, represents a return to vintage Lynch territory--a realm of eccentric and dangerous characters, labyrinthine storylines and mysterious symbols reminiscent of "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks." And while "Mulholland Drive" will frustrate anyone who tries to deconstruct its plot, it nevertheless stands as one of the director's best works in years. Not that "The Straight Story" wasn't a gem; it's just that here Lynch is working on a much broader canvas and filling it with his trademark bold, warped sensibility.
For a film that runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, "Mulholland Drive" never feels long. Beginning with seemingly separate storylines, Lynch introduces his characters only to weave their fates together. There's Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a gorgeous dark-haired femme fatale who's the sole survivor of a car accident. Rita has no recollection of her identity but seems to know she is in jeopardy and stumbles to find a safe haven in an unoccupied Los Angeles apartment. Meanwhile, perky blonde ingénue Betty (Naomi Watts) is headed for the same apartment, which belongs to her vacationing aunt. Having journeyed to Hollywood to launch her acting career, Betty is surprised to find a stranger in her abode but instantly drawn to the mysterious Rita, and the two women forge an unlikely bond. Rita and Betty's encounter is just one of several scenes that play against convention.
Elsewhere, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), the hot young movie director du jour, is in pre-production on a picture but finds himself at the mercy of two demanding financiers who tell him who to cast in his new film. The issue of creative freedom--obviously dear to Lynch, given the film's arrested origins--is effectively addressed as Kesher explodes at the studio and then suffers devastating personal setbacks.
Eventually Betty, Rita and Adam's stories intersect, but not before some very bizarre things happen. The film's last segment is its most frustrating but also its richest, packed with elements of time-travel, identity switching and enough enigmatic symbols to baffle Freud. It's also ravishing to look at, thanks to Peter Deming's lush cinematography and Jack Fisk's carefully realized production design. Acting is tops all around, with special praise due Watts, whose seemingly naïve Betty offers, like Lynch's film itself, so much more than meets the eye. Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring and Justin Theroux. Directed and written by David Lynch. Produced by Mary Sweeney, Alain Sarde, Neal Edelstein, Michael Polaire and Tony Krantz. A Universal Focus release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 146 min