Drive South

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive takes a switchback ride through the Hollywood hills; Va Savoir is an existential confection; Denzel Washington pulls out the stops in Training Day.

If you made a practice of walking out of every movie at the two-thirds mark, you might think this was the golden age of cinema. Consider the classic first hour of Being John Malkovich (1999), a procession of ever-zanier non sequiturs that takes you deeper into a solipsistic human psyche than any Ingmar Bergman film—and then the damned thing makes the mistake of trying to explain its craziness. Consider Three Kings (1999), a visionary spectacle of war as the ultimate disconnect—until the amoral protagonist gets predictably Bogart-noble. Consider the new thriller Training Day (reviewed later in this column), a smashing dark comedy until the filmmakers’ teasing ambivalence about their ogreish main character (played by Denzel Washington) resolves into easy moralism—at which point the movie becomes just another splattery melodrama. I could reel off a dozen films that start out exhilaratingly free-form and then congeal into one set of conventions or another, their makers attentive to audiences (and studio executives) who are anxious without their bearings. To those who are anxious without their bearings I say: Do not see David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Nutty surrealist that he is, Lynch reverses the trajectory: He moves from the deliberate and semi-linear to the feverishly inchoate. After an overture that consists of some energetic ‘50s-movie-musical frugging and a flurry of doom-laden images from a dark bedroom, the director settles into a stately film noir with gangsters, amnesia, unexplained bundles of money, and lots of subjective, Hitchcockian tracking shots. Oh, goody; I love a mystery! And so does Betty (Naomi Watts), the perky blonde ingénue newly arrived in Beverly Hills from Deepwater, Ontario, who discovers the femme fatale survivor of a spectacular car wreck hiding out in her aunt’s posh apartment. The amnesiac mystery woman (Laura Elena Harring)—who calls herself Rita after glancing at a poster of Gilda—thinks her name might be Diane Selwyn, and Betty suggests that they team up to do some sleuthing: “C’mon, it’ll be just like in the movies!” So pert blonde Betty and dark sultry Rita head off into the bowels of Hollywood.

Notice I said semi-linear. This being a David Lynch film, there are peculiar dissonances, along with whole sequences that seem piped in directly from the mind of a person in a padded cell. A tangential subplot (“What’s the connection?” we keep asking) revolves around a pretentious young director (Justin Theroux) who’s being pressured by gangsters (the same ones hunting for “Rita”) to cast a particular actress in a lavish biopic; he demurs angrily, goes on the lam, and is tracked down at a fleabag hotel by an eerily monotonic albino hit man with a kerchief and cowboy hat. (“You’ll see me one more time if you do good. You’ll see me two more times if you do bad.”) The top gangster is the dwarf from the dream sequences of Twin Peaks. A young man recounts a nightmare to his therapist at a cheerful fast-food joint, next to an alley where a whey-faced ghoul lies in wait. An old Deco skyscraper shares the frame with a taller, Postmodern tower of glass—a hint of the disjunction to come. Angelo Badalamenti’s score mingles bouncy uplift with borborygmic bass notes.

For more than an hour and a half, Lynch holds this narrative together—just. You stay with him because his imagery is all of a piece. Here are poker-faced homicide detectives (including Robert Forster) who deliver their formula lines and vanish from the picture; maniacally twinkling oldsters; a garrulous landlady (Ann Miller, yes that one), white-faced in her kimono like a Kabuki demon (a ghost from a ‘50s MGM musical?); and, most of all, those dishy young women, so Hollywood-archetypal but so elusive, especially when they begin to make love to each other. Lynch regards the long palms, Hollywood hills, and movie-star cars and sunglasses ironically, in quotation marks—but the dreamer of the dream is never smiling, so you’re never sure when (if ever) to laugh. There is a Zen intensity to Lynch’s pictures. And somewhere in the course of his career he has become a masterful storyteller—a spinner of one entrancing yarn.

And then he blows it all to hell. The movie almost literally zones out for a few minutes; then the storyline splinters, doubles back on itself, and begins to forge an entirely new set of connections. Roles change. Identities mutate. Things that made no sense make even less sense—then suddenly, more sense. Mulholland Drive isn’t a “puzzle” like Memento, in which the pieces (sort of) fit together. There are some pieces here that will never fit—except maybe in Lynch’s unconscious. And yet—and yet—this distinctly Hollywood nightmare makes a deeper kind of sense. (I won’t spoil your delight—or frustration—by spelling it all out, but the name of our heroine’s Canadian hometown is no accident.)

You say that Lost Highway (1997) was similarly fractured, and that it never fully earned our irritation? I agree! (Click here to read my review.) The characters in that one were thin-to-nonexistent and the lead actors largely un-fascinating. Lynch, one of the nicest really angry men you’d ever want to meet, has chosen a more accommodating vehicle for both his bottomless rage and his sentimental attachment to the trappings and suits of hope. Like Dennis Potter in Pennies From Heaven, he knows that genres of all kind represent our most optimistic longing for order in a life without sense, justice, happiness.

Mulholland Drive premieres this week at the New York Film Festival, opening Sunday in New York and next week in other cities. This year’s festival is a muted affair, as you can imagine, what with New Yorkers still breathing the fumes of the World Trade Center and making serial calls about gas masks to exasperated Army-Navy store clerks. But there’s something reassuring about the ritual of this thing—the high-falutin’ setting, the boneheaded press conferences, the troops of unsmiling reviewers, the Tourette’s-like invective dribbling from the mouth of John Simon. The Serb critic was in splendid form insulting Jacques Rivette over the somewhat stilted scenes of Pirandello in the festival opener, Va Savoir. (It’s a good thing Simon hasn’t heard Mr. Moviefone pronouncing it “Va Sav-ee-ore.”) I can’t imagine him getting incensed about the rest of the movie, however—an unexpectedly charmant little farce manqué about amour fou et trois couples qui—sorry, my ninth-grade French can somehow do more justice than my English to this peculiarly existential confection. Rivette regards the schisms and reconciliations and jealous longings of these six beautiful people with the most rapt attention imaginable—respecting them even when their most heartfelt conversations take place on opposite sides of closed and locked doors. Such focus in and of itself can be transporting. This is lovely, momentous piffle.

If nothing else, Training Day is a gorgeous pedestal for Denzel Washington, who proves that he can pull out all the stops without losing his charismatic focus—think Al Pacino in Scarface (1983), only sane. His character, a plainclothes narcotics detective named Alonso, is also giving the performance of his life—trying to psych out a “daisy fresh rookie” (Ethan Hawke) who’s so eager to prove himself that he doesn’t realize (until it’s too late) the ways in which he’s being ensnared.

The first two-thirds are a funny and horrifying study in vigilante outlandishness—a near-surreal concentration of all those movies and TV shows about by-the-book idealists being taught the dirty but essential ways of the street by their cynical elders. (“To protect the sheep from the wolf you gotta look like the wolf.”) And we don’t know where it’s going: Will Alonso’s methods (which include pummeling drug dealers, maiming rapists, faking warrants, and cozying up to kingpins) be vindicated? Will he turn out to be correct about how to stay alive—and defeat evil—on the street, or will he end up embodying an even higher evil? As long as that question remains unanswered, Training Day is a brilliant tour-de-force of writing, directing, and acting—a young cop’s descent into hell the way that After Hours (1985) was a yuppie’s descent into hell. As a steadfast opponent of the vigilante ethic, I like the side on which the movie comes down. But giving Alonso a melodramatic secret—a reason for this particular behavior on this particular day—trivializes the whole exercise. And Denzel Washington has too much stature to squander it on just another movie about a chuckling psychopath with a God complex.