This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Hey friends! This here is an essay I wrote almost a year ago, the original intent of which was to make a script for my first ever YouTube video, but then covid hit and that plan fell through. But! I still think it's a good essay, or at least I hope it is because I spent an absolutely unconscionable about of time and effort on it, and it represents some sort of benchmark for me and my writing. It's something that I've always wanted to do, basically my own version of those stupid "Mulholland Drive EXPLAINED" videos but in essay form (yes, I am exactly the type of dumb guy who wants to make "x movie explained" videos).
This has been living on my Patreon for a few months now, and I thought posting it here would be a nice way to say thank you for 3k likes on my other Mulholland Drive review. I'm attempting to strangle the part of me that wants to say please support me on Patreon if you like my work, it really means a lot to me even if you just give $1 a month, and for $3 a month you get exclusive bonus content and early access to essays like this one, and for $5 a month you can even tell me what to watch and look at my screening notes before my reviews drop, but it's no use, as much as I try to suffocate the sellout inside of me he always manages to get a few words in. This monstrosity is already long enough as it is, so without any further ado:
Ok, so, like, Mulholland Drive, right? What's even going on in this movie? The dialogue is all weird and stilted, everybody seems to be playing multiple characters or something, there's this weird elderly couple that are kinda normal at first, at least by the standards of this bonkers nonsense, but later they go crazy or something, and there's a cowboy with no eyebrows and some sort of homeless lady covered in filth. Naomi Watts is an actor who seems to be finding some success, but then she's sitting around her apartment in a bathrobe masturbating? Laura Harring has amnesia, but then she's taking Naomi Watts to a dinner party? What the heck is up with the dancing at the start of the movie, and why does Naomi Watts suddenly kill herself for no reason at the end of it? This movie doesn't make any sense at all!
Mulholland Drive always struck me as a rather unique entry in the canon of "confusing" movies, not because I "always understood" it (I too once watched it for the first time and didn't know what to make of it), but rather because most so-called "confusing" movies are usually either narratively difficult (like Primer or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or incomprehensibly dense and surrealist (like The Holy Mountain or Stalker); in other words, they are movies that are confusing because it's fundamentally unclear what even happens in them. Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, is, with the exception of a couple ambiguous symbols, a completely realist film, and with the exception of a couple unsignaled flashbacks, completely narratively comprehensible. The confusing part isn’t what happens, but, you know, why it happens.
Here’s the skeleton key: the first two hours of the movie are a dream and the last 20 minutes are reality. If we condense the dream and reorder the flashbacks, this is what happens: a young woman wins a jitterbug contest and moves to LA to become an actor, falls in love with another woman, hires a hitman to have her killed, has a dream about helping her recover from amnesia, wakes up and remembers that she had her killed, and commits suicide.
And let’s be clear: the idea that the first two hours of the film are a dream and that the final act is reality is not an "interpretation" of the film, it is literally and repeatedly evidenced by the narrative and dialogue: the camera lays down on a pillow, the man in Winkies "had a dream about this place" in which "it looks just like this," Diane/Betty calls LA a "dream place," the magician at Club Silencio says "this is all an illusion," and, when the dream is over, the Cowboy tells Diane that "it's time to wake up." Reading most of the film as a dream is not an "interpretation," it is part of the actual diegesis of the film.
But that sucks! ...Right? Doesn't that make it just another cheap Twilight Zone episode where all this stuff happens and none of it matters because it was all in her head? No! This narrative structure allows us to see deeper into the psyche of Naomi Watts's character than a traditional drama would. The dream shows us how she's unconsciously processing traumatic events in her life, and it gives David Lynch an excuse to blow a load of symbolism all over us to make the themes hit home. So, what exactly is this dream telling us about Naomi Watts's character, then? What exactly is it accomplishing for her psychologically? The easiest way to explain this is to return to that brief plot synopsis with a little more detail:
Diane Selwyn (played by Naomi Watts) wins a jitterbug contest, is inspired to become an actor, flies to LA, and, while working there, falls in love with Camilla Rhodes (played by Laura Harring); but Camilla sends mixed signals, is sexually promiscuous, and gets engaged to director Adam Kesher (played by Justin Theroux). In her jealousy, Diane hires a hitman to kill Camilla, and, after receiving the signal of the hitman's success, she goes to sleep and has a dream in which she unconsciously rearranges reality:
- in order to completely flip the power dynamic between herself and Camilla, changing Camilla from a dominant tease into a helpless amnesiac as punishment for her perceived betrayal;
- in order to portray herself as a benevolent psychological philanthropist who's doing everything she can to help this suspicious but innocent woman;
- in order to portray herself as a great actor who isn't getting good roles because of crooked, behind-the-scenes meddling;
- in order to portray Adam Kesher as a total failure who loses his wife, his money, and his authority as a director as punishment for "stealing" Camilla from her;
- in order to portray Joe Messing, the hitman she hired to kill Camilla, as a clumsy fool to alleviate her guilt over hiring him (and perhaps even to hope that he failed);
- in order to shift the site of her original trauma (Camilla and Adam's engagement) to the site of Camilla's new, false trauma (losing her memory);
- in order to shift the focus of the detectives who want to arrest her for killing Camilla onto Camilla herself for fleeing the scene of a crime;
- in order to shift the objects of guilt (the money she paid for the hit and the blue key that signifies its completion) from herself onto Camilla;
- and, finally, in order to show Camilla the result of her (Diane's) potential suicide, both to demonstrate to Camilla the pain she caused her and to guilt trip Camilla into loving her again.
This dream has the opposite of its intended, unconscious effect: rather than clearing her conscience, she wakes up guilt-ridden, and, unable to alleviate her sense of loss through further fantasies of her reunion with Camilla, she kills herself.
This basic comprehension of the narrative structure of the film allows us to move on to phase two of understanding it: interpreting its contents. There are two primary readings of Mulholland Drive that I'm going to discuss here: a more literal, cultural analysis of the film as a critique of the Hollywood studio system, and a more internal, psychological analysis of the film as a representation of trauma how we attempt to cope with it.
A little background on Lynch's career will help with the first reading. Following his initial commercial success with The Elephant Man, David Lynch signed on to direct an adaptation of Dune and was incredibly frustrated by the experience because he didn't have final cut and found his vision for the film totally compromised by the producers. He tried to recover from this disaster with a more personal film, Blue Velvet, but while that film found some critical acclaim, it was largely a failure with mainstream audiences.
He then co-created the show Twin Peaks with Mark Frost, and here he encountered even more studio interference: after just one season, the writer/director duo were put under pressure to reveal Laura Palmer's killer, the mystery around which the entire show revolved. After this, he participated in a series of small and unsuccessful television ventures, and eventually worked on Lost Highway and Straight Story, which, while not exceptionally successful, were at least not total failures, and which were mostly free from the studio interference he had become used to.
It was in this state, after these two moderate successes, that Lynch finally felt comfortable pitching an idea for a television show to ABC. They agreed and funded a two-hour pilot, but they weren't pleased with the result and shelved it indefinitely. With additional funding from the French production company StudioCanal, Lynch turned this shelved pilot into the feature film we know today as Mulholland Drive.
It should make perfect sense, then, that the film contains an abundance of evidence of studio interference, behind-the-scenes meddling, and general disrespect for the art of cinema by Hollywood executives. Because of this, it's quite compelling to read the film as an expression of Lynch's frustration with the studio system and a critique of Hollywood and its disregard for the integrity of real cinematic artistry.
"Okay, so that's all well and good, but I'm not David Lynch, and I have no plans to make a film in the Hollywood studio system, so what does any of this have to do with me?" You ask rhetorically, allowing me to conveniently transition to my next point. While that was perhaps the more concrete reading of the film, this next one is my personal favorite, because, for one, it's more generalizable to the broad spectrum of humanity, but, on a more personal note, it's about a whole bunch of psychological nonsense. My favorite type of nonsense!
Naomi Watts's character, Diane Selwyn in reality and Betty Elms in the dream, is suffering from the guilt and trauma of having killed another human being—a human being she was in love with, no less—and much of the film is concerned with how she copes with this emotional and psychological agony. Her primary coping mechanism involves reconstructing the real world into her own fantasy dream-world in a way that makes it not so scary and painful anymore. Her dream, which occupies the vast majority of the film's runtime, is essentially an escapist fantasy for her.
There's an important clarification to be made here: obviously Naomi Watts's character is not consciously arranging the events of the film or of the dream within it; rather, the point is that her mind is unconsciously rearranging reality to suit her deepest desires. The dream thus acts as a sort of wish fulfillment for her, but it also reveals ways in which she's still repressing or displacing her anxiety and depression.
One final note before we get into this: because many actors play characters with one name in reality and a different name in the dream, I'm just going to refer to characters by the actor who plays them, with occasional clarifications where necessary. So, uh, yeah, let's get into it!
The first thing we see after the Universal logo and a few initial production credits is a bunch of random people doing the jitterbug against a purple background. Eventually we also see Naomi Watts, big smile, accompanied by an elderly couple, presumably the judges of the contest.
Opening on the jitterbug contest without any context makes this a particularly perplexing scene because it's not explained until, uhh, lemme check my notes... the very end of the movie, by which point the audience has had enough time to either decide that it's just another ambiguous symbol of who-knows-what and either dismiss it or forget about it. But as Naomi Watts later explains, "I always wanted to come here. I won this jitterbug contest. That sort of led to acting. You know, wanting to act."
So, unbeknownst to the audience, this confusing initial shot is actually the impetus or character motivation for the rest of the film. It's what causes Watts to become interested in acting, move to LA, and fall in love with Laura Harring. It's an incomprehensible beginning because it remains unexplained for so long, but this really is the beginning of Naomi Watts's character and her story.
The next thing we see is the camera essentially lying down in bed. This can be confusing because the film doesn't tell us what's going on outright or reveal that we are inside Naomi Watts's perspective as she goes to sleep, but with the context of the rest of the film it makes perfect sense. The simplest significance of this brief shot is to signpost for the audience that we are now entering dream territory: everything from here onward is a construction of Watts's mind and can be explained with reference to her lived experiences. What's confusing about this organization of events, why it's hard to grasp this short moment on a first watch, is that we won't return to this level of reality for about two hours, and, similar to the jitterbug contest, it's easy to have either forgotten about it or dismissed it as another bit of nonsense in a long series of bits of nonsense.
Cut to the title card and the rest of the opening credits. These credits follow Laura Harring's limousine until it stops unexpectedly ("We don't stop here!") and the driver pulls a gun and tells her to get out of the car.
These armed drivers can potentially represent a couple different things: one, since we're now in Naomi Watts's dream space, they could be unconscious residues of her own desire to kill Harring, or they could be psychological stand-ins for Joe Messing, the assassin (because, in reality, she has just received confirmation of his success); or, more broadly, they could be agents of the unnamed shadowy organization meddling behind the scenes in this dream version of Hollywood (as we will later see, the organization is indeed looking for Laura Harring).
Additionally, the spot that the drivers choose to stop the limo is significant because it's where (later in the diegesis of the film but earlier in the film's narrative, i.e. before Watts went to sleep and had this dream) Harring brings Watts to the party where she proposes to Theroux and hurts Watts so badly that she decides to kill her. It's also significant—not thematically but narratively—because it's where a car of joy-riders crashes into them, causing Harring to lose her memory and kicking off the plot of the first two acts of the film. In a daze, she wanders accidentally to the house where Watts will be staying, and she goes to sleep in a bush.
The last salient detail in this scene before we move on to the famously perplexing Winkies scene is the detectives showing up to investigate the car crash. They deduce that someone is missing from the crime scene, and they begin their search for Harring. They don't know it's her they're looking for yet, and ultimately this moment serves a more important symbolic function than a narrative one. The detectives will never find Harring in the course of the film (although the possibility of their presence motivates some of the action), but back in real life (outside the dream) there are real detectives searching for real Naomi Watts to arrest her for putting a real hit on real Laura Harring; so here, her mind has unconsciously constructed a dream-world wherein the cops aren't after her, they're after Harring instead.
Quick cut back to Harring entering Aunt Ruth's house and almost getting caught, and then we're in the Winkies scene. Ah, Winkies. This is either a love-it or hate-it type of scene. It has no direct connection to the rest of the film's narrative, and instead it functions as a microcosm of the film, as a way to sort of teach the audience how to watch and what to expect.
There are a few key elements at play here. One of the men at the table in the diner says, "I had a dream about this place." He describes his dream of being at Winkies and being afraid of "a man in back of this place," and then the rest of the scene is this exact dream, exactly as he described it. "Do you get it yet?" The movie desperately shouts at us. "This is all a dream!"
In addition to teaching the audience to read the film as a dream, Winkies also instructs the audience what to expect. If this scene is a microcosm of the film itself, then we're being taught to expect that, at the end of the film, we're going to find the "man in back," the symbolic Thing so truly horrifying that it's almost completely unimaginable. Essentially this is what is at stake in the film; it is a polymorphous symbol that can take the place of the ultimate consequence of whatever interpretation you choose to read the film through.
In the context of reading the film as a depiction of the chaos and injustice of Los Angeles, the "man in back" is an actor tossed out on the street, gone from fame to homelessness through some unknown means. In the context of reading the film as a depiction of a struggle with trauma and depression, the "man in back" signifies that deep psychological kernel, that one thing that you cannot face about yourself or your life.
Phew, okay that's Winkies. Now we're gonna move on to the rest of the film, which roughly cuts back and forth between scenes with (1) Justin Theroux and his encounters with the shadowy organization meddling behind the scenes amid the chaos of dream-Hollywood, and (2) Naomi Watts and Laura Harring's journey to find Harring's lost identity as a metaphor for Watts's own soul-searching and as a displacement of her trauma onto Harring. This is a convenient narrative technique for Lynch to keep either half of the story from getting stale, but if we understand this portion of the film as Watts's fantasy of the world, it also serves the unconscious dream-logic purpose of keeping Watts separate from Theroux, giving her a kind of safe psychological-narrative distance from the man she hates—which is why it's so significant that she breaks down when these two narrative threads collide later on in the film, but now we're getting ahead of ourselves.
We start on Theroux's half of the equation, with the shadowy organization calling an intermediary on the phone credited only as "Back of Head Man" to tell him that "the girl is still missing," a message that he then relays to an unseen caller, whom we can deduce is Justin Theroux from his voice and from the fact that he's in what appears to be (as we will later see) Cookie's Motel.
In the immediate diegesis of the dream narrative, the "missing girl" is most likely Laura Harring, who escaped her would-be limo-driver captors and is now on the run with amnesia. This would imply that Theroux wants Harring so he can cast her for the part in his movie, the part in which he's eventually forced to instead cast Melissa George (referred to as "Camilla Rhodes" in the dream, Laura Harring's character's real name). But also, Theroux and Harring were in love, so it makes sense that he's looking for her. Watts is trying to repress that fact, her unconscious mind is still aware of it, so their relationship makes its way into her dream. This becomes a sort of unconscious residue of their relationship: Theroux wants Harring, but Watts has taken her from him, and thus she is "still missing."
We don't learn much about this shadowy organization in this first scene—or, you know, in any subsequent scene for the rest of the film, but hey! This is David Lynch, after all. We see what appears to be their headquarters, but many of the individual members are shrouded or obscured from view and remain nameless throughout the film. However, despite their narrative obscurity, they perform a critical thematic function for the reading of the film as a critique of the chaos of Los Angeles, in particular its poor treatment of the people working in the film industry. These are the agents behind the many evil deeds done throughout the rest of the film.
This next connection is never made in a way that it might have been if Lynch's pilot had been taken to series, but in terms of reading the film as an exploration of guilt and trauma, I tend to imagine the shadowy organization as the recipient of Watts's blame for everything that goes wrong in her career and her life, another dream-projection, like Harring, another result of Watts's attempts to displace her own guilt onto others. "It wasn't me, it was the one-armed man!" but instead it's a shadowy organization.
From here, we move on to Watts's half of the narrative: her plane lands at LAX, she's chatting amiably with an elderly couple who appear to be the judges from the jitterbug contest. She discovers her luggage missing only to realize that a friendly cab driver is loading it into his trunk, ready to take her wherever she needs to go. This is an ironic reversal of the reality of LA: nobody would steal your luggage in this Los Angeles! This is a dream place! Okay, wait, we haven't quite gotten to that line yet, but you get the point: you are much more likely to have your luggage actually stolen at the airport (at least in David Lynch's pessimistic view of the world) than you are to have a kindly cab driver load your luggage into their taxi in order to speed you on your way to your destination.
After arriving, Coco takes Watts to her Aunt's apartment, and while admiring the place, Watts stumbles upon Harring in the shower, and boom, we finally have our plot in action. After some initial confusion, Harring introduces herself as Rita (taken from Rita Hayworth on a Gilda poster in the bathroom), and Watts proceeds to gush about her excitement at being in Hollywood: "I'm just so excited to be here. I mean, I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I'm in this… dream place." Do you get it yet? We're in a dream place!
Harring tells Watts that she needs to go to sleep, hoping that her memory will return, and Watts puts her to bed. This little moment is the beginning of everything: it subtly reinforces the dream-space dimension of the film (She's going to sleep! Get it? Okay sorry, I'll stop), it begins the sexualization of the women's relationship (Harring is going to bed in Watts's bed, she's wearing nothing but a towel, her bare legs exposed), and it also begins to reverse their power dynamic. Outside of the dream, Harring has all the power over Watts, and she uses it to tease her; thus, here in the dream, Watts unconsciously flips that around, making Harring completely dependent upon her. She's so powerless that she doesn't even know who she is, and Watts has to put her to bed like a mother.
From here we return to Justin Theroux in a meeting about his recasting of the lead role of his movie. Two men in suits (the Castigliani brothers) come in and tell Theroux that he'll be casting Melissa George in the part. Theroux objects to this undercutting of his authority, and he storms out of the room, definitely not throwing a childish tantrum—which he proves by assaulting the Castiglianis' car with his golf club.
This initial scene with Theroux establishes the two major trends of his half of the narrative: first of all, the Castiglianis are agents of the shadowy organization, they're meddling with Theroux's film in a way that must be very personally relatable to Lynch, coming off his recent struggles with the Hollywood studio system (it's no coincidence that Theroux looks quite a bit like Lynch himself). The framing here of the Castiglianis as pretentious coffee snobs is the cherry on top of this thematic sundae: Hollywood is not only evil because they have no respect for art, they're evil because they have bad taste in coffee.
But this meddling and Theroux's reaction to it have a secondary dimension as well. Understanding this portion of the film as Naomi Watts's dream, as being an unconscious construction of her fantasy, this systematic undercutting of Theroux's authority as a director and as a man has a deep satisfaction for Watts. She is angry with Theroux outside this dream world, so within the dream she unconsciously recreates Theroux as thoroughly impotent, taking away his art by forcing him to cast someone he doesn't want in his movie, and portraying him as a petulant child when faced with these challenges.
From here we get a brief shot of Watts checking up on Harring, holding her hand to her forehead to check her temperature, reinforcing the reversed power dynamic where now she must care for Harring, and then we're back in the shadowy organization's headquarters. They communicate Theroux's negative reaction to their suggestion that he cast Melissa George in his movie and decide to "shut everything down." Thus continues the undercutting of Theroux's autonomy, reinforcing both the madness of LA and the impotence of Theroux.
At this point, we get one of the few divergences from the Watts vs Theroux parallel storytelling: we see the hitman, Joe Messing, played by Mark Pellegrino, attempting—and, to some small extent, succeeding—in killing a man who seems to be one of the joy-riders involved in Laura Harring's crash at the beginning of the film. He kills his target, but he also accidentally kills two other bystanders—and then he kills the vacuum cleaner! Which then sets fire to the whole building! Smooth work there, Joe. Great job.
The man he kills and the black book he retrieves are never expanded upon—they feel like something that would have been developed more if the original pilot had been picked up as a show—but the purpose that this scene serves within Watts's psychological economy is, similar to Theroux, to undercut Joe's competence as an assassin. Pellegrino plays both this dream-hitman and the hitman Watts hires in reality, and whether Watts is unconsciously reconstructing him as an incompetent loser in the hope that he failed to kill Harring or in order to shift the blame from herself to him is unclear, but what is clear is that Watts wants to make him look like a fool.
Cut back to Watts on the phone with Aunt Ruth, and she tells her about "Rita," aka Laura Harring, and Ruth says she doesn't know anyone named Rita. Watts confronts Harring about this, and Harring finally admits the truth: she doesn't know who she is. Watts then suggests that Harring open the bag she has with her, and inside they find several large stacks of hundred-dollar bills and a blue key.
This is where the majority of the heavy lifting in terms of Watts alleviating her guilt and flipping the power dynamic between her and Harring occurs. She learns that Harring is not her aunt's friend, and she responds not with anger, but with compassion; she refuses to call the cops on Harring and instead wants to help her find out who she is. She's not the kind of person who might fly off the handle and have her friend assassinated for getting engaged! Certainly not. Watts is unconsciously constructing herself as Harring's pure, altruistic benefactor, shifting all the power to her side of the relationship. She could have called the cops, but she didn't.
But the money and the key are the real… uh… keys here (I'm not even sorry). The money is a direct transposition of the money that Watts used in reality to pay the hitman to kill Harring, and the blue key is the sign the hitman gave her to signify that the job had been completed. The money and the key are the two biggest symbols of Watts's guilt and trauma, and here, in the dream, they're in Harring's handbag. They're not Watts's responsibility anymore.
Through this dream-logic reconstruction, Watts is shifting the blame for Harring's death onto Harring herself. It's her fault, after all, that she didn't love Watts the way she needed her to, right? Because of, uh, reasons? This is classic psychological projection, an attempt to remove the guilt from herself and put it somewhere else, on someone else—and it's no coincidence that this is also where, cinematically, we get some of the tightest close-ups on Watts and Harring's faces as they reveal the money and key in the bag. This is the emotional core of the dream, the moment where Watts psychologically exonerates herself for Harring's murder, and Harring stares back, desperate, on the verge of tears, as if, on some level, she somehow understands the meaning of all this.
Cut back to the hitman eating a hotdog and chatting with a prostitute about the fact that Harring is still missing. This is a bit disconnected from the rest of the plot, and like Pellegrino's previous scene, there's a lot that feels like it would have been expanded upon if the pilot had been taken to series, but, I mean, it makes sense: the hitman would be looking for Harring in Watts's dream as a further unconscious residue of the reality where she hired him to kill her. He's looking for Harring in reality, so he's looking for her in the dream too; even though Watts wants to repress this fact, her unconscious mind leaves it in, as a kind of return of the repressed.
Back to Watts and Harring briefly, still agonizing over the contents of the bag, and then we rejoin Theroux in his car, where he gets a call from his assistant saying that everyone's been fired, further undercutting him in order both to criticize LA's lack of concern for artists and to disempower him for taking Harring away from Watts.
Then back to Watts and Harring. Harring remembers the street name Mulholland Drive—hey, that's the title of the movie!—and, thinking that's where her accident might have happened, the two decide to look into it. Beyond moving the plot forward, this scene further reinforces Watts as the one with the power in their relationship and Harring as dependent upon her.
Theroux returns home to find his wife cheating on him with the pool boy. Hilariously, his wife and the pool boy both blame Theroux for this, saying that he wasn't supposed to be home and maybe he should think about what he did to deserve being cheated on. This is more of Watts unconsciously portraying Theroux as impotent, not only as a director, but now as a husband as well. And this is also another psychological residue from reality: at the party toward the end of the film, Theroux relates an anecdote where "he got the pool, and she got the pool boy". In reality, Theroux laughs this off, happy in his new relationship with Harring; but now, here in the dream, Theroux has nowhere to go, and he's forced to limp off to Cookie's.
Watts and Harring put the money and key in a box in the closet, and they go to a pay phone where they call a traffic report line to inquire whether there was an accident on Mulholland Drive. There was (duh, I mean, we saw it at the beginning of the movie!), so they go to a diner to discuss next steps. At the diner, they're served by a waitress named Diane, and Harring remembers that her name is Diane Selwyn—or so she thinks (dutiful readers will remember that this is Watts's character's name in reality). They return to the apartment, look up Diane Selwyn in the phone book, and call her. She doesn't pick up, but they decide to check out the apartment anyway.
This is mostly plot mechanics, pushing forward the search for Laura Harring's identity and thus for "Diane Selwyn," but one interesting tidbit to come out of it is Naomi Watts saying "it's strange calling yourself," when she thinks she's calling Laura Harring's apartment. Watts is calling "Diane Selwyn," her name in reality, so she is in fact "calling herself" even if she doesn't realize it yet, as we'll see when we get to the apartment and find her corpse. This is another psychological residue: Watts is unconsciously displacing her guilt onto Harring, but here, through her Freudian slip, she seems to realize that she is Harring, that Harring is just a projection created by her own trauma.
Back to Theroux's half of the narrative: A large man in a suit comes looking for him at his house, but he's not there. He's at Cookie's Motel, where Cookie comes to see him and tells him his credit's no good anymore. He calls his assistant, and she confirms that he's broke and that he must meet "The Cowboy" to get this all sorted out. This is more behind the scenes meddling in the chaos of Los Angeles, and more undercutting Theroux, now taking away his money, leaving him with no job, no cash, and no hope. Nowhere to go but to "The Cowboy."
Meanwhile, Watts and Harring find Diane Selwyn's apartment on a map. They're visited by Louise, a neighbor who tells her that something is wrong, and Coco gives Watts the script for her scene the next day. Louise's character and statement are left vague, and whether or not they may have been expanded upon if the show had been picked up, here they pretty clearly contribute to Watts unconsciously painting herself as Harring's benevolent savior, protecting her from the prying eyes of Louise and Coco.
So now we're finally here. Justin Theroux visits "The Cowboy" out on his ranch. The Cowboy tells him again to cast Melissa George as the lead in his movie, and tells him he'll see him one more time if he does good and two more times if he does bad. It's easy to get lost in the enigmatic character of The Cowboy, but at his simplest level he's just another representative of this shadowy organization that's been meddling with Theroux's film, the ongoing metaphor for the chaos of Hollywood. I mean, he's literally a cowboy, one of the most iconic symbols of Hollywood cinema. He is Hollywood, and he's messing with Justin Theroux's art.
The "you'll see me one more time if you do good and two more times if you do bad" statement is potentially confusing, but not because it has any hidden meaning. It's more of an easter egg than anything else: he does in fact appear two more times in the film, once very explicitly to wake Naomi Watts from her dream, and once more in the background of Theroux's party toward the end of the film. We see him twice because Theroux has, in some important and all-encompassing way, "done bad," even though he eventually does cast Melissa George as The Cowboy requests.
Okay, now we're entering one of my absolute favorite scenes in the film. Naomi Watts is practicing for her audition with Laura Harring, and the two different ways she plays the scene here and later at the audition itself are directly representative of the differences in her relationship with Harring between the dream and reality. In her rehearsal, Watts plays the scene with a melodramatic anger, having fun with the role but exerting an explicit power over the timid Harring, mimicking her power over her in the dream, whereas in the actual audition she plays the scene with a seductive sexuality, signaling her love and longing, depicting her deep desire for Harring in reality.
The scene revolves around Watts('s character's character) being surprised that Harring('s character's character) is "still here" (a negative echo of the earlier "the girl is still missing"), that she "came back"—an explicit manifestation of the way that Harring "came back" from the dead in this dream after Watts had her killed in reality. The two characters in the audition scene have some prior relationship, like Watts and Harring, but something happened between them, and Watts('s character's character) threatens to kill Harring('s character's character). It feels a bit convoluted because of the sheer number of metacinematic levels—for example, Naomi Watts is playing a character (Diane Selwyn) who's dreaming that she's another character (Betty Elms) who's playing another character in the audition scene (unnamed)—but the point here is that this is another unconscious residue, both of Watts's sexual desire for Harring and of her desire to kill her.
After the rehearsal, Coco comes by and tells her to get rid of "any trouble" there might be in the apartment. Watts continues to defend Harring, protecting her like the altruistic savior she wants to pretend to be. Detectives drive by the apartment, more psychological residue of the detectives looking for her in reality, and then we get to the audition. Watts plays it in a much more sexual way than she had in her rehearsal with Harring, partly because, if we read this as an approximate reconstruction of her and Harring's relationship, she really does feel this deep, romantic desire, but also partly because the man playing opposite her pushes her to play it that way.
There's another dimension to the fact that Jimmy, the actor playing opposite Watts in the audition, pushes her to be more sexually open than she's initially comfortable with. It's not hard to see the analogy to the chaos of Hollywood here in our current cultural climate of men in the studio system abusing their power to gain sexual favors with women. In this sense, Lynch is telling us something we didn't or couldn't see so clearly back in 2000: that the system is built for men to take advantage of women who, like Watts's character, are desperate to get into the business. The chaos of Los Angeles is particularly infectious to disempowered women.
Obviously everybody loves Watts's performance, because, you know, it's really good, it's some of the best acting in the film, but, more to the point, because, unconsciously, it's her fantasy projection of herself, it's like Neo in the Matrix with his fancy hair, so of course she's going to portray herself as a great actress. The two studio agents sitting in on the audition love her so much that they take her to Justin Theroux's audition, and, for the first time, the two parallel narrative threads intersect.
This is another of my absolute favorite scenes in the film, and there's a lot to unpack in it.
First, this is the pinnacle of the Hollywood chaos reading of the film, essentially its thematic climax. Justin Theroux is back at work under full control by the shadowy organization. He has his job back, but it's completely compromised. He gives the lead to Melissa George, whether he wants to or not. Art has lost; Hollywood has won.
Second, this is the culmination of Watts undercutting Theroux's authority: he's finally reached the audition, and he's collapsed under the pressure to cast Melissa George. It is his lowest point as a character, and Watts should take deep and profound satisfaction in unconsciously, through dream-logic, putting him there.
But she doesn't.
The two characters share a long look into each other's eyes, the second series of extreme close-ups after the one shared by Watts and Harring when they discover the money and key, with Theroux's eyes almost pleading to be set free from this hellscape that Watts has made for him. Watts returns this gaze, but it's too much for her; she's confronted too directly with the damage she's done. She's reminded of her guilt and her trauma, so she leaves and returns to Harring. The two narrative threads collide, and Watts's confidence collapses. Her direct confrontation with what she's done is more than she can bear.
Back with Harring, the two women embark upon their quest to find Diane Selwyn's apartment, and if the previous scene was the thematic climax of the LA chaos reading of the film, this is the thematic climax of the psychological reading of the film (although it also has some bearing in the LA chaos reading, in the sense that Watts is also one of the casualties of Hollywood, a young aspiring actress who kills herself, a forgotten remnant of the system, just like the "man in back").
The two women arrive at the apartment and catch a glimpse of the detectives, who, in the logic of the dream, are presumably looking for Laura Harring for fleeing the car crash, but, in reality, are trying to arrest Naomi Watts for Harring's murder. The women initially go to the wrong apartment and learn that "Diane" moved recently—another undeveloped sub plot that would probably have been fleshed out if the pilot had been taken to series, but from what we can glean from the film, this was likely the result of Watts trying to escape her memories of her relationship with Harring.
The two women eventually find the right apartment and the corpse of a woman. The corpse has started to decompose and is difficult to identify, but it is Naomi Watts's corpse. It is in "Diane Selwyn's" apartment (Naomi Watts's character's real name), it is in her bed, and even the position of the body is directly recreated when Watts kills herself at the end of the film. So what exactly is going on here? Watts is also in the scene, and surely she's not also a projection of her own mind, that wouldn't make any sense, so it's not literally her dead body. At its simplest level, this foreshadows Watts's eventual suicide, but if we take a closer look we can begin to see the entire unconscious purpose of this dream.
Why is Naomi Watts's mind creating the dream in this way? In part because she wants to displace her guilt for killing Harring, but also because she wants to show Harring how she feels. She shows Harring the result of her (theoretical) suicide as an assertion that, "Sure, maybe I killed you, but look what you did to me! You killed me first!" This is at its core another unconscious move, like putting the money and key in Harring's bag, shifting the guilt from herself to Harring. But it's also a desperate bid for some recognition of the feelings she's been struggling with, essentially saying, "Look what you did when you left me! This is how you made me feel! You made me want to kill myself!"
Harring is traumatized by the encounter (I mean, obviously—who wouldn't be—but I'm trying to signal that we're getting back into the plot now, please keep up and pay attention, I know this thing is getting long, but I promise we're almost there), and they both leave the apartment, all diegetic sound removed from the scene in a direct echo of the encounter with the "man in back" at Winkies.
This cinematic mirroring between the encounter with the corpse and the "man in back" has a dual clarifying effect: We understand the significance of the "man in back" better as a signifier of trauma, like the encounter with the dead body, and we understand the encounter with the dead body better as a signifier of the fallout of the Hollywood system, like the "man in back." This is what I meant when I said the Winkies scene is a microcosm of the rest of the film: Watts and Harring have now both symbolically and metaphorically "gone out back," but here the filthy & disfigured human body isn't a symbol of the forgotten detritus of the Hollywood system, now the body is a symbol of guilt, of the trauma that results from it, and of the consequences of it if left unchecked.
From here we move on to a scene that I always find uncomfortable for how directly it represents Naomi Watts's deepest desires. Back at their apartment, Laura Harring is frantically cutting out chunks of her hair, and Watts stops her, saying, "Let me do it." We then see Harring with what can only be described as a Naomi Watts wig, standing still and expressionless like a mannequin. This whole time, Watts has only wanted a blank slate onto which she could project her own desires. She doesn't want Harring-as-Harring, she wants Harring as a reflection of herself, as a reflection of her own desires. (This also makes explicit all of the connections to Hitchcock's Vertigo, one of the greatest movies of all time, where Jimmy Stewart dresses up Kim Novak to reflect his own personal fantasy, but that's an analysis for another time.)
They have sex, obviously, because if Harring wasn't already a cipher for Watts to project her desire onto, she has fully become one now. Afterward, Harring lies awake, repeating "Silencio" and "No Hay Banda," the name of a club and a magic show performed at it.
Club Silencio is, in some sense, this movie's Black Lodge from Twin Peaks: it occupies real space in the world (like the White Lodge), but it is also an almost extra-dimensional space where the film can more directly talk about its themes. The first act at the club is "No Hay Banda," which is a fun polymorphous symbol that can be read in a whole bunch of ways. (Many people interpret this as a moment of metacinema, where Lynch is saying, "hey y'all, for the last time, it's all a dream!" but for my money, "there is no band" is analogous to the psychoanalytic idea that the object of desire does not exist; the magician's statement that "il n'y a pas d'orchestre" is a precise echo of the Lacanian "il n'y a pas l'objet," but, again, another topic for another time.)
This performance brings us close to the edge of Watts's dream fabric: as the magician says, "this is all a tape recording," denying the reality of Harring and Watt's lived experience, and forcing Watts to face reality once more. But before she does, we get a soulful performance of Llorando by Rebekah del Rio, and, like the audition scene before it, the lyrics to the song serve as another encoded signal of Watts and Harring's relationship.
"I was fine for a while, smiling again. Then last night, I saw you; your hand and the greeting of your voice touched me. And I spoke very well of you, not knowing that I've been crying for your love. After your goodbye, I felt all my pain, alone and crying. Not easy to understand that seeing you again, I will keep crying. I thought I forgot you, but it's true, it's the truth, that I love you even more, much more than yesterday. Tell me, what can I do? You do not love me anymore and I will always be crying for your love. Your love took away all my heart and I keep crying, crying for your love."
Some of this is so explicit that it doesn't even need explaining, but in her dream, Watts has "seen [Harring] again" after Watts killed her, after she had been "crying over [Harring's] love" for Justin Theroux. "After [Harring] left her," both in the sense of leaving her for Theroux, and in the sense of leaving the world through her death, Watts "felt all [her] pain," and has been "alone and crying," filled with despair and regret. And now, "seeing her again" in the dream, she will keep crying. She thought "[she] forgot [her]," but "[she] love[s] [her] even more than yesterday"—she thought that by killing her she could forget her, but it hasn't worked, she loves her even more, so now she's dreaming of their reunion. But that's not helping either, so now she wants to know, "what can I do?" Harring "doesn't love her anymore," she "took away all [her] heart," and now she's stuck "crying for [her] love."
So it's no coincidence that the two women begin weeping: Watts has come too close to the reality of her own trauma, and Harring is either purely a reflection of Watts at this point, or is, like in the encounter with the corpse at Diane's apartment, being confronted with the depth of Watts's pain as well. This is too close to the reality of her desire, and the framework of the dream was already beginning to come apart thanks to the "No Hay Banda" magician, so Watts and Harring put the key in the box (an ambiguous symbol that is definitely not a sex thing and is purely a narrative device) and together, they—she—ends the dream.
Aunt Ruth comes into the room to check on them, but they're gone, poof, because they were never really there in the first place. This is our shift back to reality. The cowboy pokes his head into Naomi Watts's bedroom and tells her to wake up. Both Ruth and The Cowboy are residues of the dream world—they're not "really" there, they're directly straddling the wall between dream and reality. And here we are: we're finally in reality, Watts curled up in bed exactly like the corpse from the dream. She gets up, and what follows is a series of flashes that provide the pieces necessary to unpack all that nonsense we just watched.
The woman from next door comes by for some of her stuff, and she tells Watts that the detectives are looking for her. Watts attempts to fantasize about Harring once more, repressing the presence of the police and attempting to relive her fantasy, resulting in the most haunting false shot reverse-shot in the history of cinema. Watts continues to try to fantasize their romantic reunion. Then we flash back to Watts and Harring doing a scene for Theroux with Harring flaunting her sexuality in front of Watts, one of the triggers of Watts's emotional pain and anger. A quick flash of Watts shutting Harring out of her apartment, apparently upset about her mixed signals: "Well it's not easy for me!" Finally, Watts attempts unsuccessfully to masturbate, probably to these memories we've just seen in flashback.
The telephone rings, and immediately we're inside another flashback to what we might call The Scene Of The Crime: Watts is invited by Harring to come to a house party. A house party at (drum roll) Mulholland Drive. The inciting incident. Where it all started. Harring holds Watts's hand on their way up to the party, an apparent sign of affection, but then she's all over Theroux. Diane gives her backstory to the people at the party: she won a jitterbug contest, got interested in acting, came to LA, met Laura Harring, fell in love with her, decided to kill her—oops, no, wait, I went too far, we haven't quite gotten there yet. She came to LA and met Laura Harring.
Jump to the tail end of a story about Theroux getting the pool and his ex-wife getting the pool boy; Melissa George, the actor Theroux was forced to cast as the lead in his film, kisses Harring, further inflaming Watts's jealousy and planting the seed for her existence as a pawn in Watts's dream, and Harring and Theroux announce their engagement. Watts walks away and we see The Cowboy again—maybe real, maybe another slip back into Watts's fantasy.
Cut to Naomi Watts hiring a hitman to kill Harring. "This is the girl," she says, in a direct echo of Theroux's meeting with the Castiglianis at the beginning of the film. We see the money (much less of it than in the dream, amusingly enough), and the hitman tells Watts about the key. Their waitress is named Betty (Watts's name in the dream, a playful inversion of the waitress being named Diane at the dream-diner), and Watts notices the guy from Winkies out of the corner of her eye. More fodder for her dream world.
Cut back to the "man in back," and the elderly couple emerge in miniature from a paper bag. Return to the present, the blue key on the table, a knocking at the door. The detectives. The elderly couple, Watts's guilt, emerge from under the door. The police have come for her, and there's no more avoiding what she's done, nothing Watts can do anymore to repress her trauma. Tormented by the elderly couple, Watts retreats to her room and shoots herself. Dissolve to the "man in back," and then to a shot of LA, and finally back to Watts and Harring; victims of Hollywood fading directly into the landscape. Silencio.