Wild at Heart (1990) This film, studded with numerous references to The Wizard of Oz, is a road movie as only David Lynch could tell it. Nicolas Cage, channeling Elvis Presley, is ne’er do well Sailor Ripley, and Laura Dern is his girlfriend, Lula Fortune. Together, they set out on the highway toward California. Diane Ladd (Dern’s real-life mother) plays Lula’s deranged mother, Marietta, who would like nothing more than to see Sailor dead. Writer/director Lynch has assembled an impressive supporting cast, including Harry Dean Stanton as a love-struck private investigator, J.E. Freeman as a sociopathic hitman, Crispin Glover as Lula’s mentally unstable uncle, and Willem Dafoe as small-time criminal Bobby Peru (sporting some truly hideous teeth). Filled with surreal comic touches and even a dash of whimsy, Wild at Heart is Lynch at his most playful.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD
Lost Highway (1997) Set amidst a film noir backdrop, Lost Highway toys with notions of reality and fantasy. Bill Pullman plays jazz musician Fred Madison, who’s accused of murdering his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). The story takes an abrupt shift as the incarcerated musician inexplicably changes into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a mechanic for a mob boss (Robert Loggia). Things get dicey when Pete falls for the crime lord’s girlfriend Alice (also played by Arquette). A shadowy figure (Robert Blake, in his last film role to date), who could be a figment of Fred’s imagination, lurks in the background. Lost Highway is at once disorienting and engaging, sucking the audience into a mystery with no apparent solution. We’re never sure if Fred and Pete (or Renee and Alice) exist in separate realities, or if one is imaginary.
Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD.
Mulholland Drive (2001) With its labyrinthine plot and exploration of the seamy underbelly beneath the glamour of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive is the product of an artist at the top of his form. It’s also an exercise in frustration, as it requires us to examine clues that may or may not add up. When aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) discovers a mysterious woman (Laura Elena Harring) living in her aunt’s apartment, she’s determined to piece together the stranger’s identity. Lynch’s surreal mystery is fascinating to look at and mull over, yet distancing. Despite the considerable praise that’s been heaped on the film over the years, I contend it’s the director’s most overrated title. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly doesn’t work for me, but the purposely convoluted story makes this more of an exercise in confusion, rather than a satisfying cinematic experience.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD
Inland Empire (2006) I fear that I’ve failed some sort of David Lynch fan litmus test with Inland Empire, which raises some intriguing concepts, but is tedious to sit through. Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, together with this film complete a loose trilogy about the dark side of Los Angeles. Laura Dern portrays Nikki Grace, an actress who becomes immersed in her latest role. The line between reality and fantasy blurs as the details of her fictional on-screen affair appear to parallel events in her off-screen life. The film weaves together several stories, with Nikki acting out several roles she’s presumably played in the past. Lynch seems to suggest that by adopting different roles, actors inhabit different realities, but with a running time of nearly three hours, Inland Empire wears out its welcome. Also, as a result of being shot on videotape, it looks cheap and visually flat compared to Lynch’s previous efforts.
Rating: ** ½. Available on DVD