How David Lynch Doesn’t Use Dialogue in ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001)

In 2001, David Lynch blessed and cursed the world with Mulholland Drive, an intricately crafted, deeply confusing suspense-noir that deals in Hollywood cynicism, dread, guilt, illusion, innocence, beauty and disdain in equal measure, often at the same time. It’s an all-time classic film that keeps you on the edge of a seat that you think might disappear into smoke at any moment. It won Lynch Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival and is often referred to as one of the best films of the 21st century. Despite all this, no one can quote the film beyond the word “Silencio”.

The reason for most people’s inability to quote Mulholland Drive is the fact that most of the film’s dialogue is written flatly and delivered monotonously. If you changed the names of the characters, you could probably convince an undiscerning critic that it came from Tommy Wiseau’s latest movie, or an SNL sketch about bad exposition. Take this scene between Adam (Justin Theroux) and Cynthia (Katharine Towne).

CYNTHIA: “Do you know somebody called the Cowboy?”

ADAM: “The Cowboy??”

CYNTHIA: “Yeah, the Cowboy. This guy, the Cowboy, wants to see you. Jason said he thought it would be a good idea.”

ADAM: “Oh, Jason thought it would be a good idea for me to meet the Cowboy. Should I wear my ten-gallon hat and my six shooters?”

Out of context, this dialogue isn’t worthy of a Screenwriting 101 class. Its entire purpose seems to be establishing and re-establishing information. Lynch has Adam and Cynthia repeating things back to one another for seemingly no reason and finishing with a lacklustre joke.

There are plenty of other scenes that are just as plain as this one. The scene where Adam meets the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery) is famously stilted and weird, as if Lynch kept redoing takes asking Montgomery to play it more and more wooden each time. What’s more the scene where the old couple (Jeanne Bates & Dan Birnbaum) says goodbye to Betty (Naomi Watts) after her flight into LAX, the scene where Betty is shown the apartment by Coco (Ann Miller) and the scene where Betty and Rita (Laura Harring) call the police, all seem like they were written by a poorly trained screenwriting AI.

However, although much of Lynch’s dialogue is utterly nondescript, this actually works to the film’s advantage, for a number of reasons.

The dull conversations in Mulholland Drive draw the audience’s attention away from what the characters are saying, and into what the film meansand how the story is being told. Lynch is aware that the audience should be revelling in his haunting imagery and non-linear storytelling, rather than what his characters are saying, in most scenes. If the detectives’ dialogue was better, we wouldn’t be focused on the police lights flashing on the leaves of the crime scene, silhouetted by the investigation in the foreground. If Betty spoke in more compelling prose, we wouldn’t always be half-thinking about how her story and Adam’s interconnect. If Adam wasn’t speaking so tediously in the phone call scene, we wouldn’t be wondering how the cowboy fits into the grand production conspiracy that’s trying to manipulate the film within the film. If Cynthia was singing something meaningful during her audition, we wouldn’t be as focused on the longing look between Adam and Betty. Lynch wants our minds to be on the symbolism and the mystery of his masterpiece, and his boring dialogue leaves us to it.

Furthermore, the film being mostly composed of tediously spoken borderline-cliché lines means that when the dialogue plummets down into the uncanny valley in which Lynch dwells, it hits a lot harder. The first scene at Winkie’s Diner exemplifies this perfectly. After the plain, unsparkling dialogue of the first few lines, Lynch suddenly propels us into a terrifying speech by Dan (Patrick Fischler) about his nightmares, and the subsequent dread-building walk to the back of the diner, ending with the jump scare of the monster. It comes out of nowhere. Similarly, by the time Betty’s audition scene comes around, we’ve been conditioned to think she’s going to be talking in innocent and unassuming 50s-style dialogue forever, which makes her creepy, over-sexualised, almost-licking-faces audition all the more uncomfortable to watch. Lynch’s abruptly sharp dialogue is positioned in ways that allow him to defy our expectations, adding to the mystery and sweat-inducing tension of his film.

It should also be noted that the film’s unadorned dialogue is especially prevalent in the first hundred minutes of the film, before Lynch flips the switch and we take a sharp left turn into Diane’s world of guilt. This fits well with the idea that this earlier section of the film is a dream, fantasy, hallucination or fabrication. Indeed, Lynch makes a point of telling us that everything we’ve seen so far at Club Silencio is entirely fraudulent, where the entire act on stage is a recording, and our heroines start to break down. The flat dialogue could foreshadow this earlier on. Are your dreams about snappy conversations, or story, events and actions? How about your nightmares?

Finally, Lynch’s use of stripped back and plain dialogue leaves plenty of room within the film for long silences and haunting music, building the uncomfortable aether that this film exudes. Lynch’s long unsettlingly scored point-of-view tracking shots around corners and along hallways have you holding your breath, and his use of eerie music in scenes where it does and doesn’t belong keeps you on your toes the entire time. Sharper dialogue would deflate this atmosphere in an instant. We almost need the vacuum of the flatly spoken scenes in order to focus on the undertones and ambience of the bigger picture. Indeed, arguably the best silence in the film comes when the old couple leave LAX in their taxi. Here, directly after a simple and plainly worded goodbye with Betty at the airport, Lynch has the old couple smiling ominously for about 20 seconds of near-silent screen-time. After the vacuum of that interaction, their uncontainable hateful glee unsettles the viewer in its own right and foreshadows their involvement in the suicide of Diane (Naomi Watts) at the end of the film.

Lynch’s captivating and bizarre style of filmmaking is completely unique. The use of flat dialogue, which would tarnish a lesser director’s work badly, adds intricately designed layers to the puzzle-box that is Mulholland Drive.

Header image courtesy of Asymmetrical Productions