The title of this film, as one can easily verify, is a winding street in the Hollywood hills near which some of the most decadent residences of the moneyed and ballyhooed are located. Despite the justifiable evanescence of stardom, there remains a handful of faces and voices that have endured the years' battering and acquired a reputation that time will be unable to diminish greatly. Whether all this matters to the average person, however, is rather beside the point. For all its excesses and silliness, Hollywood is a product of our own desires to see life in a different, fabulous and often sensationally lucid way – even if our own reality has little in common with this description. We may love our lives but the lure of riches and fame digs its claws into all but the most austere and righteous among us. The lifestyle of these screen deities is something else worth envying if you are of a certain disposition, and little will stop those who desire the most banal of hedonistic pursuits, not even the possibility of death. Which brings us to the story of two lovely pairs, Rita and Betty, and Camilla and Diane.
We begin on Mulholland itself one dark night with an assassination attempt on a young woman whom we will call Rita (Laura Harring). Rita escapes the car that would have been destroyed and cascades down the very hills that we know so well until she reaches a housing complex staffed by a series of odd people who will all appear in slightly different forms later in the film. Rita is suffering from amnesia, that classic cinematic conceit that allows a character to rediscover who he really is, and the name Rita is culled from a poster of this film. Rita finds her way into an apartment she has no business inhabiting; meanwhile another young woman, Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), arrives at the same apartment, one that she allegedly has rented. Betty takes quickly to the helpless Rita and the two begin searching for answers regarding the mysterious hit, Rita's true identity, and an array of unusual objects which indicate that we may be dealing with something other than standard, waking life. What happens from that point on is already betrayed by the vignettes from seemingly unattached storylines that are too numerous to mention in detail: two men eat at a diner and one claims that a monster lurks behind it; a hitman bungles a job and guns down a few innocent bystanders; a director (Justin Theroux) begins to lose hold of his movie, his wife and his financial assets; and another, parallel plot surreptitiously surfaces like the descant of a macabre choir involving two actresses called Camilla Rhodes (Harring) and Diane Selwyn (Watts).
Diane and Camilla meet on or around the set of the same director who first appeared in dire straits. The attraction between the two women is explicit and meant to convey, we suppose, two main threads of narrative: Hollywood's flexible and occasionally orgiastic behavioral standards (as well as the concomitant oneupmanship) and an explanation for our dénouement, which will be nasty. Camilla flirts with Diane, maybe even sleeps with her (Betty and Rita are seen loving), but then forces her way onto the plate of director Adam Kesher who can do one very important thing that Diane can't: he can make her a star. When Camilla spurns Diane for Adam, we are reminded of all the pulleys and joints that comprise the construction of a viable screen career; as it were, another, less lawful party takes an interest in Camilla's rise and retrospectively we begin to discern a pattern. The pattern is awful and diabolical, but it is indeed a pattern. In one of the most striking sequences Betty and Rita, now fondling and cozy, go to a theater which may contain the film's only flaw in that the characters seem to speak in tongues. There is a blue box in that scene that matches a blue key found before, and what that box contains – which is rather clear, and rather hideous – provides yet another hint as to the true relationship of our couples.
What is obfuscated and eerie the first half of the film becomes brutally obvious by its conclusion; in fact, there is only one plausible interpretation of all the images and themes treated. Nevertheless, critics have varied in their approaches to why it takes two actresses to play four women, what is in that box, and why some violence in the waning minutes does not make much sense. Ah, but it does. Consider three matters: Diane has been excluded from Camilla's life; Diane has lost the role of a lifetime, or at least of a burgeoning career, to Camilla; and Diane has lost Camilla to Adam, to whom she also imputes her failed career. Mulholland drive, the street, is about dreams; but Mulholland Drive is a nightmare of a very particular kind: it is a nightmare that doubles as a flashing review of one's life before death casts its shroud. I should also mention another evil, a large bundle of money whose presence is not explained even though we might remember the abortive killing at the beginning and the sporadic cameos by that hitman whose dead eyes only gleam upon the sight of cold, hard cash. Life has a price and someone is ready to commit to payment. Whose life may be the only mystery.