Mulholland Drive is a 2001 American neo-noir psychological thriller written and directed by David Lynch, starring Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, and Justin Theroux. The surrealist film was highly acclaimed by many critics and earned Lynch the Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director Award) at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Mulholland Drive launched the careers of Watts and Harring and was the last feature film to star veteran Hollywood actress Ann Miller. The film is widely regarded as one of Lynch's finest works, alongside Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986), and has been chosen by many critics as representing a significant perspective of the 2000s.
Originally conceived as a television pilot, a large portion of the film was shot with Lynch's plan to keep it open-ended for a potential series. After viewing Lynch's version, however, television executives decided to reject it; Lynch then provided an ending to the project, making it a feature film. The half-pilot, half-feature result, along with Lynch's characteristic style, has left the general meaning of the movie's events open to interpretation. Lynch has declined to offer an explanation of his intentions for the narrative, leaving audiences, critics, and cast members to speculate on what transpires.
The film tells the story of an aspiring actress named Betty Elms, newly arrived in Los Angeles, California, who meets and befriends an amnesiac hiding in her aunt's apartment. The story includes several other seemingly unrelated vignettes that eventually connect in various ways, as well as some surreal scenes and images that relate to the cryptic narrative. The New York Times writes that while some might consider the plot an "offense against narrative order ... the film is an intoxicating liberation from sense, with moments of feeling all the more powerful for seeming to emerge from the murky night world of the unconscious."
The story may not be linear and exhibits several instances of temporal disruption. A dark-haired woman (Laura Elena Harring) escapes her own murder by being the sole survivor of a car accident on Mulholland Drive. Injured and in shock, she descends into Los Angeles and sneaks into an apartment which an older, red-headed woman has recently vacated. An aspiring actress named Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) arrives at the same apartment and finds the dark-haired woman confused, not knowing her own name. The dark-haired woman assumes the name "Rita" when she sees a poster for the film Gilda (1946), starring Rita Hayworth. To assist her in discovering her identity, they look in Rita's purse where they find a large amount of money and an unusual blue key.
A man in a diner called Winkies tells his companion about a nightmare in which he dreamt there was a horrible figure behind the diner. When they investigate, the figure appears, causing the man with the nightmare to collapse in fright. Later, a bungling hit man attempts to steal a book full of phone numbers and leaves three people dead. A Hollywood director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) has his film commandeered by apparent mobsters, who insist he cast an unknown actress named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) as the lead in his film. After he resists, he returns home to find his wife having an affair and is thrown out of his house. He later learns that his bank has closed his line of credit and he is broke. He agrees to meet a mysterious figure called The Cowboy, who urges him to cast Camilla Rhodes for his own good.
Betty and Rita try to learn more about her accident and Rita remembers the name "Diane Selwyn" after they are served by a waitress named Diane in Winkies. They call Diane Selwyn after finding her in the phone book, but she does not answer. Betty goes to an audition, where her performance is highly praised. A casting agent takes her to the set of a film called The Sylvia North Story, directed by Adam, where Camilla Rhodes gives an audition and Adam declares, "This is the girl." Saying that she needs to meet a friend, Betty flees before she can meet Adam.
Betty and Rita go to Diane Selwyn's apartment and break in when no one answers the door. In the bedroom they find the body of a woman who has been dead for several days. Terrified, they return to their apartment, where Rita disguises herself with a blonde wig. The two women make love that night and awake at 2 a.m., when Rita insists they go to an eerie theater called Club Silencio. A performer explains in several languages that everything is an illusion; a woman begins singing then collapses, although her vocals continue. Betty finds a blue box in her purse that matches Rita's key. Upon returning to the apartment, Rita retrieves the key and finds that Betty has disappeared. Rita unlocks the box, and it falls to the floor with a thump.
The woman with the red hair investigates the sound, but nothing is there. The Cowboy appears in the doorway of Diane Selwyn's bedroom saying, "Hey, pretty girl. Time to wake up." Diane Selwyn (played by Naomi Watts) wakes up in her bed. She looks exactly like Betty, but she is portrayed as a lonely and depressed failed actress, in love with Camilla Rhodes (played now by Laura Elena Harring), who torments and rejects her. On Camilla's invitation, Diane attends a party at Adam's house on Mulholland Drive. Her limousine stops before they reach the house and Camilla escorts her using a shortcut. Adam, who is a successful director, also appears to be in love with Camilla. Over dinner, Diane states that she came to Hollywood when her aunt died, and she met Camilla at an audition for The Sylvia North Story. Another woman (played by Melissa George) kisses Camilla and they turn and smile at Diane. Adam and Camilla prepare to make an important announcement, and dissolve into laughter and kiss while Diane watches, crying.
Diane meets with the hit man at Winkies, where she gives him Camilla's photo and a large amount of money, and they are served by a waitress named Betty. The hit man tells Diane that when the job is done, she will find a blue key. Diane asks what, if anything, the key opens, but the hit man just laughs. Diane looks up to see the man who had the nightmare standing at the counter. Back at her apartment, in view of the key, she is terrorized by hallucinations. She runs screaming to her bed where she shoots herself.