|Not sure if David Lynch's latest is worth a lot of comment. Some images stick with you, though. Below is a character called The Cowboy, a soft-spoken, melanin-deficient creep who might or might not be an assassin-for-hire. In his first appearance, he says to a film director (whose shady backers are trying to influence the casting of a film): "If you do good, you'll see me one more time. If you do bad, you'll see me two more times." Even though the guy looks like a refugee from a dude ranch (by way of the Village People), he makes you shudder: the infantile, Rumpelstiltskin quality of his threat is sheer brilliance.
Critic Sarah Kerr on the Cowboy, from a year 2001 wrap-up on Slate:
Did any of you happen to read an interview online with Justin Theroux, the young actor who plays the hip but hapless director in Mulholland Drive? The juiciest moment concerned that crazy scene in an abandoned corral above the Hollywood Hills, opposite the character named The Cowboy. For those of you who haven't seen the movie, The Cowboy is a redhead in, say, his late 30s who's nearly albino-pale. He speaks in a country drawl and, for no discernible reason, wears a 10-gallon hat, vest, and chaps and chews on a strand of straw. He appears in one key scene and later in a quick walk-by cameo, still fully costumed, and in both he displays a weird double effect: 1) looks like the fun, friendly adult in a children's TV show—the confidante kids go to for advice; 2) has unfathomable sinister ambitions/is probably a killer.
In the interview, Theroux relates how the guy who played The Cowboy is actually a producer friend of David Lynch's who never acted a day in his life. In the corral scene, they had to tape his lines of dialogue to Theroux's chest and forehead, and Lynch instructed him to simply read out the lines, slowly, in his flat, drawling monotone. That's the performance you get on screen. Theroux joked about how the scene was an assault on everything we think acting should be. He also called it one of the best performances in the movie, and he's right.
Some good VV writing in defense of the movie, from its 2001 Films in Review section:
Betty and Rita fall in love, have sex, and go to Silencio, in roughly that order, and so the dizzying sensations that attend any besotted couple's first postcoital encounter with the outside world—stunned joy, shared secrecy, the effulgent strangeness of familiar surroundings—are reflected through the fun-house mirror of some sub-Brechtian nightmare palace. Silencio's mantra is No hay banda, and it sends Betty into convulsions: Her dream jolts her out of her dream. As the song goes, she hears a symphony; but there is no symphony. Rapture so pure, so undiscovered, must be a deception, a delusion, a trick—which is to say, only a movie. The only sound might be Betty's heart breaking; the film and the performance tear open with it.
One measure of Naomi Watts's astonishing accomplishment is the number of viewers who walk out unsure whether naive, perky Betty and abject, crazed Diane are the same person. The physical difference comes down to sallow skin and stringy hair; the confusion truly stems from the inside out. As Diane, the stars in her eyes shoot and fall, that can-do jaw juts out bitterly—her face stiffens into a scar-tissue mask of pain and betrayal. With a hunch of the shoulders and a defensive twist of the neck, the bird-boned sylph shrivels into a junkie wastrel. And yet, each woman is two women. Diane lurks in Betty, most overtly during the blindsiding audition scene (unnerving not least because, admit it, we don't know what caliber of actress Watts is up to that point, either). Flashes of Betty survive in Diane, too. En route to her own engagement party, Camilla takes Diane by the hand and fixes her with that counterfeit rapt gaze, and Diane ducks her head bashfully, smiles what she thinks is a knowing smile. For a moment, she looks like Betty after she nailed her tryout.
Camilla is leading lambs to the slaughter—the last half-hour of Mulholland Drive transpires under a white-heat L.A. glare of rage and humiliation, both embodied and suffered by Diane. She hallucinates Camilla in her kitchen, and a rash of deranged emotion swarms over her face like a vicious infection: surprise, ecstasy, hope, confusion, fear, and finally, unbearable sorrow. This scene evokes Laura Palmer at the end of Fire Walk With Me, seated in some way station of the afterlife, hysterically laughing and crying before a divine vision (though we can't hear her—more silencio). Diane's wish-fulfilling fever dream is also a version of heaven, of course. But while Laura's hereafter was assembled from Lynchian fixations (red rooms, seraphic ladies, Kyle MacLachlan), here Lynch at once indulges his borderline craven obsession with martyred blonds and amends it—he puts the doomed celestial fantasy into the hands of the fallen angel herself. In so doing, he also handed an extraordinary unknown actress the chance to deliver the performance of two lifetimes. —Jessica Winter