David Lynch’s movies cast a unique spell blending the bizarre and the normal to emphasize the odd. He is a key figure in the ongoing legacy of modern cinema, who designs environments for spectators, transporting them to inner worlds built by mood, texture, and uneasy artifice. His films have been exploring the genres of melodrama, film noir, and art cinema, architecture and design history with an eccentric style.
Lynch made his first film, a 60-sec animation short called Six Men Getting Sick (1967) at the age of 21 while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Growing up, he’d wanted to be a painter. It was three years later in 1970 when he went to the AFI’s Center for Advanced Film Studies where he began work on his first full-length feature Eraserhead (1977). Since then he’s gone on to become one of the most venerated filmmakers in cinema. Today at 72, his net worth stands at $70 million.
Hollywood is often criticized for distorting reality and providing escapist fantasies. But in Lynch’s movies, fantasy becomes a means through which the viewer is encouraged to build a revolutionary relationship with the world. Lynch’s surreal intricacies define his unique visual and visceral style. Through his film, Lynch has been experimenting within the aesthetic traditions of modernism and the avant-garde. His idiosyncratic style introduced the term “Lynchian” to the colloquial speech of new Hollywood and helped establish Lynch as the leading light among contemporary American auteurs.
Here are all David Lynch movies ranked:
10. Dune (1984)
Lynch’s epic science fiction film is based on the 1965 Frank Herbert novel of the same name and remains quite faithful to its source material. Visually, the film is designed upon minute details that work in tandem with the production design. The film delivers the feel of a historical epic created with the concept of science fiction. Lynch created an immersive universe with believable characters. The striking imagery of the film shot by Freddie Francis stays long in our minds.
However, the film was a disaster at the box office and a big-budget debacle. In his review of the film, noted film critic Roger Ebert said:
It took Dune about nine minutes to completely strip me of my anticipation. This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.
9. Wild at Heart (1990)
Adapted by Lynch from the book by Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart is an engrossing tale of a passionate affair between urban cowboy Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern). The lovers do not hesitate to ostentatiously display their passion for each other at the slightest opportunity. However, Lula’s psychopathic mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), disapproves of the relationship and her bizarre attitude initiates the dramatic events of the film.
Lynch creates a dark, violent world all around the characters of the film. Car crashes, robberies, betrayal, infidelity, sex, violence, and deaths form the major part of the plot. Wild at Heart won the Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, where the jury was headed by Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. But a few years later French auteur Jean-Luc Godard severely criticized the film.
8. The Elephant Man (1980)
Lynch’s sophomore The Elephant Man is set in Victorian London and based on a true story. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a surgeon, discovers freak-show performer John Merrick (John Hurt), who is born with a congenital disorder. Merrick skillfully uses his disfigurement to earn a living as the “Elephant Man.” Treves takes an interest in Merrick’s condition and both of them start spending time together. In the process, Frederick discovers that Merrick’s rough exterior hides a refined soul and a person of great intelligence and sensitivity.
Freddie Francis’ gorgeous black and white cinematography adds atmospheric visuals to the narrative. The film also benefits from the talented supporting cast that includes Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, and Wendy Hiller. The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Academy Awards and considered as a milestone in Lynch’s reputation career. It earned him the status as one of the most visionary talents in American cinema.
7. Inland Empire (2007)
In Inland Empire a blonde actress Nikki (Laura Dern) while preparing herself for the biggest role of her life develops an attraction for her co-star, Devon (Justin Theroux). In due course of time, she realizes that her life is beginning to mimic the fictional film she is involved with. Situation takes a drastic turn as it is revealed that the current film is a remake of a doomed Polish production, which was never finished due to a tragic event where the two leads were murdered.
Inland Empire is the only film in Lynch’s career to be shot handheld on a Sony PD150 digital video recorder. The mood of the film is dark and mysterious with some of the filmmaker’s trademarks such as abstract imagery and strange symbolism. Almost three hours long, the film creates a hypnotic spell.
6. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
The story of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me begins with the discovery of the dead body of a young girl wrapped in plastic in the town of Deer Meadow. FBI is called in to investigate led by Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his partner Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland). As they begin their investigation they unwind bizarre clues and strange happenings that lead to the last seven days of Lara Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) troubled life. The film is also about a killer and the residents of the town hiding dark secrets.
The tone of the film is dark and asks questions without providing any answers or clues to any mystery. The film has an open ending with multiple interpretations inviting the viewers to build their own conclusions. As a troubled teenager, Sheryl Lees delivers an impressive performance.
5. Eraserhead (1977)
David Lynch’s 1977 debut feature Eraserhead narrates the events in the life of the central character Henry Spencer (Jack Nance). He is a printer enjoying a vacation. Soon he discovers that his estranged girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth to a bizarrely deformed baby. He decides to marry her. But both of them can’t continue to live together for long. Mary leaves Henry who then cares for the baby himself. As the story moves forward, a bizarre chain of events emerge that are both scary and surreal.
Over the years, the film has earned a cult sensation. Critics have termed the film as an extraordinary work of craft and vision. Frederick Elmes’ captivating black-and-white photography and Herbert Cardwell’s haunting sound design add eeriness to the milieu of the film. Jack Nance delivers an unforgettable performance that compels us to root for his plight. Eraserhead is undoubtedly a nocturnal odyssey that is filled with jump scares.
4. Lost Highway (1997)
Lost Highway is a neo-noir film that Lynch has co-written with Barry Gifford. Set in Los Angeles, the film follows a saxophonist Fred Madison (Pullman) who receives mysterious VHS tapes of him and his wife Renee (Arquette) delivered in their home. As the couple try to grapple with the situation, Renee is murdered and Fred is accused. While Fred is on death row, he gradually transforms into a young man, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), leading a completely different life. With this inexplicable turn of events, the film veers into a cyclical dreamworld of madness.
Lost Highway can be classified as an occult psycho-drama that is heavily influenced by the visual style of the 1940s. The narrative of the film follows a non-linear pattern. Lynch creates a sombre mood in the film through sound, space, decor and lighting.
3. Blue Velvet (1986)
In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a young man who returns to his hometown of Lumberton after his father has suffered an attack of stroke. After visiting his father in the hospital, on his way back home, he discovers an ant-infested human ear in an empty lot. This sets the dramatic setting of the film and initiates one drastic situation after another for the protagonist. As Jeffrey investigates the mystery surrounding the mutilation his notions regarding his hometown are challenged. He discovers how corruption has infested the area and innocence is a lost cause.
Blue Velvet is an unflinching depiction of the danger one may encounter if they are too attached to nostalgic dreams. With this film Lynch introduces a number of abstract elements within the mise-en-scène to create a surreal and mysterious environment. This has since then become a trademark of the filmmaker that is described by critics as ‘Lynchian’.
2. The Straight Story (1999)
Based on a true story, The Straight Story tells the tale of a 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) who lives with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) in a small Midwestern town. Alvin is differently abled and decides to meet his estranged brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who has just suffered a heart attack. He is unable to drive a car because he can’t get a driving license, due to bad eyesight. So he embarks upon a long journey from Iowa to Wisconsin on his lawnmower.
In order to bring an authenticity to the film, Lynch shot the film along the actual route taken by the real life Alvin. He brings a straightforward and warmly sentimental approach to his narrative style. Richard’s performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor.
1. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Mulholland Drive is set in the beautiful but dangerous netherworld of Hollywood. It tells the story of Rita (Laura Harring) who escapes being murdered but suffers injury in a car accident. She loses her memory and staggers into an apartment, where she meets Betty (Naomi Watts). As the story progresses, the two women discover that their identity oscillates between truth and deception.
Mulholland Drive is a neo-noir filled with ambiguous and slippery images to create an unsettling world. It is one of David Lynch’s most widely seen film. The film can also be perceived as a lesbian erotica that is constructed with seemingly disconnected and random story line. At the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where Mulholland Drive premiered, David Lynch shared Best Director honors with Joel Coen.
It will be difficult to decipher logic and meaning in Lynch’s movies after first viewing. In all his films, Lynch is trying to make sense on a metaphorical level. To understand the aesthetics and philosophy behind this films, you might want to check out Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity written by Lynch himself. In this book, he describes his personal methods of capturing and working with ideas along with the immense creative benefits he has experienced from the practice of meditation.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.