Every David Lynch film ranked by weirdness
In honour of the new season of Twin Peaks, we rank David Lynch's films based on their weirdness.
After a 26-year absence, Twin Peaks finally returns to TV screens in May to take us back to the quirky, seedy little Washington town and the bizarre supernatural forces that shape its fate. We couldn’t be more excited about the return of David Lynch’s small-screen masterpiece. To celebrate, we’ve decided to offer you a primer in David Lynch’s peerlessly weird filmmaking career.
Lynch is known for his surreal, dreamlike films, which is a polite way of saying he makes some bat$#%* crazy movies. His directorial and screenwriting career is like a fever dream, from which he only very occasionally awakes to fleeting moments of lucidity.
When Lynch is really hitting all his marks, watching one of his films is a lot like having a shaved chimpanzee leap from behind a corner and hit you between the eyes with a hammer. You walk away from the experience terrified, confused and more than a little hurt. We’ve ranked David Lynch’s movie catalogue on a continuum of strangeness, taking into account two of Lynch’s trademarks:
Disturbing: By the time the final credits roll, a good David Lynch film makes you feel like you’re covered in a thin sheen of concentrated human evil. When he’s at his best, he averages one “thing I wish I could unsee” every 15 minutes.
Confusing: Lynch’s films run the gamut from traditional, straightforward narrative to off-the-chain bonkers. While he’s made a few comparatively normal films, the general rule is that if you don’t finish a David Lynch film questioning your experience, reality and perhaps even the fundamental existence of linear time, he hasn’t done his job.
We’ve plotted each movie on our graph using the big-cheeked girl from Eraserhead, who serves as the perfect avatar for Lynch’s entire ethos.
Pictured: The last thing you see before you die
WARNING: There are some mild spoilers ahead, but it’s hard to spoil a film when the narrative makes no sense in the first place.
The Straight Story (1989)
An elderly man rides a lawnmower cross-country to attempt a reconciliation with his terminally ill brother. The tender character study snagged star Richard Farnsworth an Oscar nomination for best actor, making him the oldest person ever nominated in the category.
Unfortunately for Lynch devotees, the film lives up to its title. Lynch directed the film but uncharacteristically didn’t write the screenplay. This perhaps explains why Farnsworth doesn’t once spontaneously turn into Bill Pullman or have his head fall off. Disappointing.
The Straight Story
The Elephant Man (1980)
This biopic of the tragic life of sideshow performer Joseph Merrick cemented Lynch’s status as an auteur and made him one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors. It’s touching and confronting, with excellent turns by the late John Hurt as the tortured Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves, the man who rescues Merrick from exploitation.
We can thank The Elephant Man for catapulting Lynch to stardom and releasing him from the fetters of studio expectations. It wrote his ticket for all the weirdness that followed.
The Elephant Man
Blue Velvet (1986)
Here’s a tip: If you find a human ear in your yard, just leave it be. It’s none of your damn business. Abiding by this simple universal truth would have saved Kyle MacLachlan’s naive Jeffrey Beaumont a lot of heartache.
A gritty and deeply disturbing noir thriller, Blue Velvet further cemented Lynch as a critical darling, and introduced one of film’s most iconic villains, the sadistic, gas-huffing Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper at his most unhinged. For a Lynch film, the plot is surprisingly easy to follow. The problem is that it leads some places you’ll wish you hadn’t gone.
David Lynch was famously among the first choices to direct Return of the Jedi. He turned down the opportunity because he didn’t believe he’d have the freedom to follow his own vision. Thank God. When he jumped at the next opportunity for a sci-fi epic, he turned Frank Herbert’s classic novel into a confusing steampunk catastrophe.
Thrill as a disturbingly moustachioed Patrick Stewart is enveloped in a gelatinous cube for some reason. Gasp as Sting shows off his whole area in a pair of H.R. Geiger underpants that look as nauseating as they do impractical. Cheer as Kyle MacLachlan vanquishes his enemies with the power of high-pitched yelling. If you ever want to pass the “pain box” test administered by the Bene Gesserit, just stick your hand in the Blu-ray case of a copy of Dune.
Wild At Heart (1990)
Nicolas Cage and David Lynch are such a perfect match, it’s hard to believe this road movie is the only time the two have worked together. Lynch creates disturbing, surreal realities and Nic Cage seems like he lives in one. Here Cage plays Sailor, an ex-con who romances Laura Dern’s Lula, much to the chagrin of her psychopathic mother.
As the two lovebirds are unknowingly pursued by hired killers, they traverse the country meeting a rogue’s gallery of Lynchian weirdos. Wild At Heart sits perfectly in the centre of the Lynch continuum: weird without being incomprehensible and dark without requiring eye bleach.
Wild At Heart
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Twin Peaks became appointment viewing when it aired on American television in 1990. The whole nation crowded around their TVs each week to try to unravel the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. Then David Lynch gave everyone a massive middle finger and an implied response of “Go $%&* yourselves, that’s who!” The series faced cancellation unexpectedly, so it ended on a nail-biting cliffhanger. A year later, Lynch would get the opportunity to resolve this with a feature film. Instead, he showed an eager public that there was another middle finger where that first one came from and decided to make the movie a prequel.
Regardless of the frustrating refusal to resolve storylines left hanging by the series finale (a task which the new series will hopefully accomplish), Fire Walk With Me is an excellent entry into Twin Peaks canon, and provides depth and context to the series rather than advancing its narrative. It also features some great performances from Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Isaak, David Bowie and Kyle MacLachlan, each of whom come tantalisingly close to being the film’s main character before stubbornly refusing.
- Available on Stan
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Mulholland Drive (1999)
The rambling, disparate plot lines of what can be best described as a noir thriller make a lot more sense when you learn that Lynch originally shot large portions of Mulholland Drive as a failed TV pilot. That’s little comfort to the bewildered viewer, though, who watches as the film weaves narrative threads that it brazenly abandons just as you thought they were going to pay off.
If you pay attention to the central plot, though, surrounding the tragic love affair between Naomi Watts’s Betty and Laura Harring’s Rita, it does begin to form a slightly clearer picture. And then the soul-devouring octogenarian dwarves show up.
- Watch it on Stan
Lost Highway (1997)
Defence attorneys everywhere no doubt use this film as a cornerstone of their training. When your jazz musician client is wrongly accused of murdering his wife, employ a defence so well-worn and reliable that it’s practically hackneyed; have him inexplicably turn into Balthazar Getty. Lost Highway starts out weird and then gets exponentially stranger and more ominous as the film progresses.
When you have Gary Busey in your movie and he's not the weirdest thing about it, you've made yourself a pretty weird movie. Lost Highway is Lynch at the height of his horror movie surrealism. In addition to boasting an interchangeable Bill Pullman/Balthazar Getty chimera, Lost Highway also features a superbly menacing Robert Loggia. Fun fact: Most states’ road and transit authorities will allow you to quote Loggia’s following distance monologue in lieu of a written drivers test.*
*Results may vary
Inland Empire (2006)
David Lynch was an early adopter of straight-to-digital filming. He liked the clarity as well as the ease of editing the format offered. Ironically, he used the new technology to film a three-hour WTF-athon called Inland Empire. Laura Dern plays a washed-up actress whose life begins blurring into that of a character she plays in a film.
As it does, events become increasingly nightmarish and surreal. Oh, and for no reason there are completely unrelated people in rabbit costumes. Like all of Lynch’s work, the film is beautifully shot and does a great job at creating a profound sense of dread, even if you can’t put your finger on why.
One of the all-time great horror films, Eraserhead was also Lynch’s first feature and is the distilled essence of all his glorious weirdness. The movie was shot over a period of five years as Lynch struggled to find financing for his bizarre, dystopian examination of fatherhood.
The movie’s protagonist, Henry (played by later Twin Peaks cast member Jack Nance), struggles to care for a shrieking, worm-like baby in his crumbling, post-apocalyptic apartment building, all while struggling to resist the seductive charms of the big-cheeked woman who lives in his radiator. If that plot synopsis sounds like a collection of unrelated words picked at random from pages fluttering to the ground in the aftermath of a dictionary factory explosion, you’ve come close to understanding what it’s like to watch Eraserhead.
BONUS: The Alphabet (1968)
Student films are known for being overly obtuse and grasping for shock value over clarity. Now imagine that student is David Lynch. Lynch’s student film, The Alphabet, features the director’s sister having a nightmare vision of the ABCs brought to gruesome life. You can find the three-minute short film on YouTube if you’re content to never sleep again.
It’s so bizarre and disturbing, we can’t even plot it on our graph, so we did the best we could: