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The Surreal and Suspenseful Filmmaking Style of David Lynch's Criminal Thrillers

Born in 1946, American filmmaker David Lynch is arguably one of the most celebrated individuals in contemporary experimental cinema. When he’s not working on movies, screenwriting, drafting novels, creating music, or directing videos, the iconic surrealist – as he’s been referred to – is involved in a broad range of other creative pursuits. These include painting, photography, and even furniture design. But, film remains his main love. His works are often imbued with mystery, symbolism, and suspense; all have a unique Lynchian signature.

Crime and murder in particular – as well as the anger, deceit, devastation or guilt associated with them – are common themes of Lynch’s core works, such as Blue Velvet (1986), Inland Empire (2006), Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and all of the Twin Peaks. All explore the veneer separating good from evil as well as the lengths individuals are willing to go to so as to deceive themselves or others about their sins. But Lynch’s speciality, it seems, is taking the well-known genres of crime thriller, neo-noir, and mystery, and twisting them into disturbing and often existential psychological horrors.

There are some specific motifs, aesthetic elements, and stylistic choices which, when viewing one of Lynch’s murder mysteries, tend to catch the eye and capture attention. Much of the uncanny nature of his works tends to come from the ethereal narratives that he consistently employs, resulting in his creations having an ominous quality and level of suggestiveness that make his audience feel like they’re participating in a dream. In fact, Lynch has, to at least some degree, acknowledged this aspect of his work, mentioning the importance of what he calls “dream logic.”

I love daydreaming, and dream logic and the way dreams go…One of the beautiful powers of cinema is taking that logic,” stated Lynch. This makes sense since dreams, though not well understood, have been suggested to reveal deep truths about us – to ourselves. Taking that into consideration is useful for appreciating many of Lynch’s works, say, like when watching Inland Empire, where much of the film features surreal imagery. Though weird at first glance, it is there to provoke at least some reaction in the viewer and not necessarily to make a particular point.

André Breton, who is credited as the founder of the surrealism art movement, described the aim of surrealism in the Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), positing that it ought to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” He believed that surrealism is based on the belief “in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” Watching Lynch’s films, it’s easy to see how he employs symbols in order to promote leaps of logic, and hint at broad, but profound associations between concepts.

Throughout the aforementioned examples, the appearance of certain vignettes, typically those that are deeply important to the narrative, are often incredibly confounding to the viewer – at least at first pass. That’s because these vignettes consist of strange images that are often viewed from the perspective of a particular character; they may suggest a revelation, display symbols or tropes meant to represent some theme or subject matter, illustrate a concept or quality of a character or the overarching story, or simply foreshadow some coming event.

For example, take FBI agent Dale Cooper’s (played by Kyle MacLachlan) visions in the original run of Twin Peaks. During these visions, which are often conflated or coterminous with the character’s dreams, the set surrounding Cooper typically darkens and a spotlight is cast on a figure that stands before him. The being in question varies with the vision; sometimes the figure can be one of the actual flesh-and-blood characters within the series; at other points it can be a spirit taking the form of a certain fantastical character or creature; but it could also be a symbol - ephemeral but meaningful.

Excursions into the eerie and otherworldly are the norm throughout Inland Empire, a movie about an actress’s descent into a state of torment made only more unnerving by the fact that it is filmed with a camcorder instead of a professional film camera giving the movie a weirdly impersonal quality. The work is replete with scenes that are seemingly absurd or irrelevant in light of its overarching plot — or what at least begins as one — and as the film progresses its original narrative structure devolves into more and more of these strange vignettes.

All in all, it wouldn’t be surprising if someone finished a Lynch movie feeling as if they’d somehow, if briefly, gone to the edge of insanity. Yet the director instills in his viewers — who are naturally inclined, as many moviegoers are, to project themselves into a film as one or more characters on screen — this deep-seated fear, giving one a shaky sense of selfhood and a diminished sense of lucidity upon which to stand. There is an intentional destabilization of the mind, a psychological up-rooting, pervading Lynch’s works which, whether intentional or not, implants a profound sort of dis-ease.

But what else can we say of the filmmaker’s signature thrillers? On the aesthetic and visual front, Lynch’s movies are typified by darkness, fogginess, shadows, as well as closed and confined spaces. They often feature the ominous and somber style of many noirs, neo-noirs, mysteries, and thrillers, and Lynch seems to be fond of infrastructure as well as decaying mechanical or industrial settings. Furthermore, he features truly peculiar characters that engage in taut and dispassionate dialogue that at times borders on the schizoid or turns full on absurd.

Another motif that permeates many of Lynch’s most popular works is that of the dark “underbelly” – the violent or deceptive side of seemingly good people or communities. Though the initial runs of Twin Peaks as well as Blue Velvet feature innocent, polite, and spry characters, they also depict the deterioration of individuals’ good-naturedness and/or the revelation of their more sinister aspects of their personalities, including involvement in various crimes and seedy activities.

In any event, the idiosyncrasies that characterize his style of filmmaking are potentially worth enough exploration, dissection, and discussion to fill volumes. His oddball characters, surreal sense of aesthetics and terrifying plunges into the horrifically uncanny. Only Lynch could take the murder mystery, crime thriller, or detective drama and twist it into the fever-dreams that are his most beloved, and most disturbing, creations. Here’s hoping he continues to surprise, inspire, and even unsettle us with new additions to his repertoire of cinematic oddities for a long time to come.

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