A Definitive Ranking of David Lynch’s Movies

Take a journey down lost highways and through twin peaks to all things Lynchian

David Lynch Movies
David Lynch, photo by Heather Kaplan

    Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we dive into the wild, weird, beautiful, and terrifying brain of David Lynch. This article originally ran in 2017 and has been updated.

    David Lynch is about mood. He’s about feelings. He’s about triggering something deep within all of us. For over four decades, the American filmmaker has twisted the senses of his audiences, blurring whatever lines exist between reality and somewhere else. It’s why he’s often considered an eccentric auteur, an untraditional talent in an industry that capitalizes on the traditional. But for all his quirks and chaos, there’s an assured vision, one that isn’t going for the weird for weird’s sake, and that’s what separates him from anyone who opens a strange door to simply find strange.

    “I learned that just beneath the surface there’s another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper,” Lynch once explained of exploring his grandfather’s apartment building in Brooklyn. “I knew it as a kid, but I couldn’t find the proof. It was just a feeling. There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force — a wild pain and decay — also accompanies everything. Like with scientists: they start on the surface of something, and then they start delving. They get down to the subatomic particles and their world is now very abstract. They’re like abstract painters in a way.”


    Whether he’s subverting the soap opera with eerie mountain towns or chewing on voyeurism through ripped ears, Lynch is always digging at and cracking whatever surface we may or may not have known was even there. While we don’t always fully grasp what he’s wrestling with — see: anyone who was involved with or has seen 2006’s Inland Empire — it’s impossible not to at the very least admire what he’s brought to the silver screen. Every go-around, Lynch offers a divine experience, and as such, there are few filmmakers more deserving of a complete dissection.

    To paraphrase Frank Booth: “Here’s to David!”

    Michael Roffman

    10. Dune (1984)

    Runtime: 2 hr. 17 min.

    Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Francesca Annis, Leonardo Cimino, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Everett McGill, Jack Nance, Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow, Alicia Roanne Witt, Sean Young … and Sting

    The Long Pitch: In a strange, far-off future, “spice” reigns, a space-travel aiding substance only found on the desert planet of Arrakis. Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides, leads his people, the Fremen, in a battle for control of the planet against the Harkonnens and the rulers who sent his father to the desolate Arrakis to be killed in the first place.

    The Short Pitch: It’s the adaptation of a Frank Herbert sci-fi epic novel that many still believe to be un-adaptable.


    The Elephant Man: Dune flopped, in large part, because it was an adaptation that may be difficult to follow had you not read the source material. There are just so many characters, strangely vowel-ed words, and interweaving relationships to try to wrap your head around. In the midst of that very mire of confusion and conflict, though, stands the mighty Brad Dourif, everything about his actions, speech, and essence vibrantly clear. As Piter De Vries, aide to the villainous, grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Dourif gleefully and meticulously carves away at everything around him.


    Dourif’s other largest roles were the voice of killer doll Chucky in Child’s Play, the slippery Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings films, and the mental patient Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So, you get the idea of the type of character he’s best suited to. As such, De Vries isn’t your average sycophant assistant; he’s a Mentat, a human trained to essentially become a living computer. He’s twisted and ragged, so fidgety in his mental capacity that he may even be one step ahead of the fact that Harkonnen will wind up killing him — but so well trained and loyal that he follows anyway. And Dourif knows how to handle that kind of twisted subtlety, delivering pathos and massive scenery chewing in equal doses.

    Candy-Colored Clowns: As a sci-fi epic, the villains of Dune are appropriately monstrous. It’s hard to imagine considering any one of them all that lovable, per se. But if there’s one with a strange, confusing power — a performance so unexpected and off that it’s hard to look away — it’s Sting as Feyd-Rautha. Yes, that Sting. The Police Sting. With a shock of Heat Miser hair, a blue jumpsuit, and a seriously collared jumpsuit. He’s not the best actor in the film, to say the least, but there’s a real magnetism to his barking and sneering.



    The Baron’s nephew, Feyd-Rautha is a wicked, clever, cruel enforcer of the Harkonnen family, long-planned to ascend to the place of Kwisatz Haderach (seriously, read the book first). He is installed as the anti-Paul, the opposite of everything Kyle McLachlan represents. And if you’re going to try to think about the opposite of Kyle McLachlan, Sting isn’t exactly a natural first thought. But he clearly wants to be thought of as that extreme evil, throwing every breath he has into the climactic dagger duel. You can’t help but follow his every move, wondering how exactly this all happened.

    In Dreams: Oh boy. Picking out a single most surreal moment from Dune is quite the challenge. This one’s a clusterfuck of dreamscape insanity, a filmic totality of “Wait, what?” experiences. But, well, the giant, floating tumor near the movie’s open might take the cake. The Guild Navigator is a humanoid creature able to travel through interstellar space through intake of mass quantities of spice, leaving them mutated, distorted, and otherwise icky.

    Lynch’s version of the Navigator is particularly gross, a peanut/testicle goober floating in a tank, wheeled into frame to meet with José Ferrer’s emperor to discuss their plan to kill Paul. Attended by some creeps in black leather robes into the giant, golden hall, the Navigator is stomach-turning enough to make Baron Harkonnen seem relatively normal. And let’s not even get started on the closeups on its folding, flopping “mouth.” Sure, Herbert described the Navigator as a mutated blob, but this … this is some Lynch shit, right here..


    Radiator Songs: In a film full of head-scratchers, the soundtrack is one of the biggest. Though he would go on to develop close working relationships with other, perhaps darker, more emotionally charged musicians, this space epic is scored almost entirely by Toto. Just a couple years after blessing the rains down in “Africa”, David Paich, Steve Lukather, and the gang were headed to space with genuine weirdo David Lynch, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and the Vienna Volksoper Choir in tow for good measure. Oh, and Brian Eno contributed a single track.

    Tonally, the entire film is a bit messy, so it should come as no surprise that the soundtrack falls prey to that same problem. From grand symphonic explosions to tinny harpsichord suites, there’s a kind of Mannheim Steamroller vibe to the proceedings, nowhere near the high drama that the source material would seem to call for. The music itself isn’t bad; it’s just a mismatch. The soft, chilled strings of “Trip to Arrakis” and Eno’s wandering electronics on “Prophecy Theme” have little to do with each other, though each is affecting in its own right — much like the cobbled-together feel of the film itself.

    The Black Lodge: It’s not uncommon for sci-fi to blend the futuristic and the ancient, but the emperor’s grand halls still felt unique and lux. Tons of gold, mechanic symbology, rods sticking out at every odd angle, the thing feels like a blend of Egyptian grandeur, the riches of a wayfaring society, and the shiny metal and leather of an ’80s futurism. It may not be as iconic or timeless as anything from Star Wars, but it’s a sci-fi look all its own.



    A Beginning Is a Very Delicate Time: Lynch tends to continue to work with certain people frequently, and Dune acts as an early touchstone for several actors that would go on to become regulars in the director’s oeuvre. The film marks the first appearances of Kyle Maclachlan, Everett McGill, and Alicia Witt, as well as the second appearances of Jack Nance and Freddie Jones. But while he poached some actors from the cast that would become favorites, it’s telling that the composers, designers, editors, and the like that would become his primary posse weren’t taken from the Dune credits.


    Lynch on Lynch:Dune … it wouldn’t be fair to say it was a total nightmare. But maybe 75% nightmare. And the reason is I didn’t have final cut. I had such a great time in Mexico City, the greatest crew, cast, it was beautiful. But when you don’t have final cut, and I knew this already … but why did I do it? I don’t know. But when you don’t have final cut, total creative freedom, you stand to die the death. Die the death. And die I did. When you have a failure and they say there’s nowhere to go but up, it’s so freeing. It’s beautiful, in a way.”

    Analysis: This could’ve been just another terrible sci-fi bomb, but there’s just enough weirdness in the mix to make this a train wreck worth watching. It’s become a cult view for a reason: It’s not good enough to be a classic, but there are enough hints of the Lynch persona underneath the mess to want to pick at it like a scab and track down what might have been had he been allowed full creative control. There are many different cuts of the film, all showing various levels of weirdness, of forced studio control, of ambition, of compromise. And yet there’s still something there, something worth searching for. And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!

    — Adam Kivel


    09. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

    Runtime: 2 hr. 14 min.

    Cast: Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Moira Kelly, Chris Isaak, Harry Dean Stanton, Kyle MacLachlan, Kiefer Sutherland, David Bowie, and a handful of favorites from the television series minus Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, and a few more notable absentees

    The Long Pitch: Two FBI agents are sent to Deer Meadow, Oregon, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young teenager named Teresa Banks. A year later, we discover a similar evil has plagued the town of Twin Peaks, Washington, by following the final footsteps of another troubled teenager named Laura Palmer.

    The Short Pitch: It’s a prequel to Twin Peaks that you really shouldn’t watch until you’ve seen the entire series.


    The Elephant Man: When we first step into Twin Peaks, during the show’s iconic 1990 pilot, we’re quickly introduced to the corpse of Laura Palmer, and it’s through her death that we meet the townspeople, the agents, and the weirdos. So, one of the few joys of Fire Walk with Me is being able to watch Sheryl Lee play a character fans and viewers previously only knew through snippets of journal entries, blurry VHS tapes, or pretzeled depositions offered up to Agent Dale Cooper, Sheriff Harry S. Truman, or one of the many teenagers channeling their inner Nancy Drew.


    This idea was also an intriguing proposition to Lee, who saw the film as something of a wish-fulfillment, a way to come full circle with the character by playing her in the flesh rather than in spirit. To her credit, especially given the film’s messy screenplay, she really cuts deep into the role and offers up a sobering performance of a tortured and frightened victim. Sure, she’s a tragic figure, but everyone also talks about her liveliness, and although the film’s story doesn’t exactly warrant the latter, Lee tries her best to toe that line, and the proof is in the pudding creamed corn.

    Candy-Colored Clowns: It’s a real Sophie’s Choice to pick any favorite villain out of Twin Peaks, but for Fire Walk with Me, the dark and gloomy throne belongs to the one and only Ray Wise as Leland Palmer. The would-be lovable father turns real ugly in the most jarring way, and while longtime viewers of the series know he will eventually find peace and serenity somewhere in the second season, it’s how he sputters out of control into madness here that’s both thrilling and terrifying. And that’s not an easy task when you’re wrestling with a lewd, incestuous relationship that leads to a rape and a murder.



    But Wise, who was then already a veteran television actor, plays it with such pride. Granted, much of that has to do with the preceding 18 episodes he had just wrapped up for ABC, but there’s a certain energy to his performance here that speaks to a larger agenda. Maybe it had to do with the fact that this was a big screen role, an opportunity that hadn’t really come his way, at least not with anything this substantial or nuanced. Or maybe he just really loved the role and knew this was likely his proverbial Swan Song. Either way, he lights up the screen every time he appears, and you can only marvel.

    In Dreams: One scene worth revisiting is the maddening traffic jam involving Leland, Laura, and MIKE. Due credit goes to Lynch — and yes, the frenzied performances of Wise, Lee, and Al Strobel — for being able to invoke such palpable chaos under the guise of a sunny day in the Pacific Northwest. The way he pivots between the perspective of each character and slowly orchestrates the bubbling tension, from MIKE’s erratic driving to Leland’s panicked gaze to Laura’s dire confusion, is just brilliant.

    To add to the cartoonish surrealism, Lynch pairs this conflict with a geriatric couple that’s struggling to cross the street, almost as if they’re stuck in the type of unseen quicksand that clings to our feet when we dream. How they block all the cars, including the Palmers’ convertible, highlights the film’s underlying theme of child abuse by both subtly framing Leland’s grasp over his daughter and bottling the claustrophobic feelings of Laura’s own inescapable fate. It’s mystifying stuff, but with a purpose.


    Radiator Songs: At this point, Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti were best buds, having worked together on 1986’s Blue Velvet, 1990’s Wild at Heart, and two seasons of Twin Peaks. So, by the time Fire Walk with Me came along, Badalamenti was pretty comfortable with Lynch’s strange, mountainous world, and that assuredness bubbles through in the film’s score. Rather than lean heavily on past compositions, which he could have easily done without much protest from the fans, Badalamenti offered up a completely new score, one that’s much broader in scope and complete with more risks.

    For one, it’s louder. Jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott, longtime collaborator Julee Cruise, and even Badalamenti hit the microphone to sing a little poetry by Lynch, who contributed lyrics to “Sycamore Trees”, “Questions in a World of Blue”, “A Real Indiction”, and “The Black Dog Runs at Night”. The end result is something that sounds stripped right out of a lounge, which makes sense given that so much of the action takes place at the lascivious Bang Bang Bar. Still, fans will no doubt recognize the softer, ambient tones, as evidenced by the film’s title track, which sounds like a reimagined version of “Laura’s Theme”.

    The Black Lodge: If fans thought One-Eyed Jacks was sleazy and dangerous, they probably cowered in fear after revisiting the Bang Bang Bar with Laura and Donna (who, by the way, was played by Moira Kelly and not Lara Flynn Boyle). Lynch was still a few years removed from 1997’s Lost Highway, but in hindsight, this whole club set feels like one abrupt prelude. It’s a stylish hell, where the danger is embellished by needling strobe light, ruby filters, filthy men like Walter Olkewicz’s unbearable Jacques Renault, and the repetitive shuffle of Badalamenti’s scintillating track “The Pink Room”. But you totally get why this dive would be appealing to two small-town teenagers hungry for rebellion and yet why it would lead to nothing but pure evil.


    The (Disappearing) Thin White Duke: Early in the film, David Bowie makes an all-too-short cameo as Agent Phillip Jeffries, who warns his colleagues — ahem, FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (Lynch) and Special Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) — about seeing the Man from Another Place, Killer Bob, Mrs. Chalfont, and her grandson before vanishing into oblivion. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo that would have been a little more important had they not cut out some of the footage.

    Originally, Bowie was to appear in a larger scene where he would have been transported from a hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and into the FBI offices, confused by a calendar that reads 1989. As Bowie told The Seattle Times in 1991, “They crammed me. I did all my scenes in four or five days, because I was in rehearsals for the 1991 Tin Machine tour. I was there for only a few days.” Reportedly, producers tried to get him for the forthcoming revival, but they were sadly too late.


    Fire Walk with Production: If you couldn’t tell from the Bowie anecdote, or the subtle hints peppered throughout this entry, Fire Walk with Me was something of a clusterfuck. Running off the coattails of the then-just-canceled show, which some of the cast felt was a result of Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost jumping ship mid-second season, production on the film was a little topsy-turvy, made all the more problematic when MacLachlan opted to return only for a minor role, forcing Lynch and co-writer Robert Engels to rework the screenplay, which really only complicated matters further.


    But wait, Robert Engels? Why wasn’t Frost involved? You’re starting to get the picture. Without his original co-conspirator, who waved bye bye to direct his own movie (see: 1992’s Storyville), Lynch instead worked with Engels, who had previously written nearly a dozen episodes for the series (including what would be the series finale). It also doesn’t help that five hours of footage was condensed to two hours, resulting in the dismissal of characters like Sheriff Truman, Dr. Jacoby, Deputy Brennan, and Lucy Moran. Then again, one might argue (including Lynch), that those characters were superfluous to Laura’s core story.

    Lynch on Lynch: “At the end of the series, I felt sad. I couldn’t get myself to leave the world of Twin peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move, and talk. I was in love with that world, and I hadn’t finished with it. But making the movie wasn’t just to hold on to it: it seemed that there was more stuff that could be done. But the parade had gone by. It was over. During the year that it took to make the film, everything changed. That’s the way it happens, sometimes. And then there’s this thing about turning on people. It’s so natural, in a way. It happens to so many people.”

    Analysis: To put it bluntly, Fire Walk with Me is a mess, a feature film that was both fumbled in the editing room and lost when Lynch and Frost refused to reunite. Having said that, it’s a revelatory experience for die-hard fans of the series who not only wanted closure but a better sense of understanding, which goes along with Lee’s thoughts on why she wanted to revisit the role of Laura Palmer. Watching this film adds a depth to the series that goes way beyond Damn Good Coffee or little soliloquies about Douglas firs. When you look past the Red Room, you’re left with a tragic story of incest, and there’s a certain darkness to that realization that makes Fire Walk with Me hard to dismiss. It’s just a shame the film missed the mark.

    — M.R.


    08. Inland Empire (2006)

    Runtime: 3 hrs.

    Cast: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux, Karolina Gruszka, Peter J. Lucas, Harry Dean Stanton

    The Long Pitch: Nikki (Dern), an actress looking for her comeback, finds her way into a film where she’s set to costar with Devon (Theroux), a known skirt-chaser. They’re told that the film was previously attempted, but never completed due to the deaths of its leads. As the film’s production goes on, and Nikki finds herself falling deeper and deeper into the role of Sue, an abused woman with a collapsing marriage, Nikki/Sue’s reality is torn away from all chronology, intersecting with disparate stories of a prostitution ring, human trafficking, hypnotism, humanoid rabbits, and the encroaching menace of a red-lipped man.

    The Short Pitch: David Lynch wanders through the subconscious of his filmography, which itself is largely concerned with the subconscious, sending the viewer down a rabbit hole for three memorably frustrating hours.

    The Elephant Man: Lynch has never had a problem recruiting name actors to appear in strange, sometimes meager roles in his films, and so William H. Macy appears just to make announcements on a show within the movie, and Terry Crews briefly appears as a man on the streets. That’s to say nothing of the film’s bizarre finale, in which Ben Harper, Natasha Kinski, and others appear at a joyous party in Nikki’s home. Also, listen hard to the rabbit portions of the film, and you may hear Naomi Watts’ voice, a carryover from a previous Lynch project.



    Candy-Colored Clowns: Even more so than in Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire takes a particularly bleak view of Hollywood as a carnival of fear and inhumanity. The villains, such as they are, exist in the periphery for the most part. There’s the aforementioned red-lipped man (who’s eventually shot and turned into a series of increasingly disturbing hallucinations) and a hypnotist known as the Phantom whose sinister presence hovers over the whole of the film. If anything, it’s the film’s dystopian Hollywood that serves as its most menacing presence, a place in which the constant threat of “consequences” hangs over every personal interaction.


    In Dreams: Much of Inland Empire assumes the cadence of a waking nightmare, in which there are few tethers to any kind of familiar reality, and when the “film” within the film ends, it’s merely preamble to the film’s truly unnerving final half hour, an accumulation of terrifying imagery trading on the simple, universal phobia of things not being as they should be that Lynch has used to such stellar effect throughout his career. It’s a wildly disorienting film, and it’s unclear how much of the film occurs outside of the realm of the unconscious after the first few minutes.

    Radiator Songs: A substantial amount of the film was shot in Poland, and so Lynch collaborated on the score with Marek Zubrowski, in addition to contributing several other pieces to the film. Krzysztof Penderecki and the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra also account for much of the film’s ambient, unnerving sounds. A couple of additions go outside of Lynch’s realm, specifically Beck’s “Black Tambourine” (Guero was released during the film’s production) and Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” (which plays over the end credits). It’s a fascinating hybrid of pop sounds and otherworldly ambience — in other words, a Lynch soundtrack.


    The Black Lodge: Rarely have Los Angeles and Hollywood looked seedier, and it’s not just because of the film’s generally dark visuals. By using the Tower Theater (see: the late-film screening of On High in Blue Tomorrows), Hollywood Boulevard, and a selection of other normally glossy locations, Lynch manages to envision a version of Tinseltown that almost appears to be melting, warped into something grotesque even as life goes on otherwise. The settings sometimes feel more like dressing than Lynch’s locales normally do, but they effectively invert the money and privilege of their surrounding world.


    Gone Digital: Like so many filmmakers in the mid-2000s, Lynch transitioned to digital photography for the first time at feature length with Inland Empire. Like many of those films, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing movie in the world. It’s less distracting here, however, in that Lynch’s aim is for an unpleasant piece. There are points, particularly in scenes featuring a high amount of light, at which Inland Empire looks more like a student film than it should, but it also lends the film a kind of fly-on-the-wall naturalism that makes its complete decline into mania all the more haunting. It’s a bold choice and one that’s less garish now than it was at the time. (Seriously, go back and watch it. It’s just as challenging as you recall, but probably not as bad.)

    Dern on Lynch: Lynch’s frequent lead, on her experience with the film: “The truth is I didn’t know who I was playing — and I still don’t know. I’m looking forward to seeing the film … to learn more.”

    "Inland Empire" writer/director David Lynch (R) is joined by a live cow and its handler Mike Fanning as he promotes the film's star Laura Dern for movie awards season at the intersection of Hollywood Blvd. and La Brea Ave. in Los Angeles


    Analysis: Inland Empire is one of those films that’s almost more interesting as a form experiment. Even by Lynch’s loosely narrative standards, his most recent film is a drift through a series of the director’s pet concepts: sexual indiscretion, shadow conspiracies, the alternate glitz and horror of the film industry, the unconscious mind, the alternate reality of dreams. It’s a demanding piece of work and one that continues to polarize even Lynch’s most ardent appreciators. But Dern’s exceptional, complicated performance accounts for quite a bit; she manages to externalize dense material in a way that gives the film a resonance that its scattershot approach doesn’t necessarily warrant. Inland Empire is among the closest Lynch has come to transposing the disquieting horror of so much of his experimental short-form work to a feature-length project. Whether that’s a positive or not is really up to the viewer.

    — Dominick Suzanne-Mayer