What Is Lynchian Cinema? An Analysis of David Lynch’s Filmography + Style

Article Image
Photo Source: Jaguar PS/Shutterstock

To merely refer to David Lynch’s film style as “weird” would be a disservice to the highly influential filmmaker. His immense body of work—which includes the incredible TV series “Twin Peaks” and movies such as “Blue Velvet,” “Wild at Heart,” and “Mulholland Drive”—showcases a distinct approach that continues to encourage discussion among critics and cinephiles. His projects often have a surreal, dream-like quality that has since been dubbed “Lynchian.” 

But what separates Lynch’s oeuvre from other surrealist filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg? Let’s look at the hallmarks of Lynchian cinema and how it’s inspired other artists.


What does Lynchian mean?

Al Strobel, who plays Phillip Gerard in “Twin Peaks” and its prequel film, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” once described those projects as “the juxtaposition of horror and beauty.” His observation perfectly gets to the root of the Lynchian ideology: Lynch’s filmography exists to show how something beautiful can often have an unsettling or uncanny underbelly. Just look at an early scene from what many consider to be Lynch’s magnum opus, “Mulholland Drive.” 

Betty (Naomi Watts) has just arrived in Los Angeles with an older woman, Irene (Jeanne Bates), who is seeing her off and wishing her the best of luck. It seems perfectly idyllic at first; after all, L.A. is where dreams come true. But Betty’s journey is about to turn into a nightmare. After she gets in her cab, the scene cuts to Irene and an older man, who have warped, menacing grins on their faces. Accompanied by a dull droning sound, their optimism now takes on more sinister undertones. Betty’s goal of becoming an actress is a classic American dream, but that elderly couple demonstrates how not everything is as it appears. 

In addition to that juxtaposition, “Lynchian” also refers to films that have a surrealist quality to them, almost as though the audience is watching someone else’s dream (or nightmare, as it were). Consider this off-putting scene from Lynch’s 2006 thriller, “Inland Empire.”

The Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka) watches a TV show about anthropomorphic rabbits who say esoteric things to one another. It’s all accompanied by a sitcom-style laugh track that comes in and out without reason. None of these components makes logical sense on the surface, but their combination somehow provokes a visceral response from the viewer. That’s the point. Watching a Lynch movie is like stepping sideways into a reality that’s simultaneously familiar and completely foreign.

How does Lynch create his trademark Lynchian style?

Whether it’s through sound design or cinematography, Lynchian cinema places itself somewhere in the vicinity of the “uncanny valley.” This concept, first applied to robotic humans by professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, deals with the natural negative reaction to anything that is almost recognizably human, but not quite.

The same could be said of the standard reaction to Lynch’s work. The ending of “Inland Empire” demonstrates this well. Spoiler alert: Nikki (Laura Dern) shoots her pursuer, Phantom (Krzysztof Majchrzak), the type of climax we’ve seen in countless movies. But the use of sudden, harsh lighting, shrill distorted sound, and extreme close-up keep the audience on uneven ground, leading up to the scene’s unexplainably unsettling face-swap scare.

The sequence abides by dream logic, where images are tied together via the loosest means. Everything is recognizable yet utterly unreachable at the same time. 

When it comes to Lynch’s use of sound, he explained to the Paris Review in 2014: “I used to say picture dictates sound. But sometimes, it’s the other way around. Sounds will conjure an image, and sound is what came first.” Throughout his career, Lynch has used sound design to dictate mood. Just watch the Mystery Man (Robert Blake) scene from the 1997 neo-noir “Lost Highway.”

At first, everything seems normal. There’s background noise and music; it’s a party. But when Fred (Bill Pullman) meets the Mystery Man, all of that ambiance becomes nonexistent. When the Mystery Man laughs, both in person and over the phone, there’s a strong, unnatural reverb. And when the Mystery Man leaves, the sound design returns to normal. It’s an infusion of tones and emotions, signaling the audience into understanding they’ve entered into a dream-like state.

Lynch reflects on his Lynchian storytelling

Lynch is famous for refusing to elaborate on the exact meaning behind his films. In an often-quoted interview from 2007 with BAFTA, the director stated that his feature debut, “Eraserhead,” is his most spiritual film. Asked to elaborate, Lynch simply responded: “No.”

Lynch’s films don’t spoon-feed easy answers (if any answers at all). Instead, he’s interested in setting the stage for each viewer to take away their own unique understanding of what they’ve watched.

“You work so hard, after the ideas come, to get this thing built. All the elements to feel correct, the whole to feel correct, in this beautiful language called cinema,” he said. “The second it’s finished, people want you to change it back into words. It’s very, very saddening. It’s torture. When things are concrete, there are very few variations in interpretation. But the more abstract a thing gets, the more varied the interpretations. But people still know inside what it is to them.”

This mindset also adds to the idea that Lynch’s movies are akin to dreams. The person who had the dream may interpret it one way, but that exact combination of imagery, sound, and emotion can provoke a completely different response in someone else. In the end, Lynch’s films are meant to be felt rather than understood.

Other Lynch-inspired creators

Lynch certainly wasn’t the first to experiment with filmic language, but he put his singular voice into the surreal to create something new. Similarly, plenty of creatives who followed took the hallmarks of Lynchian storytelling and added their own sensibilities. If you want to go down the rabbit hole of Lynch-inspired cinema, these examples are a great place to start:

  • Adrian Lyne’s “9 ½ Weeks” (1986) and “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990)
  • Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” (1998), “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), and “Black Swan” (2010)
  • Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” (2013)
  • David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” (2014) and “Under the Silver Lake” (2018)
  • Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s “The Endless” (2017) and “Synchronic” (2019)

While it’s easy at first glance to pigeonhole Lynchian style as simply unsettling, audiences are often surprised to find how darkly funny his work is. Lynch clearly has a sense of humor—he did, after all, voice a cartoon bartender on “The Cleveland Show” for several years—and his influence extends far into comedy. In co-creating the Adult Swim series “Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories,” Eric Wareheim explained to Vice: “Recently, we were watching [Lynch’s] old stuff, like ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Wild at Heart,’ which are almost like traditional stories—which we’re trying to tell here—but there’s this perverted nature of everything. It’s really interesting.”

Similarly, Donald Glover explained to Vulture his lofty ambition for “Atlanta,” another surreal comedy: “I just always wanted to make ‘Twin Peaks’ with rappers.” 

“Atlanta” wears its Lynchian ideals on its sleeve. What started as something close to a standard “rise to stardom” story quickly became Glover and his creative team riding the line between hilarious and horrifying. This included Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and a bizarre odyssey through the wilderness, Van’s (Zazie Beetz) descent into the rapper Drake’s endless mansion, and Darius’ (LaKeith Stanfield) encounter with strange recluse, Teddy Perkins (Glover). 

While many films and TV series could be called Lynchian, the originator of the idea exists in a league all his own. With his movies being open to different interpretations and viewpoints, it’s no wonder they’ve lasted the test of time and continue to be dissected by newer generations of filmgoers.