Watch any film by David Lynch, and you’ll see that he has a singular style. The focus of his films varies — from chaotic romances to high school murders — but there are recurring themes and moods that the director evokes. Because of this, many critics and fans have begun using the term “Lynchian” to describe films or even real-life events that have that Lynch flavor. But what does Lynchian mean exactly? Let’s rock!
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David Lynch Movies and TV Shows
Some argue that David Lynch movies have an indescribable aura. To a certain extent, this may be true. But there are certain concrete elements that work together to add up to this ineffable feeling.
What is Lynchian?
Lynchian refers to the mood and aesthetic found in most David Lynch films. Usually, it is used to label something which has a dark, ominous tone with a surrealist feeling. Lynchian can also describe the dark underbelly of something which seems innocent on its surface (as Lynch repeatedly investigates). But Lynchian isn’t just about themes, it can also apply to eerie visuals and unsettling sounds.
- Use of doppelgängers
- Ominous sound design
- Heightened performances
- Themes of tarnished idealism
David Lynch Movies and TV Shows
Before we delve into David Lynch’s aesthetics, let’s look at the themes that he investigates again and again. Typically, when someone calls something Lynchian, it is also touching on these themes.
At first, it’s all idyllic imagery, the fulfilled promise of the American suburb. People smile and wave, flowers shine brightly against a blue sky – and, of course, there’s the white picket fence. Then, things begin to sour.
The man happily watering his perfectly green lawn keels over, and the dog indifferently laps up the water from the hose. The camera proceeds to go inside the perfectly green lawn, revealing insects squirming, all while the soundtrack devolves into a low drone.
This scene encapsulates Lynchian themes perfectly. Danger is lurking in the most innocent-seeming places – places which may not be so innocent after all.
“[Lynchian is] a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter.”
— David Foster Wallace on “Lynchian”
With Twin Peaks we see Lynch’s fullest investigation of these ideas. A murder in a small town becomes an exploration of the American Century. By the third season, it is insinuated that Laura’s death is representative of the world-ending nuclear proliferation which cast a shadow over American prosperity.
Pretty lofty stuff, but it’s all grounded in a simple concept that Lynch pushes to its extremes. With the purest light comes the deepest darkness. For every Laura, there is a Bob.
And once more, Lynch lulls his audience in with a multifaceted opening. This time, it’s one of the greatest TV title sequences of all time, shots of an idyllic town to the tune of an ethereal song.
David Lynch Movies and TV Shows
The Uncanny Surreal
So how exactly do these ideas present themselves in David Lynch films? Usually in a very unsettling way.
Scholars like Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud call this experience “the uncanny.” Uncanniness refers to a feeling where one is unsettled by something that is familiar in an indefinable way. David Lynch movies and TV shows excel in creating the uncanny.
Take a look at this scene from Lost Highway:
We’re in a familiar, even jovial, setting. But when the Mystery Man appears, things become deeply frightening.
This is achieved through sound design (which we’ll touch on more later) – the sounds of the party drop out, immediately subverting reality. And it’s also achieved through Robert Blake’s makeup and performance. He looks just slightly off, pale and grinning.
Performances are crucial in Lynchian uncanniness. The director typically encourages a sort of heightened, soap opera-esque approach from his actors. Perhaps the best use of this can be found in Wild at Heart, Lynch’s riff on the runaway-lovers genre. Take a look at the performances in this scene:
Everyone is at an 11 in this film. Willem Dafoe, Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern are all great actors – they know what they’re doing. Their heightened performances are what make the film uncanny. With Wild at Heart, Lynch uses the familiarity of a genre to create uncanniness.
Who is David Lynch?
David Lynch Cinematography
We’ve been talking a lot about the content of Lynch’s films, but sometimes something just looks Lynchian. Like this, from Inland Empire:
The mix of the two approaches — ominous cinematography with Americana production design — once more creates an uncanny, if not surreal, feeling.We can see a similar approach in this recurring shot from Twin Peaks:
A mid-century home with evocative lighting, with an added touch of slow-motion, makes this shot particularly scary.
But Lynch doesn’t need darkness to create an unsettling vibe. Take a look at this iconic scene from Mulholland Drive, considered by many to be Lynch’s most terrifying:
Here, Lynch shoots in yet another retro setting, but in near total daylight. The visuals have a level of terror because Lynch and cinematographer Peter Deming chose to have the camera constantly floating. It’s eerie and builds tension, and perfectly prepares us for a haunting jumpscare.In Inland Empire, Lynch uses a low-fidelity digital camera to build an uneasy feeling. The digital grain distorts images and keeps us on edge throughout the experimental film’s runtime. In this shot, Lynch trades mid-century Americana for the modern McMansion:
Once more, an uncanny quality is achieved. We’ve seen things like this before, but not in this way. Here's a mood board we assembled in StudioBinder of some of Lynch's most Lynchian imagery.
Click the image link to see the entire collection.
As we’ve hinted at so far, visuals aren’t the only way he achieves his signature David Lynch style.
David Lynch Style
David Lynch Sound Design
David Lynch does sound like no one else. As many have noted, he is heavily involved in the sound process for his films, and is often credited as sound designer.
As such, sound is crucial in building the uncanny tones of a Lynch film. Take a look at this interview with frequent Lynch collaborator Dean Hurley:
As Hurley describes, Lynch’s approach to sound is almost spiritual. The sound beds he creates aren’t necessarily even tied to the reality of the location of a scene. Take a listen to the sound design in this scene from Fire Walk With Me:
Notice how the ominous score blends with the diegetic sound. The effect is a low drone that is deeply off-putting. Again, this dissonance heightens the uncanniness – we’re seeing the images of a drab office space, but we’re hearing deep, alien frequencies. This approach can be seen in nearly every Lynch film, and it’s almost always incredibly effective.
In Eraserhead, sound design is paramount in building a sense of dread and unease. Watch the following scene and notice how the sounds keep the audience unsettled:
Here, ambient noise is playing a big role (the deep drone once more, paired with some more high-end rasping). But the sound effects are also crucial – sure, the animatronic is creepy, but what really makes it work is that unearthly gargling it emits.
And now that we've concluded our list, here's a StudioBinder mood board with some of our favorite Lynchian shots. Click the image link to see the entire collection and download a PDF for future inspiration.
With sight, sound, and a keen attention to themes, David Lynch has built cinematic worlds like no other. While the end result of his style is hard to describe, the director is simply using the basic tools of cinema in a unique way. The Lynchian approach should be inspiring to any filmmaker looking to build their own distinct voice: it’s far from impossible, it just takes focus.
Wes Anderson’s Style Explained
David Lynch isn’t the only director with an immediately recognizable style. Take a look at nearly any frame out of any Wes Anderson movie, and you’ll know it’s Wes. What goes into the director’s iconic look? We break it down.