One of the last great directorial artists living, David Lynch's peculiar brand of nightmarish, noir-inflected cinema is wholly unique and entirely his own. As a painter, musician, photographer, and practitioner of transcendental meditation, Lynch's film and television output represents the singular vision of an artist deeply in touch with the subconscious darkness lurking inside all of us. Though his world is often disturbingly alien, there's also an element of the deeply human, which is best exemplified by his diverse, colorful, instantly iconic characters. Below are his most memorable, ranked.
10 Bobby Peru
Willem Dafoe is no stranger to creepy roles, but Bobby Peru may be one of his most disturbing. A foul-mouthed, lecherous assassin who tempts Nicolas Cage’s nogoodnik, Sailor to risk his life against his lady love, Lula’s (Laura Dern) wishes, Dafoe imbued the role with equal parts menace and gross-out humor while acting through a set of false teeth that would best Rami Malek. Though few would place Wild At Heart (1990) among Lynch’s greatest--though it did, somewhat mystifyingly take the Palme d'Or at Cannes--Peru is easily one of the director’s most eerily perverse and threatening characters.
9 Mystery Man
An ashen-faced ghoul more interesting than the film he appears in, Robert Blake’s Mystery Man is one of Lynch’s most memorable characters in his least memorable film. Though there’s a lot to like about Lost Highway (1997) the film is really just a garbled dry-run for bonafide masterpiece Mulholland Drive. Blake’s performance is so stolidly unsettling, one wishes that Lynch had found a better film in which to utilize him. Still, as it stands, the Mystery Man is a spooky creation of signature Lynchian style.
8 Rebekah Del Rio
One of the most devastating moments in modern filmmaking features no violence and no dialogue, just a song sung (or perhaps not) by Rebekah Del Rio, who plays herself in Lynch’s mind-bending neo-noir. During their nocturnal wanderings, the film’s leads (Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring) find themselves at “Club Silencio” where they witness Del Rio’s heart-rending singing of "Llorando". The emotional weight and impact of the moment and how it plays out are impossible to describe without the rest of the film as context, and Del Rio is a flesh and blood person, not a character created by Lynch. However, her inclusion in the film and the manner in which the director showcases her makes for one of the most powerful scenes in modern cinema, packed with meaning, artistry, terror, and pathos, and it must be seen to be believed.
Before she was tormenting the Sisters Farmiga in The Conjuring universe, actress Bonnie Aarons was causing heart-attacks at the arthouse in Mulholland Drive (2001). In one of the scariest scenes in Lynch’s filmography, a detective describes a recurring nightmare he has about a frightening homeless man living behind a diner, only to discover that the dream may be a sickening reality. In an awards-worthy jump scare, Lynch assaults the audience with Aaron’s dirt-caked visage in a moment so shocking in its bare, cruel simplicity, its gone down in film history. By using Aaron’s striking visage for maximum impact, the “Bum” is the most unforgettable Lynch character with the least amount of screen time.
6 Audrey Horne
As gold-hearted “bad girl” Audrey Horne, Sherilyn Fenn became one of the early 90s “It” girls. Though Twin Peaks was about the disappearance of prom queen Laura Palmer, the dramatic weight of the series largely rested on the shoulders of Fenn and Lara Flynn Boyle as the murdered girl’s friends.
Whereas Boyle’s bland, goody-goody character was notably thin, Fenn’s perceived badness, flirtations with MacLachlan’s dashin detective Cooper, and classic sense of style (have saddle shoes and plaid skirts ever looked so sexy?) made her instantly iconic. Though she was somewhat misused in The Return (a symptom of Lynch’s almost pathological refusal to play into fan-service) Audrey remains one of the director’s best-loved, most memorable characters.
5 Frank Booth
Hollywood Legend Dennis Hopper swung for the fences as the gas-huffing psychopath in Lynch’s most well-regarded masterpiece, Blue Velvet (1986). The countercultural icon regained his edge in this noirish tale of a bright-eyed young man (Kyle MacLachlan) who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with a troubled woman (Isabella Rossellini), who Booth keeps as a sex slave. Shot through with roaring black humor, Hopper’s prowls through his performance as a deeply disturbing figure of depravity and madness that juxtaposes sharply against MacLachlan character’s innocence. Not only was Hopper's performance critically acclaimed, but the character was ranked #36 on AFI's list of the top 50 film villains of all time.
4 Radiator Lady
Before he was even a Hollywood name, David Lynch’s first feature gave audiences cinematic visions that stuck in the brain like recurring bad dreams. Eraserhead (1977) which stars Jack Nance as Henry Spencer, a tall-haired everyman inhabiting an industrial hellscape with his wife and the monstrous lizard baby, became a fixture of the midnight movie circuit when it first premiered due to its startling imagery. Lynch’s filmography has become synonymous with “dream logic”, but none of his work quite touches the black and white madness of his debut. Eraserhead’s most memorable character is the Lady in The Radiator (Laurel Near) a tiny, grotesquely apple-cheeked woman who sings to Henry while stomping on wiggly spermatozoon-like creatures. Is she a personification of Henry’s sexual frustration? As with so much in Erasherhead, it's hard to say, but she was just the first of many unforgettably Lynchian characters to come.
3 The Man From Another Place
One could argue that Twin Peaks is the greatest of Lynch’s works based on the sheer number of indelible characters it gave popular culture. Played by Michael J. Anderson in the show’s first two seasons and the prequel film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, this backward-talking, finger-snapping denizen of the show’s infamous Black Lodge was one of the first indications that not all was as it seemed in the sleepy town.
His first appearance along with a spectral Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in a dream sequence at the end of Episode Three was a moment of great significance for a show that almost immediately took the country by storm. His strange manner of speaking was achieved by having Anderson deliver his lines into a recorder, which was then played in reverse while he was directed to repeat the reversed original. The "reverse-speech" was again reversed during editing to put it back in the normal direction. Though The Man From Another Place technically appeared in Twin Peaks: The Return, he came back in evolved form as a meaty, synaptic, CGI tree.
2 Laura Palmer
Less a character than a concept, a feeling, or the specter of a small town's dark heart, Sheryl Lee had the unenviable task to portraying one of the most mysterious and alluring characters of all time in Twin Peaks. Appearing first as a plastic-wrapped (but still gorgeous) corpse washed up on a pebbly beach in the show's pilot, Laura slowly gained weight as a character, despite her absence, as the season wore on. When the show was ignominiously canceled after its flawed second season, Lee got to flex her acting chops on the big screen in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me which chronicled the last few days of the character's life leading up to her murder. Though the film added real depth to her character, Laura remained remote, which was largely blamed on Lee's performance. But when Lynch returned to this world in 2017, he approached the character as he always had: a symbol of innocence corrupted sphinx-like in her unknowability. Iconic for her impenetrability, Laura Palmer is, ironically, the best-known character in Lynch's filmography.
1 Dale Cooper/Dougie Jones
Kyle MacLachlan remains one of Lynch’s most frequent collaborators, but no role he has played has been more well-regarded than Dale Cooper, the optimistic FBI investigator of Twin Peaks. Indefatigably joyful and resilient, Cooper was the endlessly quotable, bright emotional core of the original two seasons dark world. When the series returned in 2017, many fans were frustrated that the character came back sans his memory, in a strangely stiff and off-kilter reconfiguration as “Dougie Jones,” a doddering suburban husband. As the reboot stretched on, however, Dougie became almost as iconic as Cooper was to begin with, anchored and enriched by the frequently underrated MacLachlan’s mastery of physical comedy. By season’s end, his wits were restored and the old Coop was back, but MacLachlan had proven himself, creating two memorable characters from one.
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