Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Far Out/David Lynch)

Film

The 10 greatest David Lynch characters of all time

@Russellisation

When you think of the American film experimenter David Lynch, you may not instantly think of his ability to craft compelling characters, preferring to instead consider his unparalleled ability to transport audiences to ethereal dreamscapes and new plains of subconscious thinking. Whilst this is certainly true, it would also be shortsighted to disregard the work of Lynch to construct some of the most intricate and exciting characters ever put to screen. 

Analysing the inner workings of the human mind and its separation of facts from fiction, Lynch has gained a loyal following of supporters who revel in his obscure approach to character construction. Many of his films follow in this narrative thread too, even if they mask it well, with everything from his debut feature Eraserhead to his most recent movie, Inland Empire, focusing on the complexities of the lead cast of characters. 

Linear narrative drama isn’t enough for David Lynch (unless you’re talking about the 1999 movie The Straight Story) with his characters often representing a wider metaphor or symbolic presence, with his film’s becoming altogether more profound as a result of the sum of its parts. Looking back at 45 years of influential filmmaking, let’s take a look at the top ten David Lynch characters of all time. 

The top 10 David Lynch characters of all time

10. Bobby Peru – Wild at Heart (1990)

Providing much of the menace for Lynch’s insane drama turned comedy musical, Bobby Peru is a small-time gangster with a horrific screen presence. Played with disturbing brilliance by Willem Dafoe, Peru terrorises the lead characters of the movie, particularly Lula Pace Fortune, played by Laura Dern, whom he takes a particular fondness to as he tries to pry her away from Nicolas Cage’s sailor. 

Dark, disturbing and thoroughly evil, Lynch constructs Bobby Peru in a way that hints at a puzzling past that the viewer cannot help but try to decipher.

9. Dorothy Vallens – Blue Velvet (1986)

The central figure of desire throughout Lynch’s magnum opus Blue Velvet, Dorothy Vallens, played by Isabella Rossellini is the director’s greatest femme fatal, a mysterious and seductive lounge singer who fuels the film’s mystery. A magnetic figure throughout Blue Velvet, Vallens attaches herself to the main character, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), in the search for her son abducted by the evil Frank Booth. 

In one of Lynch’s most iconic mysteries, following the investigation of an American suburb after the discovery of a human ear, Vallens is the biggest clue, an enigmatic, eccentric figure who holds the key to understanding the filmmaker’s complex work. 

8. Marietta Fortune – Wild at Heart (1990)

Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart may indeed feature the greatest characters of his extraordinary filmography, with the maternal figure of Marietta Fortune being one of the finest supporting figures the director has ever conjured. Hiring several bizarre assassins to take down her daughter and husband as they escape for a new life together, Fortune (Diane Ladd) forms a grudge against Cage’s Sailor and vows to do everything in her power to achieve her goal.

Ceaselessly sexual and overly domineering, Marietta Fortune helps to drive the subtext of melodramatic fantasy, suggesting that everything we see on screen could be the product of a wild, surreal reverie. 

7. Alvin Straight – The Straight Story (1999)

David Lynch’s 1999 Disney movie is something of a double entendre, with the title referring both to the literal straight journey of the film’s protagonist as well as the narrative linearity that the filmmaker adopts. By far the most accessible drama of the director’s filmography, The Straight Story follows Alvin Straight, a man who decides to set out across the country on his lawnmower to visit his dying brother. 

Emotional, heart wrenching and strangely profound, Lynch’s central character represents the changing American idealist, fulfilling his own idea of the national dream by setting out on an epic voyage of self discovery. 

6. The Mystery Man – Lost Highway (1997)

Though Lynch has never quite made a horror film, he has come close several times, with his 1997 film Lost Highway certainly being the closest to a full-blown genre film. The villain of this particularly peculiar cinematic nightmare is the pale Mystery Man who feels like the phantom occupying the darkest corners of one’s own anxieties, fears and paranoias. 

A figure of malice, the Mystery Man, played by Robert Blake watches over the central Madison couple as if an omniscient figure of the unconscious, approaching Fred in his first scene only to tell him that he is really ‘at his house’. Calling his home phone number, the mystery man replies in a terrifying tone, bringing a paranormal nightmare to life with surreal ease as Lynch creates a figure who seems to lie betwixt between reality and illusion. 

5. Frank Booth – Blue Velvet (1986)

Revealing a sinister reality below the ordered surface of contemporary American life, Blue Velvet peels back the artifice of modern-day living to expose the horrors beneath. One such horror is Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, a peculiar escort who guides the protagonist through a strange new underworld that bears little resemblance to the comfort of suburbia. 

A psychopathic gangster and drug lord, Booth is a terrifying uncanny figure with an eerie, disturbed psyche, situated somewhere between childish infatuation and carnal rage. Huffing a nondescript gas through a transparent pipe, Booth seems to operate on different fuel to the average being, living in a totally different reality entirely.

4. Sailor Ripley – Wild at Heart (1990)

For anyone who’s seen the Nicolas Cage movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it’s clear to recognise just how dearly the iconic actor and his loyal fanbase hold Lynch’s 1990 comedy-drama. Playing Sailor Ripley, a confused Hollywood archetype with all the bravado and no common sense, Cage delivers one of his finest performances, totally commanding the screen with his profound way of viewing the world. 

In Lynch’s fantastical representation of the cinematic world become real, Ripley becomes the perfect conduit to carry such melodrama, with his character perfectly constructed to portray the lunacy of fictional moviemaking.

3. Special Agent Dale Cooper – Twin Peaks (1990)

Invigorated by a powerful obsession with cherry pie, doughnuts, and especially coffee, Special Agent Dale Cooper is a wise sage who seems to be able to make sense of the mystery, piloting the investigation to find the murderer of Laura Palmer. Leading the whole show, and carrying its endearing identity, Dale Cooper, played by the eternally likeable Kyle MacLachlan, is an iconic character of American television and Lynch’s filmography. 

“I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange,” speaks Agent Dale Cooper, the fervent detective that leads the filmmaker’s dreamlike mystery, a line that well foreshadows both the flourishing future of the iconic series as well as the influential changes that such a programme would have on the landscape of serialised television.

2. Diane Selwyn – Mulholland Drive (2001)

There’s a pretty widespread consensus that Lynch’s 2001 movie is his masterpiece, with Mulholland Drive exploring the intricacies and horrors of life under the Hollywood spotlight. As the protagonist of the film, Diane Selwyn, played by Naomi Watts, carries the narrative onwards, with the makeup of her mind becoming the most intricate puzzle of Lynch’s entire filmography. 

Clinging to the character like a lost hiker to a rural fence, Selwyn is our guide through the terrifying territory of Lynch’s vision, with the audience sharing in her pain as she uncovers the mystery of her life. 

1. Laura Palmer – Twin Peaks (1990)

The mystery of ‘who killed Laura Palmer?’ was one that captivated the zeitgeist of the 1990s, with her character becoming the key to the enigma of Twin Peaks. Whilst you would think the character of Laura would be a mere prop in the series, following her death, actor Sheryl Lee appears several times as Palmer as well as her identical cousin Maddy Ferguson, with her likeness becoming an eerie reminder of the mystery at the heart of this story. 

As a figure of death, desire, mystery and pain, Palmer is the lynchpin of Twin Peaks, with her character being explored in more detail in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me to heartbreaking effect. With many iconic moments, there may be no better Laura Palmer scene than at the end of Twin Peaks: The Return when she lets out a terrifying blood-curdling scream, a truly chilling end (?) to a truly magnificent character.