The 50 best David Lynch characters

Time Out Film count down the greatest David Lynch creations


David Lynch

‘We're all like detectives in life. There's something at the end of the trail that we're all looking for.’

We begin this rundown of David Lynch’s greatest screen characters with one of the most endlessly fascinating and complex: his own persona. Not as an actor – though his bellowing turn as Gordon Cole in ‘Twin Peaks’ is wonderful – but as a personality, a celebrity, a figurehead for boundless enthusiasm and unstoppable idiosyncrasy within the mainstream of modern art. Whether he’s barking into a microphone and releasing it as music, chopping up a chicken and displaying it in a gallery, drawing a comic strip, opening a nightclub, reading the weather, preaching transcendentalism or decrying modern technology as ‘shit!’, Lynch remains a hugely watchable, lovable, awe-inspiring – and not entirely believable – creation.


Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay)

As seen in 'Blue Velvet'

‘I wouldn’t like to eat a bug.’

Among his many talents, one of the most overlooked is David Lynch’s uncanny ability to write brilliant parts for older women. From ‘The Grandmother’ to The Log Lady, his films are replete with lovingly sketched, sympathetic and rounded roles for elderly actresses. One of the most memorable is Frances Bay’s brilliantly spiky turn as Barbara in ‘Blue Velvet’, the caring, cautious, slightly dotty maiden aunt who watches over Kyle MacLachlan’s wayward Jeffrey. Bay would return as the haunting Mrs Tremond in ‘Fire Walk with Me’, but it’s Aunt Barbara we’d all most like to tuck us in at bedtime.


The Baby (unknown substance)

As seen in 'Eraserhead'

Henry: ‘Oh, you are sick…’

Pity poor Jennifer Lynch: instead of a happy scrapbook depicting her earliest years she’s got ‘Eraserhead’, in which her father’s fears over the squalling, mewling creature his wife brought home from the hospital were realised in the form of a hot water bottle with a mutant head and a bad attitude. Five years in the making, ‘Eraserhead’ remains one of the triumphs of DIY cinema – and Lynch still refuses to reveal how he created that terrifyingly fleshy and convincing infant critter.


Special Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer)

As seen in 'Twin Peaks'

'I like to think of myself as one of the happy generation.’

Lynch is often overlooked as a comedian, and when he tries too hard to be funny, it can backfire horribly (see ‘On the Air’, No 35). But his knack for an effortlessly timed comic moment is undeniable: think of Jeffrey Beaumont chicken-walking in ‘Blue Velvet’, or ‘pornographic movies – Texas style’ in ‘Wild at Heart’. Agent Cooper’s FBI crime-scene cohort Albert is a typically Lynchian funnyman – he’s irascible, quick-witted and cruel, but this seemingly simple surface soon peels back to reveal hidden transcendental depths.


Lyle Straight (Harry Dean Stanton)

As seen in 'The Straight Story'

‘Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?’

In his recent TV series examining the allure of the road movie, comedian Rich Hall claimed that the ending to David Lynch’s ‘The Straight Story’ was one of the greatest in all of cinema. When you see it, you’ll understand where his hyperbole stems from, as Lynch locks away his cavalcade of braying maniacs to produce a climax of immense tenderness. As decrepit voyager Alvin Straight arrives at the shack of his estranged brother, Lyle, the pair instantly put ten years of bickering behind them and revisit their childhood by simply looking up at the stars.


Mr Reindeer (William Morgan Sheppard)

As seen in 'Wild at Heart'

‘Drop a silver dollar through my mail slot with all particulars... We’ll work out il conto later.’

His lackey, Marcellos Santos, may get more screen time, but in ‘Wild at Heart’s pantheon of shady villains, we’re inexorably drawn to the enigmatic and domineering crime boss Mr Reindeer. Partly it’s his oh-so-mysterious way of communicating with silver dollars. Partly it’s the way he surrounds himself with beautiful, scantily clad women rather than meaty lunks (Don Corleone, take note). But mostly it’s the name, which manages to be both achingly cool and surprisingly Christmassy at the same time.


The Dreamself of the Heartbroken Woman (Julee Cruise)

As seen in 'Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Broken Hearted'

'Sometimes the wind blows, and you and I float in the darkness.’

Trust Lynch to transform a simple concert film into something more challenging, grandiose and, as the title suggests, ever so slightly pretentious. ‘Industrial Symphony’ features Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, fresh from ‘Wild at Heart’, as a pair of lovers who end their relationship over the phone – at which point Dern’s inner self transcends and transforms into Julee Cruise for a beautiful, heartfelt and deeply surreal record of the singer’s stage act, complete with skinned humanoid deer, walking devils and floating lovers.


Cousin Dell (Crispin Glover)

As seen in 'Wild at Heart'

‘I’m making my lunch!’

Ah, Cousin Dell, in many ways a quintessential Lynch supporting player in that he lends credence to the old saying that some people just like to put cockroaches on their anus. He’s introduced in a lovely little reminiscence sequence in ‘Wild at Heart’, as Laura Dern’s Lula reels off a few salient facts about her eccentric cousin, such as that he’s fixated with Christmas and fears an invasion by aliens wearing big black gloves. He features in the film for barely 45 seconds, but actor and weirdsmith Crispin Glover gives a vivid sense of this tragic, screw-loose outsider.


The woman in the tank

As seen in ‘Premonition Following an Evil Deed’, part of ‘Lumière et Compagnie’

Lynch: ‘I don't think that people accept the fact that life doesn't make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable.’

A naked, possibly amphibian female figure floating – or trapped – in a cabinet of clear liquid, The Woman in the Tank appears for just a few of the 55-second running time of ‘Lumière’, the short that Lynch made with an original Lumière brothers camera for a 1996 portmanteau film to mark the centenary of the 'inventors of cinema'. But her cameo is indelibly creepy in a film that is itself an unsettling distillation of Lynch's style – and which makes you think that he would have been entirely at ease with the pure, strange visual poetry of early cinema.


Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux)

As seen in 'Mulholland Drive'

‘I got the pool, she got the pool man.’

As Adam Kesher, actor-cum-screenwriter Justin Theroux somehow manages to make a prima donna golden-boy auteur come across as rather sympathetic and rational. Maybe that’s because we can see the weird folks he’s messing with when he hastily decides to take a 5 Iron to their windshield. Or maybe it’s hard not to sympathise with a man whose wife cheats on him with Billy Ray Cyrus – the ultimate indignity? As an artist who eventually dismisses his ideals in the face of mortal threat, Kesher can’t really be read as a stand-in for Lynch. But the fact that he makes movies which involve prolonged musical performances of rousing ’50s torch songs suggests there’s been some creative blood-sharing going on.