the 50 best david lynch characters: the countdown

Time Out Film count down the greatest David Lynch creations


Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow)

As seen in 'Dune'

‘The sleeper must awaken’.

Another one of Lynch’s ‘pure’ heroes – beneficent ruler, caring father, loving husband – Duke Leto is doomed from the start. As originally created by author Frank Herbert, Leto is a man’s man, a distant but benevolent icon to his young son Paul. For Lynch, however, he’s something more: an aspiration, the ultimate leader, whose only flaw is that he trusts too well. Leto’s death remains one of Lynch’s most unsettlingly brilliant scenes: the ultimate hopeless sacrifice, paid by a man whose kindness has no place in a harsh world.


The Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near)

As seen in 'Eraserhead'

‘In heaven, everything is fine.’

If ‘Eraserhead’ is an exploration of paternal psychological panic in the face of a first child, then the Lady in the Radiator is the ultimate depiction of the kind of simple bliss which fatherhood sweeps away: part mother, part sister, part unquestioning lover, she’s the image of that perfect peace which our harried hero Henry desperately wants to achieve, but knows he never can. It’s hard to think of a more flawless depiction of tranquility and security in cinema: in her arms, Henry finds his innocence, his calm, his true joy. And what more can a guy ask?


Margaret Lanterman, The Log Lady (Catherine Coulson)

As seen in ‘Twin Peaks’

‘Shut your eyes and you'll burst into flames.’

‘Who’s the lady with the log?’ ‘We call her the Log Lady.’ With this simple exchange, a cult was born: Margaret is the figurehead for ‘Twin Peaks’, the symbol of its weirdness. And few ever look further: if they did, they’d find a richly developed, deeply sympathetic character, a widow whose grief and desperation have driven her either into madness or towards a kind of second sight – or more likely, both. As played by long-time Lynch cohort Coulson, she’s both irascible and lovable, the prickliest of mystical sages.


Monster Behind the Dumpster (Bonnie Aarons)

As seen in 'Mulholland Drive'

‘There's a man in back of this place. He's the one who's doing it. I can see him through the wall. I can see his face...’

No one captures formless fear like David Lynch: those sudden flashes of uncertainty and terror that descend from a clear blue sky are his bread and butter. There’s no better example than the infamous Winkies scene in ‘Mulholland Drive’. It all begins with a dream in the mind of a young man, Dan, who witnesses a terrifying figure hiding behind a dumpster in the back lot of a local diner. Dan and his friend go to investigate – and there he is, the figure from his nightmare. Words cannot begin to describe the utter, devastating horror of this seemingly simple moment, but one thing’s for sure – the man (played by a woman, oddly) will be forever etched on the mind of anyone who sees this most unsettling and provocative Lynch masterpiece.


Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie)

As seen in 'Twin Peaks'

Donna: ‘If I had a nickel for every cigarette your Mom smokes… I’d be dead.’

Is there a more harrowing moment in TV history than the scene, early in the pilot episode of ‘Twin Peaks’, when Sarah Palmer realises that her daughter is gone? Lynch keeps Zabriskie off screen, tracking his camera slowly, painfully along the cord of a dropped telephone as we hear her anguished screams rattling down the line, a howl of utter devastation. Then there’s a quick cut – Sarah, utterly broken – then darkness. Sarah may have been mistreated by lesser directors throughout the series – reduced to a blubbering, blank-faced grief magnet – but Lynch treats her with nothing but respect, creating a devastating portrait of a woman grappling with forces beyond her control, losing everything she loves and running to hide her pain in alcohol, nicotine and sleeping pills.


The Frenchman (Frederic Golchan)

As seen in 'The Cowboy and the Frenchman'

‘C’est très intéressant…’

Tasked by a Parisian producer to make a short film on ‘how I see the French’, Lynch came up with one of his most perfect and joyous gems – though, in the final analysis, it says far more about America than it does about France. The film pretty much does what the title promises: a cowboy, Slim, played with warmth and sincerity by Harry Dean Stanton, meets a Frenchman, Pierre, played with wonderfully blank, uncomprehending insouciance by Frederic Golchan. The cowboy shoots off his mouth and his six-gun, the Frenchman has a suitcase full of wine, cheese and baguettes, initial mistrust turns to jovial acceptance, and it all ends with a rootin’, tootin’ rockabilly hoedown. Simply lovely.


Mrs Mothershead (Wendy Hiller)

As seen in 'The Elephant Man'

‘If loving kindness can be called care and practical concern, then I did show him loving kindness, and I am not ashamed to admit it!’

‘She comes in and grabs me around the neck. And she’s shorter than I am, for sure, but she lifted me up off the ground almost, and marched me around the room. And she said, “I don’t know you, I will be watching you.” But she turned out to be another one of those people who supported me beyond the beyond. I love Dame Wendy Hiller!’ This quote, taken from a 2008 Time Out interview with Lynch on ‘The Elephant Man’, sums up not just his relationship with this finest of British actresses, but acts as a pretty tight summation of her character in the film. Initially suspicious, even disgusted by John Merrick, Mothershead quickly becomes his strongest supporter, his protector, and one of his closest friends.


Rita (Laura Harring)

As seen in 'Mulholland Drive'

‘Good night, sweet Betty.’

The career of actress Laura Harring is something of a mystery. Arguably her most high-profile part post ‘Mulholland Drive’ is a tiny cameo (as a rabbit) in Lynch’s digital hellride ‘Inland Empire’. This is strange, as her presence in this film as an actress in some kind of grave danger (possibly associated with some shady puppet masters who appear to control the Hollywood casting racket) is nothing short of intoxicating. Her initial vulnerability segues into fear and desire, and by the end of the film, she and Naomi Watt’s plucky Betty appeared to have – ‘Persona’-style – exchanged bodies and minds.


Tommy ‘Hawk’ Hill (Michael Horse)

As seen in 'Twin Peaks'

‘One woman can make you fly like an eagle. Another can give you the strength of a lion. But only one in the cycle of life can fill your heart with wonder, and the wisdom that you have known a singular joy. I wrote that for my girlfriend.’

The pillar of strength behind the Twin Peaks law enforcement team, Hawk is the quiet man of Lynch’s groundbreaking TV experiment. In the early ’90s it was all the rage to slip a bit of cod-Native American mysticism into your otherwise average TV cop drama, but Lynch avoids such tiresome clichés by refusing to make an issue of Hawk’s heritage: he’s just one of the boys, albeit an unusually poetic, thoughtful, hardworking one. He’s also, as has been noted elsewhere, the only one on the force who does any actual detecting: if not for him, the Laura Palmer murder – indeed, pretty much all of the town’s many crimes – would have remained unsolved. And he gets the finest line in the show…


Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton)

As seen in 'Wild at Heart'

Lula: ‘That Johnnie is one clever detective. He once told me he could find an honest man in Washington.’

The pocked and canyoned wilderness of Harry Dean Stanton’s face has been exploited to great effect by directors as diverse as Alex Cox, Ridley Scott and Wim Wenders, but it’s Lynch who brings out the true depths of sadness this underrated actor is capable of conveying (see also 45, Lyle Straight). Johnnie Farragut is an epically tragic figure: a good man misdirected by love, whose hopeless quest to recover his deranged sweetheart’s wayward daughter leads him inexorably into the outer darkness, where the simple decency of a man like Johnnie is worthless currency.