By Jeremy Carr.
Lynch at his storytelling best.”
David Lynch can tell a pretty standard story when he wants to. While films like The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), and The Straight Story (1999) surely have their moments of classically “Lynchian” eccentricity, their fundamental plots unfold along relatively orthodox paths of linear progression. All the same, and even in these more conventional features (conventional to varying degrees, of course), the overriding power of Lynch’s work often stems from an expressive manifestation of palpable atmosphere and a surreal audio-visual fusion of formal unpredictability. In the best of what he offers, these forces – the engaging narrative, spellbinding tone, and discordant aesthetics – function in tandem, creating a sum that successfully combines his peculiar emotional proficiency, his knack for moody resonance, and his capacity for the downright strange. And this is what one sees in Lost Highway, recently released on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray.
Although he was active with videos, television, and shorts, Lynch had been away from film production for several years before making this mystifying 1997 neo-noir. The absence was due, in part, to the poor reception of 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the feature prequel to his popular Twin Peaks series (1989-91), which has now been rightfully reevaluated as an intriguing, emblematic Lynch production. And with Lost Highway, like the Twin Peaks series, he wasn’t working alone. Captivated by the phrase “lost highway” in Barry Gifford’s 1992 novel, “Night People,” Lynch collaborated with the author on the script, though their initial concepts for the film were widely divergent. Lynch was also inspired, interestingly enough, by the O.J. Simpson trial and the notion of how a guilty mind could “trick itself” after a murder.
Before getting to its cunning depiction of an ultimately inexplicable scenario, Lost Highway begins with the kinetic image of bright headlights speeding down a highway, cutting through an otherwise darkened backdrop in the opening credits and setting the scene, as it were, for a dynamic, headlong descent into the unknown. Switching gears, it then opens quietly enough at the home of Fred and Renee Madison. Fred (Bill Pullman) is called to the couple’s intercom by a voice from outside telling him simply, “Dick Laurent is dead,” but when Fred attempts to see who left the message, no one is to be found (Lynch contends this exact incident happened to him). Partly prompted by this occurrence, Pullman’s face is seemingly locked in a permanent state of anguish and confusion, but one also gets the sense this expression had actually been in place long before the unusual greeting, provoked by pre-established, ongoing triggers. There is an unspoken strain between he and Renee, she played by a slinky, sexy Patricia Arquette, the cause of which appears to derive from his suspicions of her infidelity. Fred takes out his anxiety in the form of a violent saxophone routine, loud and chaotic and cast amongst flickering strobe lights. The pulsating visuals and raucous sound explode in marked contrast to the discreet mood at home and the blackness of the couple’s labyrinthine dwelling.
The Madison house is central to Lost Highway’s first half, a foundational first act which in itself would have been arresting enough for an entire film. The sparse, modern home is shrouded in darkness, from the omnipresent shadows and somber red curtains, to the black of Renee’s fingernail polish and robe and Fred’s T-shirt. Eroticism and danger reside restlessly together here, and the menace is only heightened by the arrival of unmarked video tapes to the Madison front door. The recordings show the inside of their home and, more unnerving, show the couple sleeping in their bed. At a party where Andy is introduced (he’s played by Michael Massee as the personification of sleaze and likely Renee’s other man), Fred also meets the so-called Mystery Man, a creepy, heavily made-up Robert Blake who confronts the beleaguered Fred and informs him that not only have they met before, at Fred’s house, but that he is actually there right now. A call home confirms this and Fred is, understandably, quite alarmed by the impossible situation. Pasty white and unblinking, Blake is truly disturbing as this inscrutable figure, and aside from him – his presence now seen as rather unexpected in the wake of being tried and acquitted in 2005 for the murder of his own wife – Lynch also features an idiosyncratic cast that includes Gary Busey, Henry Rollins, Marilyn Manson, Lynch stalwart Jack Nance, and, in his final film appearance, Richard Pryor.
This is so far Lynch at his storytelling best. Between the unexplained video tapes and the bizarre, apparently supernatural accomplishments of this Mystery Man, Lost Highway is off to a disquieting, terrifying start, and, on the surface, follows a clear enough trajectory. But then the Lynch one comes to expect seeps in and two pivotal scenes begin to hint at how the rest of the film will advance. Fred had earlier told Renee of a dream he had and, presumably in this dream, we see his panic as Blake’s face is superimposed over Arquette’s. But we never see Fred wake from this recollection, nor do we see a return to the reality of his conversation with Renee about the dream. Does Fred, then, ever wake up? Is Lost Highway ever removed from this attested reverie? Another key moment is when two detectives are called to the Madison home to investigate the ostensible invasion. They ask if the couple owns a video camera. No, answers Renee, Fred hates them. He says he prefers to recall events how he remembered them, “not necessarily the way they happened.” It’s a casual aside casting doubt, soon to be crucial, on his dubious remembrances.
Everything accelerates and Lost Highway flurries past its initial grounding as a twisty but essentially straightforward paranoid thriller. A new tape arrives showing a blood-soaked Fred next to Renee’s dead body and he is diligently imprisoned for murder. The nightmare development sends both he and the film generally into a mesmerizing tail spin. Fred is burdened by severe headaches, he can’t sleep, and inserts of a burning cabin and more of the Mystery Man yield to flashing lights and a return to the pitch-black highway. Then, suddenly and without obvious reason, Fred is no more. Now in his cell there is a younger man, soon identified as Pete Dayton, a mechanic played by Balthazar Getty. “This is some spooky shit we got here,” says a prison guard, underselling the transformation.
Pete has no memory of how he arrived in the cell, but after returning home, he briefly settles into a simple, almost idyllic life as usual. And again, Lynch relaxes Lost Highway itself into a moderately uncomplicated structure (assuming one can forget how we arrived to this point). But then enters the gangster, Mr. Eddy. Played by Robert Loggia, who petitioned for the part of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, which eventually went to a suitably crazed Dennis Hopper, Mr. Eddy is a volatile force to be reckoned with and Loggia, perhaps making up for the earlier slight, shows he can play psychopath with the best of them. While Pete is persistently perplexed by what recently transpired, he is also drawn into the risky web of Alice Wakefield, a shady lady straight out of the most ethereal noir who also happens to be Mr. Eddy’s subordinate mistress and happens to also be played by Arquette, now blonde and far more enticing. Pete’s subsequent plunge into a perilous state of affairs is presented, like the first portion of Lost Highway, with outwardly common genre trappings, the calamitous interplay of sex, violence, betrayal, and crime.
But, again, following the deceptive pattern established before, Lynch subverts any enduring expectation for a predictable dramatic denouement. The Mystery Man reappears, as do Fred and Andy (the latter meeting a quite gruesome end), though Renee seems to have been thoroughly scrubbed from this new yet slightly echoed world or intrigue. Images return of the desert cabin engulfed in flames, shot in reverse motion, and several significant elements of Lost Highway’s opening half begin to circle back in a mad overlap of delirious implications. In the end, a bleak conclusion brings everything to where it started, but this is certainly not to say Lost Highway ties it all together. Far from it.
Included with the Criterion release is the 1997 documentary, Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch. Released around the same time as Lost Highway, this film by Toby Keeler focuses primarily on the making of Lynch’s latest. There are behind-the-scenes vignettes and interviews with cast and crew, as well as anecdotes about the genesis of the film. It also details Lynch’s career to this point, his shorts and features, especially the making of 1977’s Eraserhead, and it provides a glimpse of his forays into the mediums of painting, photography, and carpentry. Through it all, as there appear several creative partners at work on any Lynch production, the director is clearly at the helm and his vision prevails. His eccentric process, whatever the given form, is evident yet nonetheless enigmatic.
A film like Lost Highway, according to Loggia, involves “all your senses,” which, with contributions from cinematographer Peter Deming, amplifying the furtive obscurity of the picture, and esteemed composer Angelo Badalamenti, providing the sounds of cryptic conflict, is certainly the case. Furthermore, in addition to music by David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Rammstein, and others, Lost Highway’s rumblings and hums get under the skin in an enchanting aural agitation that compliments the distressing and beguiling visuals, particularly the intense close-ups of eyes and mouths and the bold, vibrant illustrations of psychosis. To that end, Lynch said Lost Highway depicts a “psychogenic fugue,” while others have read into the film a metaphor for male anxiety, an exploration of trauma and guilt, or the disastrous corruption of innocence. In Chris Rodley’s book, “Lynch on Lynch,” which in excerpted with the Criterion release (the disc also includes a new 4K digital restoration, a reading by Lynch and critic Kristine McKenna from their 2018 book, “Room to Dream,” and further archival interviews), Lynch says he never intended to confound his audience. Rather, he argues, the film “needs to be a certain way, and it’s not to confound, it’s to feel the mystery. Mystery is good, confusion is bad, and there’s a big difference between the two.” He compares the methodology to a magnet: “Whenever there is something that’s unknown, it has a pull to it.”
True enough here, and Lost Highway was indeed a fruitful turning point for Lynch, heralding a trilogy of sorts shot in and around Los Angeles and adopting increasing allotments of unforeseen digressions, outlandish characters, confounding situations, and a vexing range of striking imagery. And like these other films – 2001’s Mulholland Drive and 2006’s Inland Empire – even as one is entranced or maddened by the oddities (or is both at the same time), one also attempts to unravel the multiple mysteries and remains to wonder what it all means, if anything, and does it even matter if the mood is right? The answer with Lost Highway depends on how willing one is to go along for the ride. Many will resist, but for those who choose to hop aboard David Lynch’s crazy train, even as it occasionally goes off the rails, and accept the film for what it is, reveling in its sensory stimuli and its multifaceted ambiguities, the journey is well worth taking.
Film International will have a special issue on David Lynch in issue 21.4 (2023), edited by Andrew M. Winters.
Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).