Director: David Lynch
Stars: Bill Pullman (Fred Madison), Patricia Arquette (Renee Madison / Alice Wakefield), Balthazar Getty (Pete Dayton), Robert Loggia (Mr Eddy / Dick Laurent), Robert Blake (Mystery Man), Gary Busey (Bill Dayton), Natasha Gregson Wagner (Sheila), Richard Pryor (Arnie).
Genre: Mystery / Thriller / Neo Film-Noir
I’ve gone the long way around on this one, covering off 67 other films before settling on Lost Highway, the movie that gave this blog its name. Why beat around the bush so thoroughly? Other Lynch films have been dissected. First up in this series was Mulholland Drive (admittedly my all-time favourite, so a good place to start), but the selections since have been in no sequence, and both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me have managed to find inclusion. Like those movies, Lost Highway still beguiles me with its delicious mysteries. But the riddles here are among Lynch’s most sinister, and seductive.
Whatever the reason for my delay, we’re here now. Forgive me, this might run on a bit…
The propulsive credits signify the film’s era, and how it is linked to the vogue crime thrillers of the time. Sordid, in heat noirs. The overstimulated cinema of the 90’s. A lot of this comes, one suspects, from Barry Gifford’s input (co-screenwriter here). He was the source of Lynch’s most adolescent picture; the perma-horny Wild At Heart.
Lost Highway coolly settles down into something creepier, however. More insidious. There’s no mathematical equation to Lynch movies, but approximately 70% is tone. He is the master of a particular disquiet. Bill Pullman’s strung-out gaze as Fred Madison instills this from scene one. He looks like he’s been smoking that cigarette his whole life.
Maybe he has. Lost Highway‘s narrative is like a Moebius strip that joins itself. A twisting ouroboros that perpetuates into infinity. Fred is trapped in a loop, or, as Lynch would have it, a ‘psychogenic fugue’.
Lost Highway splits (like Mulholland Drive, a film it shares significant DNA with) into two unequal parts. In this case, the first forty minutes and the ensuing hour and twenty. The sustained, palpable dread at the film’s beginning is incredible. Lynch quickly establishes a world of half-perceived threats. The McGuffin of the anonymous videotapes of Fred and Renee sleeping tap into modern fears that continue to resonate. Technology, surveillance. Grammatically it recalls Cronenberg’s paranoia in Videodrome, yet here the invasion feels more personal, more direct, like a blackmail note.
Fred is insecure, suspicious that Renee is having an affair due to their marital difficulties. Tellingly, it is when he is physically taken to one of the possible scenes of her infidelity that the Mystery Man first physically appears. The Mystery Man is among Lynch’s most memorable creations. The following dialogue exchange that occurs when Fred meets him for the first time has been etched into my mind forever. It highlights perfectly Lost Highway‘s sinister magic. Impossible events taking place anyway. An affront to an ordered world. If you’ll indulge me…
Mystery Man: We’ve met before, haven’t we.
Fred Madison: I don’t think so. Where do you think we’ve met?
Mystery Man: At your house, don’t you remember?
Fred Madison: No. No I don’t. Are you sure?
Mystery Man: Of course. As a matter of fact, I’m there right now.
Fred Madison: What do you mean? You’re where right now?
Mystery Man: At your house.
Fred Madison: That’s fucking crazy, man.
Mystery Man [handing Fred a mobile phone]: Call me. Dial your number. Go ahead.
[Fred dials the number and the Mystery Man answers]
Mystery Man [over the phone]: I told you I was here.
Fred Madison: How’d you do that?
Mystery Man: Ask me.
Fred Madison [into the phone]: How’d you get inside my house?
Mystery Man [over the phone]: You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I’m not wanted.
Fred Madison: Who are you?
[Both Mystery Men start laughing]…
The most obvious reading (and I gave myself chills transcribing that) is that the Mystery Man isn’t a person at all. By the film’s conclusion it is evident that he is Fred’s psychosis manifest, giving the above dialogue exchange, which initially just seems grimly absurd, a whole new dimension. Before this scene the disturbed and horrific has been limited to dream sequences or trapped within videotapes. The Mystery Man lets the potential for unlimited horrors loose on the film at large. He’s almost like one of the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel, letting Jack Nicholson out of the pantry. Note how, when Fred stalks through his own house, there are two shadows cast on the wall. After this, Renee is no more…
Clothing seems to hold importance in Lost Highway. Fred’s black t-shirt – such a simple piece of wardrobe – seems to delineate his passive self from his jealous, aggressive side. It recalls Frank Booth in Blue Velvet cooing dreadfully that “now it’s dark.” A material transformation for the character in a film obsessed with transformations.
In sharp contrast to the overly-sexual exploits of his later alter-ego Pete Dayton, Fred Madison’s relationship with Renee is underpinned by sexual inadequacy, pointedly suggesting his miraculous transformation into the young stud Pete as pure wish-fulfillment, similar to the way Diane Selwin reconfigures herself as naive ingenue Betty in Mulholland Drive. It’s pure escapism that is doomed to collapse. For those craving structure, it appears that Fred has murdered Renee and, in prison, disappears down a rabbit-hole of denial. He literally becomes Pete Dayton, a young, virile man. A clean slate. A dream or fantasy or, yes, fugue state, which cannot sustain itself.
This sends the film into its longer second half, in which Pete’s life becomes haunted by the tattered ruins of Fred’s. Patricia Arquette recurs, reincarnated as Alice Wakefield with whom Pete shares an intense and immediate sexual connection. The echoes of infidelity and violence come with her though; Mr Eddy is a re-imagining of Renee’s lover Dick Laurent, a secret revealed at the Lost Highway Hotel toward the end of the picture. With his mind free to speculate and embellish, Mr Eddy is a sexually dominant, aggressive mobster and pornographer, displaying the perceived masculine brutality that Fred’s impotency denies him.
This lends the film a particular feeling in its second half – the aforementioned sordidness. Lost Highway is Lynch’s pulpiest film. A trash novel as written by Sam Neill’s John Trent in Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness. Yet Lynch plays it with sincerity and maturity, daring us to dismiss Pete Dayton’s motel rutting as the gratuity of just another soft-core thriller. It’s psychologically pertinent to the conundrum of Fred/Pete. Lynch addresses the psychology of sex as adroitly as his auteur contemporaries Cronenberg or Kubrick.
There’s a strong case for labelling every Lynch film save The Straight Story, The Elephant Man and Dune as a horror (though Dune may qualify for other reasons). Lost Highway is a psychological horror, exciting in the viewer the daunting prospect of getting lost in your own mind forever. The uncertainties are as important to this as the things that are explicit. Just what happened to Pete Dayton that night, the night his father struggles to speak about? What is that blurred out image at 48:17 on the timecode (see image below – this fascinates me most of all)? As the narrative joins up to itself in the final minutes, where exactly does Fred Madison’s psychogenic fugue begin? Where does it end? And as lights flicker and flash and as Fred convulses, do we infer that this is all happening as he rides the lightning on death row?
With an Angelo Badalamenti score and source material supervised by Trent Reznor colliding together, with sex, nudity and violence bubbling from its erogenous zones, Lost Highway appears to be Lynch’s most appealing film, one marketable to the masses for consumption for these lusty traits. Gorge yourself on this over-ripe fruit. It may be just as well that this never transpired, and Lost Highway was never marketed to a mainstream audience, as such seductive trappings are deceptive. The fruit’s not over-ripe, it’s rotten, making the sickly core an acquired taste.
In retrospect it feels like a dry-run for the more studied and tempered wonderland of Mulholland Drive, yet this shouldn’t be read as a diminishing of Lost Highway‘s effect or status. The film is endless, not just for its narrative loops, but for its insistence on lingering in the memory, forever echoing like the soft sound of This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song To The Siren’.
At its darkest is the Lost Highway Hotel; a place where terrible secrets are kept and revealed. I sat looking at a blinking cursor once, trying to think of a fitting name for a film review blog. Guess what happened.
*the film’s own credits copyright Lost Highway to 1996, yet general perception and release dates more coherently seem to agree on it as a film of 1997.