To say David Lynch has elicited a head-scratching moment or two in his career is akin to carrying on about the wetness of water; even at his most commercial, an air of mystery and the surreal lurks at the edges, and at his most personal, nightmare logic and a dreamy take on the familiar are pervasive. Having soured on answering to studio heavy-handedness after Dune, much like Kubrick did after Spartacus, Lynch has gone on to craft stubbornly individual cinema and television, much to the delight of his many followers. In 1997, after having alienated a large contingent of drive-by Twin Peaks fans with the “valentine wrapped in barbed wire” prequel to the television series, Fire Walk With Me, he unleashed Lost Highway onto an unsuspecting public, and heads were scratched like never before. The film starts with an oppressive, almost claustrophobic quiet and dread, then builds to a frenetic, hallucinatory finale that is shot through with pure madness. In between, we are shown murder and sex, as well as rebirth and metamorphosis. Noir tropes abound, set to one of the most varied and contemporary soundtracks of Lynch’s career. Even if you’ve strung a narrative together in your head by the end, the closing shot remains a source of debate. In other words, hardly an easy two hours of escapism at the multiplex. That said, stringing a narrative together is a valuable and, if you’ve been paying attention to how this director tells stories throughout his career, highly rewarding exercise.
First of all, the idea that one part of the film is fantasy while the other is “real” needs to be set aside. We are, after all, watching a film, not our neighbors in the real world walking their dog down the street. Film is fiction, and Lynch is always asking his audience to go on a journey into the unreal. Even what can be construed as the foundational happenings in Lost Highway are weaving in and out of reality; we’re told early on that we are being led by a particularly unreliable narrator who likes to remember things his own way. This is Fred, the protagonist albeit hardly hero of the tale. He has more in common with the ill-fated Leland Palmer than some of Lynch’s more traditional leads played by Kyle Maclachlan; his double life teetered between respectability and murderous rampages, and Fred’s is on the verge of crossing over those boundaries as we meet him. Reminiscent of Killer Bob in Twin Peaks, our eyes are first drawn to the lanky doppleganger of a shadow that follows Fred around his home as he grows to suspect his wife Renee of infidelity, and soon see this dark side, the evil that men do (or are about to do) personified as The Mystery Man. Robert Blake’s relentlessly eerie performance is wide-eyed and shot through with delight at the thought that Fred will succumb to his worst instincts, and his appearance in conjunction with the video tapes that start showing up are our first clues that even at this early stage of the game, Fred and Lost Highway are not telling us a straight story. Nothing about the supposed external threats presented by Blake’s character or the videotapes make sense, nor should they: They are fragments of Fred’s frayed psyche informing and inspiring the heinous act to come.
To continue piecing together Lost Highway’s labyrinth descent, it’s oddly appropriate to fast forward to Lynch’s later film, the celebrated Mulholland Drive. A bit of a Frankenstein Monster itself, Mulholland Drive was originally conceived as a Twin Peaks style serialized mystery, but after fearful ABC Network suits decided it was too dark for a post-Columbine audience and pulled the plug Lynch was given the funding and opportunity to turn it into a feature film. Instead of tacking on a whodunit ending, he followed Lost Highway’s lead and recast the tale as a doomed romance that ends in murder, with the perpetrator once again fleeing reality for a large part of the movie until whatever strands of reality exist come slithering, then crashing, through the façade. The order of operations is different—Mulholland Drive starts with the escapist dream of “Betty,” who envisions a lively Hollywood yarn with her former girlfriend re-cast as an amnesiac best friend, and then we are shown snapshot scenes of how Betty’s true self, Diane, actually loved and lost and arranged to have her ex murdered. Lost Highway, on the other hand, begins with what can be briefly referred to as Fred’s reality and then jumps into the fantasy in its second act, when Fred reimagines himself as the young hotshot mechanic Pete, surrounded by willing lovers and fast cars, being the focus of a cheating blonde’s affection instead of the scorned cuckold husband. Like Rita in Mulholland Drive, even a seemingly game and pliable imagined version of the object of his desire named Alice quickly breaks down and declares herself as unattainable as Renee was.
As usual, Lynch surrounds himself with high quality cohorts. Peter Deming’s lensing is sublime, capturing the inky blacks and blood reds of the opening as well as the sun-dappled Los Angeles Fred imagines Pete is adventuring through, with whirlwind, heat and flash defining the chaotic imagery of the finale. Angelo Badalamenti turns in yet another classic score, filled with everything from the fiery jazz of Red Bats With Teeth to the appropriately sad Haunting & Heartbreaking to the devastating Fred’s World. He’s joined this time by the likes of David Bowie and Trent Reznor, who provide a thrilling opening and a brutal finale, respectively. Longtime editor Mary Sweeney is razor sharp, and co-writer Barry Gifford adds the Pinter-esque sparseness of his prose in much of the simple but mysterious dialogue. Memorable performances abound, and not just from the aforementioned Blake and Bill Pullman playing against type as Fred—Robert Loggia lights up the screen as rage-fuelled Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent, Balthazar Getty and Natasha Gregson Wagner stick the landing as young lovers caught up in a much meaner game than either could imagine, Gary Busey manages his sanest appearance in front of a camera in several decades, and even Richard Pryor and Henry Rollins show up for memorable cameos. The heavy lifting throughout is done by Patricia Arquette, who even by the rough standards of existence most women find in Lynchland has a relentlessly tough row to hoe. Playing not one but two objects of mad desire, she is a sexual fantasy and lurid crime victim, and one can’t help applaud her fortitude in pulling Renee/Alice off (she famously called Lynch “Satan” on set at one juncture of the shoot, indicating the roles certainly took a toll).
In all, it’s a typically dense film for Lynch, perhaps one of his most complicated on the surface, yet driven by a fundamental emotional simplicity at its core. We are witness to a cycle of jealousy and pain, followed by violence and confusion, and that final shot mentioned above leaves the door open to the cycle continuing, as Fred appears to be morphing yet again, perhaps into Pete, perhaps into something new. For me, the pounding soundtrack and swarm of police cars combined with the smoke and flashing lights around Fred has always felt symbolic (as many moments in the final act do as Fred reemerges) of the killer finding a final home on the electric chair, but who knows? Even with a relatively clear overarching story, Lost Highway will always hide at least a few secrets away, like a smiling Mystery Man who’s just glad to watch his companions stumble about in confusion.