5 out of 5 stars

In an interview with David Lynch (screenshots of which have now become famous in their own right), the director laments the loss of accepted mystery in film. “As soon as you finish a film, people want to talk about it,” he said, making a scrunched up, pained face. “And…the film is the talking.” As any admirer of Lynch’s will tell you, it’s a statement true to the director’s nature, but almost impossible to follow for the viewer. Even now his words seem too neat and pat, shared endlessly as they are in meme format. And the director’s work, in all its mystery and magic, threatens to also be reduced via endless explainer videos, promising definitive answers about what his films are really about. And, of course, this a corner anyone wishing to talk about Lynch’s work finds themselves painted into: the more we talk, the further we get from the work. That’s perhaps truer of Lost Highway than any other of his films.

Lost Highway was Lynch’s first foray back into film since the divisive Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). That movie had faltered at the box office and frustrated critics and audiences, who had expected the film to wash away any mystery left behind by the famous TV series. The beloved protagonist, Special Agent Dale Cooper, had but 10 minutes of screen time, and instead of revealing what happened after the series ended, Lynch’s film was actually a prequel, focussing on the sustained mental torture of a character that audiences already knew was going to die.

It’s now been deservedly reconsidered as a masterwork and, significantly, the film taught audiences a key fundamental in Lynch’s work: he will always follow his artistic impulses, whether we’re with him or not. Fire Walk with Me, much like Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), wasn’t concerned with fan service, cozy familiarity, or audience hand-holding. One might point towards Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead (1977), and find there a similarly ingrained sense of dedication to the abstract.

But Eraserhead is clearer in its intentions and a thoroughly self-contained work, as if it arrived from another planet fully formed. What makes work such as Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet (1986), and Lost Highway so transgressive is how they see Lynch playing with classical filmmaking, employing widely-recognised cinematic signifiers to create familiar, even inviting works, before pulling back the curtains to reveal the violence and hellishness within their confines, and within American culture at large.

Twin Peaks (1990-91) was initially Lynch’s most approachable work, convincing millions of households they were watching a cinematic but quirky soap opera. The unfolding series and Fire Walk With Me did away with those notions. And similarly, Lost Highway is presented as a genre exercise, a sexy neo-noir for the 1990s, before revealing that its noir-ish trappings contain within it something more undefinable and terrifying. The footage of headlights speeding along a darkened highway that opens the film presents not just a literal lost highway, but mimics the experience of watching the film to come: we can only see what is directly in front of us, the darkness around it eating up any other sign of life. There is only the road.

Lost Highway follows Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a tenor saxophonist who lives in a prison-like modernist home in Los Angeles with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). The windows of the house look like those of an army bunker, with its exterior painted the kind of grey that recalls TV static—it’s unsurprising to learn that Lynch owned and designed this house. Inside, black telephones sit on tables, ominously waiting to receive bad news. Rows of identical plants are lined up unnaturally, mocking the idea that anything natural could live here. Impossibly dark hallways connect disparate rooms, and in unnervingly long takes, we are made to stare into them. There might be anything hiding in the dark but the most alarming possibility is that there is nothing.

It’s no wonder that Fred is having nightmares. In one of them, he sees Renee asleep. The camera hovers above her, watching. “You were lying in bed. It looked like you, but it wasn’t you.” In another, her face is replaced by a man’s that Fred doesn’t recognise. It isn’t just his dreams that are troubling him. One morning, a familiar voice on his intercom states: “Dick Laurent is dead.” The mysterious words were taken from a real life message Lynch received via an intercom in his home, and that haunting but entirely possible incident sets a tone for the film. We’re shown things that appear incredible but are not so far removed from the bounds of real life, and so they stir us.

In perhaps the most famous of these scenes, Fred meets the so-called Mystery Man at a party: a startling figure dressed in black, with a face painted white, who seemingly doesn’t blink. He tells Fred they’ve met before, at his house. That Fred invited him in. He doesn’t remember. When he claims that he’s at Fred’s house as they speak, a phone call confirms it—the stranger’s laughter echoing from the telephone and from the man standing in front of him.

Fred and Renee have also begun receiving video tapes left on their doorstep. They’re grainy artefacts shot with a handheld camera. They capture the unmistakable grey exterior of their home. In the next tape they receive, the camera travels inside and watches them sleep. These are amongst some of the most terrifying images in Lynch’s filmography, arguing the case that Lost Highway is the director’s closest thing to a pure horror film, at least in these initial passages. The tapes even resemble those that would later be featured in Ringu (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), respectively.

However, Lynch deftly switches tone and form before the film settles in one place for too long. We see Fred on stage blaring his saxophone in a wailing fit of sweat and noise. As he plays, strobe lights flash assaultively, and with this effect we only see Fred in snippets. The moments between the flashes, when he is lost in darkness, suggest another version of Fred that we can’t see, that our minds fill in. Just as a camera only captures 24 frames a second, we’ll always lose something in the liminal fragments, where perhaps another version of the things can exist. It’s as if a charge of electricity is surging through the room, shocking Fred through the music, and changing him into something else with each flash. Soon, the film will change again.

Renee has been murdered. Horror turns into mystery, as Fred doesn’t remember where he has been and has no clue how his wife was killed. Time is truncated—we skip through interrogations and courts, and find Fred awaiting execution in a Kafka-esque cell. His headaches are getting worse, with the fluorescent light above his cell permanently staring down at him, watching him squirm.

Mary Sweeney’s terrific editing gives a woozy sense of time with most scenes fading slowly to black, mimicking the sensation of falling asleep. It’s a choice that also isolates each scene, making every sequence feel remote and removed from context, as if it could be happening anywhere in space or time. When Fred’s head seems to become malformed and crack open inside his cell, the disorienting camera effects and quick cutting provide a wonderful sense of confusion, obscuring a clear vision of what happens to Fred. It is half visualised and half imagined by the viewer. The next morning, a new man is in the cell, having impossibly replaced Fred in the night.

Here, Lynch makes a resolute decision to follow his idea into wildly unexpected territory. Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) is the young man who’s replaced Fred. He’s a mechanic who lives at home with his parents, and hangs out with his friends. Like Fred, he gets awful headaches, cannot remember the events that occurred a few nights back, and seems fascinated with his own reflection. Each opportunity for clarity is bypassed, and the film is all the better for it. It not only seems to switch its story focus, but its tone changes once again.

Resembling the youthful motor-focussed dramas of the 1950’s and 60’s like Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Pit Stop (1969), Lynch further throws us off balance with touches of humour—Robert Loggia’s turn as the vicious Mr Eddy is as frightening as it is funny. “You like porno? Give you a boner?” he awkwardly asks Pete, after taking him out for a drive around the hills which ends in him beating a man senseless for tailgating him. “I want you to get a fuckin’ driver’s manual, and I want you to study that motherfucker!” he screams at the defenceless man.

From Blue Velvet to his newspaper comic-strip The Angriest Dog in the World (1983-1992), Lynch’s fascination with modern fury often yields disturbing results, but it should be noted that Lynch is also excellent at imbuing these moments with absurdist humour. “People are under a lot of stress,” one character hilariously offers after a violent shootout in Twin Peaks: The Return. Lynch is not often classed as one, but in his own way he’s a satirist, pushing human behaviour to ludicrous extremes to reveal the fears and flaws that underly them. In Lost Highway, he once again takes cliches of US cinema—angry men, femme fatales, inept cops, jealous husbands—and reduces them to their bare essentials, revealing their grotesquery as creatures trapped inside a loop. In doing so, he makes them human and heartbreaking again, creating a connection between their base-level emotions and ours.

Often these emotions are unspoken, such as when Pete first glimpses Mr Eddy’s girlfriend, Alice. She’s sitting in a Cadillac, her blonde hair cascading down. She looks remarkably like Renee, also played by Patricia Arquette. We watch Pete gaze at her with longing, or is it a memory? Does he recognise her like we do, now that her hair is changed, now that he is changed? It’s a stunning moment that is allowed to play without words, just a connection—whatever that might be—being made between two people. It calls to mind the psychological danger present in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) as well as the longing of Krzysztov Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (1991).

And like Vertigo, the point of Lost Highway isn’t to solve a mystery. We tumble further down a rabbit hole which becomes narrower and darker as we go. Grabbing onto the odd branch or stone may give us the feeling that we can get ahold of the film, as if we can grab Lynch by the collar and proclaim that we have solved his mystery. But each stone gives way in the end. The film is the talking, and we are not intended to solve anything.

Film, like the headlights that cast a narrow area of night in which we can see the road, is a limited glimpse at something—it’s not necessarily an all-encompassing, thorough excavation of an idea, and it certainly isn’t in Lynch’s work. Instead it is a distorted image that we can look at however we choose. Lost Highway is one of David Lynch’s most interior films, in that it seems to take place almost entirely from the perspective of Fred/Pete. And as such, the world that is presented to us is not designed to be consciously processed and made literal. It’s fiery and electric, a true step into mental deterioration, a visual splitting of the self into two parts.

Early in the film, a cop asks if Fred owns a video camera. No, he hates them, we learn. “I like to remember things my own way. As I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened.” Film, as an art form, is often an expression of this desire. To control what is seen, to control what happened, the way the creator sees fit. Fred is like a filmmaker, or a dreamer, wishing as he does to see the world in his own manner. Only, Fred doesn’t process it through film, he processes it as many of us do: through his fantasies and memories. We, like him, get so easily lost in them. To Fred, filming them would be to break the spell and to destroy the illusion.

Therefore, when the couple start receiving tapes of themselves asleep, the fear is not just that an intruder has been in their house, it’s that he has been seen on camera, as he really is. Who is he really? A violent husband? A murderer? Another man entirely? A scientific hypothesis that became popular some years back claims that if a person were to be cloned, they would not recognise themselves. That seeing yourself through the eyes of another would disintegrate the way you perceive yourself. This fear is the core around which the fragments of Lost Highway gravitate: a man so frightened of knowing himself that he comes apart. The camera (the one featured in the film as well as Lynch’s camera) becomes the interrogator, the unblinking eye which captures you as you really are. Lynch places Fred in a trap, watching him from above like that buzzing fluorescent light, as he goes round and round until he comes off the track entirely. It is cruel, riveting and intoxicating—a film thoroughly unafraid of following a man through hell.

But, as was becoming common with David Lynch’s work, the film didn’t do well commercially. It made just $3.8M at the box office, and critics at the time were divided in their opinion. Claims the film was ’emotionally empty’ abounded, and it was slammed by many for what was perceived as wilfully confusing filmmaking. It had its admirers, however—notably Janet Maslin and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who appreciated Lynch’s return to more a more abstract mode of directing. And, much like Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway has become something of a championed underdog in Lynch’s filmography. Whilst Mulholland Drive (2001) remains perhaps his most universally admired film, Lost Highway makes for an excellent precursor, and it’s not unusual to see the film near the top of people’s rankings of his work.

It certainly stands out in his filmography alone for its cast: it would be the only film, so far, on which he’d work with Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, who both give enticing performances and fit neatly amongst his regular stable of actors. Henry Rollins, Richard Pryor, and Gary Busey all appear in minor but eye-catching roles and, until Twin Peaks: The Return, Lost Highway contained Lynch’s most liberal use of popular music. In fact, the soundtrack, which featured tracks by David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, and Rammstein, achieved gold status and reached No.7 on the Billboard Charts, suggesting that despite seemingly coming from his own world, Lynch’s tastes occasionally overlap with the mainstream.

The film even made it onto Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll of the Greatest Films of All Time, and in 2003 was adapted into an opera in Austria. Undoubtedly, Lost Highway deserves the second life it’s enjoying. But once again, the more that’s written of the film, the more adaptations and soundtracks and scene-remakes we see, the further we get from the film itself. Lynch’s work is often in danger of becoming simplified and turned into quotes and icons. All one has to do is type ‘Twin Peaks’ into etsy to find hundreds of tote bags, badges, T-shirts and wrapping paper, each with some variation of ‘damn fine coffee’ written across them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. But when the cute bells and whistles are all that is focussed on, you soon are left with facile readings and superficial engagements with his work.

And similarly, Lost Highway’s brutal beauty is undervalued when it is reduced to fodder for lists that promise ’20 WTF Films to Break Your Brain’. That is a frustrating response to a filmmaker who’s so singular in American cinema that people aren’t sure what to do with his films other than simplify them, and ‘beat them’ as if they’re video games. It’s a fools errand to treat Lost Highway in this manner, and the film should be met on its own terms: as a singular statement that begs for your surrender, one to be experienced rather than intellectualised.

And that is the corner I’ve painted myself into. Despite having spent the past 2,500 words or so discussing Lost Highway, I feel as though I am right back to where I started, travelling that endless dark highway with only a narrow beam of light to lead the way. Perhaps Lynch was right, perhaps the film is the talking. Perhaps, then, i’ll watch Lost Highway again.

FRANCE USA | 1997 | 134 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: David Lynch.
writers: David Lynch & Barry Gifford.
starring: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Gary Busey & Robert Loggia.