Lost Highway (1997)
Directed by David Lynch
Produced by Deepak Nayar, Tom Sternberg, Mary Sweeney
Screenplay by David Lynch, Barry Gifford
Cinematography by Peter Deming
Edited by Mary Sweeney
Casting by Johanna Ray, Elaine J. Huzzar
Music by Angelo Badalamenti
Universal UK Blu-ray
The David Lynch Project Part VII
Here’s a statement that will probably be disputed among several readers: David Lynch’s films really aren’t that hard to understand. Oh sure, we may not know what every symbol or image represents (if anything), we may not know if a certain character is a real person or a representation of something else, on and on. Such things we can debate forever, but the basic stories of most of Lynch’s films are pretty clear if you understand one thing:
Or perhaps I should say fallen human nature. We’re all imperfect. In fact, we’re all messed up. Sometimes we want to do the right thing, but simply don’t do it. Or maybe we aren’t sure what it is. Perhaps we delude ourselves into believing something, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
What does this have to do with Lost Highway? Quite a lot.
(I’ll try to avoid spoilers whenever possible, but I’m not making any promises. I’m a fallen human, remember…)
Last week, after quite a hiatus, my friend K and I jumped back into our David Lynch project with Lost Highway. We normally don’t do this, but at least three times during the film we paused it and asked each other some questions about what we thought was happening and where we thought things were going. I mentioned in my first paragraph that Lynch’s films really aren’t that difficult to understand, but that’s after you’ve absorbed the entire film. During some of those pauses, K and I considered what a certain scene or action could mean, with several possibilities coming to mind. (Many of these we didn’t articulate to each other until after the film was over.) Afterwards we had a great discussion, some of which I’ll tell you about now.
In many ways, Lost Highway is David Lynch’s darkest, bleakest film. No, I’m not forgetting Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire. Lost Highway delves into some extremely dark places that its characters (one in particular) may never emerge from with anything that would pass for normal or safe. The film also achieves this with very few touches of levity, including dark humor (although you could make a good case for grim hilarity in the famous tailgating scene).
But let’s get to the film. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman, second picture above, right) hears a voice on the intercom of his house. “Dick Laurent is dead,” the voice says, but when Fred looks out his front window, no one’s there. Then one morning, Fred’s wife Renée (Patricia Arquette, second picture above, left; immediately above, right) finds a large envelope in the driveway. The envelope contains a videotape with footage of their house. The next day another tape arrives containing footage that goes inside the house, even showing the couple sleeping.
At a party that Fred and Renée attend, a strange man many have come to call the Mystery Man (Robert Blake, above) insists that he and Fred have met before. Fred doesn’t think so. “It was at your house,” the Mystery Man says. “I’m there right now.” The Mystery Man hands Fred a phone and tells him to call his house…
I’m going to get into SPOILER territory from this point, so if you haven’t seen the film, please do not read further until you get see the film.
I knew that once Fred had been jailed for the murder of Renée, something weird was going to happen and it did: Fred disappears and this kid Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty, above) appears in Fred’s jail cell. This, I figured, has to be either a dream, an alternate reality, or a parallel world. Part of the difficulty in watching a David Lynch film is fighting the urge to understand everything as it’s happening. I was caught up in the story (stories, actually), but kept trying to “figure it out.” If, as many think, Pete is actually a fantasy in Fred’s mind about who Fred wishes he was, then Lost Highway is equally fascinating and disturbing. The mind is an odd thing: Fred (or anyone) can certainly construct a fantasy world in an attempt to escape the horrors of the real one, but where’s the guarantee that your fantasy won’t turn into a worse nightmare? Actions have consequences, even in the fantasy worlds of our minds.
I’ve often heard that you can never do anything in your dreams that you wouldn’t do in real life. (Or, to use a little Buckaroo Banzai wisdom, “No matter where you go, there you are.”) If that’s true, there’s no fantasy Fred can dream up to escape his predicament or himself. When you let that sink in – and apply that on a personal level – you’re walking around in some extremely dark territory. If we’re all imperfect, fallen humans, we’re all in the same boat, but what do we do about it? Near the end of the film, when the Mystery Man asks Fred his name, it’s really a rhetorical question: no matter who the Mystery Man is (and we can debate that one for awhile), they both know on a fundamental level who Fred is.
Lost Highway contains several Lynch signatures: strange characters, red curtains, sparsely furnished rooms, unnerving close-ups,… We could no doubt list more, but perhaps the most effective Lynch signature is one that we may not even consciously recognize: the low-level electronic hum of sound that accompanies the videotape mystery sequences in the early part of the film. Lynch has used this technique before (perhaps most notably in Blue Velvet), but normally it’s a fairly obvious device. Here the sound is very low, something you feel rather than consciously hear. In a film filled with unnerving moments, the “hum” puts you on edge like nothing else. It seems to promise something irrevocably devastating in your future.
This hum, the almost complete absence of Lynch humor, some frightening images (and implications), and the acceptance/denial of identity – and its consequences – make Lost Highway a true nightmare, and not quite in the same way that other Lynch films are nightmares. I’ve said nothing about the performances in the film (which are excellent and seem only to work in the context of a Lynch film), the storytelling structure, devices, editing, etc., but I just don’t have the room or the time here. (Others do, as noted below.) The film includes a few elements that don’t quite work for me (or maybe I just don’t understand them yet), but overall Lost Highway is one of Lynch’s most powerful films.
Yet it also seems one of the least discussed of Lynch’s films. This could be due to the fact that it lost money, a lot of it. The film cost $15 million and only brought in a paltry $3.7 million in North America, including an embarrassing $212, 710 in its opening weekend. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert famously gave it “two thumbs down,” which Lynch himself countered with his opinion that the critics’ review was “two more great reasons to see Lost Highway.”
Lost Highway is available on an affordable DVD and on Blu-ray in just about any European country you can think of. I own the Universal UK Blu-ray, since there’s not a US Blu-ray available right now. For more reading on Lost Highway, I recommend this review from Slant and this extensive post from I Talk You Bored.
Next time, K and I will tackle Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story.