I remember when I first watched David Lynch’s film “Lost Highway” back in 1997. I saw it at a small theater in Newport Beach where the screen ratio was off by a bit, and the opening credits did not fit onto the silver screen as a result. I left the theater feeling a bit cold as I was not sure what to make of What I saw, and the ending seemed so absurdly abrupt to where I wonder if Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford had simply run out of ideas and went down a rabbit hole they could not dig themselves out of. The way I saw it, this film was easily upstaged by its soundtrack which proved to be one of my favorites from the 1990’s with its music by Angelo Badalamenti, Nine Inch Nails. Barry Adamson, Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson.
A few days later, however, I found myself thinking about “Lost Highway” a lot to where I could not put it out of my head. I could not figure out why initially, but then I found the answer in a review of the movie I read in Video Watchdog. I cannot remember the critic’s name, but they wrote it’s not about how the film affects you while you watch it, but how it affects you after you have watched it. I could not agree with this more, and it made me watch “Lost Highway” again, but this time in a THX approved theater with better sights and sound.
I have since revisited “Lost Highway” again and again over the years, and I revisited it yet again at the Nuart Theatre which presented this Lynch cult classic in a 4K restoration personally supervised by the director. While it may not seem as brilliant as “Blue Velvet” or “Mulholland Drive,” it remains one of my favorite films of Lynch’s as it presents us with a puzzle of a story which might be easier to solve than at first glance.
We are introduced to the married couple of saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife, Renee who live in the Hollywood Hills. Their marriage looks to be a cold one, lacking in passion. When it comes down it, Fred is far more able to get orgasms out of his saxophone solos than with Renee, and he becomes suspicious that she might be seeing someone behind his back.
Things get more unsettling for them when they discover someone has been leaving videotapes for them on their doorstep. The first one features a view of the outside of their house, but the second goes even further as it shows footage of them asleep in their bed. They call the police, but they are of little help in finding out who filmed them. Next thing you know, Fred finds and views another videotape which shows him hovering over Renee’s dismembered body, and from there he finds himself on death row for her murder.
Lynch has described “Lost Highway” as being a “psychogenic fugue,” a rare psychiatric phenomenon characterized by reversible amnesia for one’s identity. Others have compared the film to a Möbius strip, a non-orientable strip which one cannot consistently distinguish clockwise and counterclockwise turns. Both of these make sense as the beginning may very well be the end, and the end may very well be the beginning.
This is even further enhanced by Lynch saying he was partially inspired by the O.J. Simpson murder trial which came to dominate the early 1990’s. Indeed, I can see this inspiration all throughout “Lost Highway” as Simpson has not, nor will he ever, admit to committing any murders. For all we know, Simpson may still not know what he did as he has long since blacked it out of his mind. The same goes with Fred Madison as he cannot believe it when a certain video implies he murdered his wife in a most horrible way, but this doesn’t stop a jury of his peers from finding him guilty and putting him on death row.
There is a scene where the police visit Fred and Renee at their home after they received the second video, and Renee talks about how Fred hates video cameras and doesn’t want them in the house. His explanation is as follows:
“I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”
I have come to refer to this dialogue as the Dinesh D’Souza line as he continues to sell anyone and everyone on a narrative which just isn’t the least bit true. But regardless of how you view this film, one thing should remain clear: videotapes do not lie. Just look at what Detective Mike Kellerman (played by Reed Diamond) said in one episode of “Homicide – Life on the Street:”
“Videotape, it’s the perfect witness. It can’t change its testimony, and it can’t forget what somebody looks like.”
Indeed, “Lost Highway” is all about Fred Madison trying to escape the truth of what he did or, perhaps, what everyone thinks he did. As a result, he goes through a rather grotesque transformation which ends up turning him into a young auto mechanic named Pete Dayton (played by Balthazar Getty), and he gets released from prison. But as he now experiences life as a free man, he comes to meet the gangster Mr. Eddy’s mistress, Alice Wakefield. The only thing is, she looks a lot like Fred’s late wife, Renee. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact Patricia Arquette is playing Alice as well as Renee.
“Lost Highway” has long since become one of my favorite David Lynch films, and while “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive” are regarded more highly, this one is so much fun to view again and again. The whole thing is a complex puzzle, and I am convinced I can still solve its mysteries in ways I cannot with Lynch’s other works. I am not even going to try and make sense of “Inland Empire.”
With Pullman’s character of Fred, he is trying to stay ahead many steps of his darkest memories and actions, assuming they are true. But the deeper he digs into his psyche to escape an especially harsh reality, the more memories and familiar faces keep coming up. I like how Pullman plays Fred as a suspicious man who finds himself caught up in a situation he does not understand but which leaves him with the worst headaches imaginable.
Patricia Arquette is a marvel here as both Renee and Alice as she opens herself up, literally and figuratively speaking. It’s great to watch her go from portraying a scared wife to a dominant seductress who holds Pete very tightly within her grasp. Seriously, watching this Oscar winning actress here should serve as reminder of just how much stronger women are than men, especially when men are led by certain parts of their bodies other than their brains.
Who could have known this would have been Robert Blake’s last performance ever in a motion picture before the whole… Well, you know. Still, his work here as the Mystery Man is wonderfully chilling as he clearly took joy in crafting a character unlike any he played previously. When he glares at you, there is no escape, and seeing him without eyebrows makes his presence all the more unnerving. It’s an original performance which people never give enough credit to.
There are many moments from “Lost Highway” which will forever stay with me like when Fred Madison walks into the darkness of his home and re-emerges as someone much different, Robert Loggia who, as Mr. Eddy, unleashes his rage at an ignorant motorist for tailgating him, seeing Alice and Pete have sex in front of a car’s headlights, and the final scene where a character transforms in a hideously angry fashion. All of them are aided by the haunting musical soundscapes created by Angelo Badalamenti and Trent Reznor, the cinematography of Peter Deming, and the strange appearances pf both Richard Pryor and Gary Busey which had me wondering if Lynch was using dream logic in the same way Darren Aronofsky did in “Mother.”
“Lost Highway” provided me with one of the most unique experiences I have ever had. It left me at odds upon the beginning of its end credits, but it stayed with me from there on out, and I constantly find myself returning to it and its awesome soundtrack. This truly is an art picture as it can be interpreted in many ways, and I know I will come back to it again before I know it. Just remember one thing, Dick Laurent is dead.
* * * * out of * * * *