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The New Cult Canon: Lost Highway

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“I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened.” —Fred Madison, Lost Highway

Based wholly on my one and only viewing of David Lynch’s Lost Highway back in 1997, I was prepared to write something like the following paragraph:

“The first 45 minutes of Lost Highway are as sustained a stretch of brilliance as any in Lynch’s career—a self-contained, carefully constructed mini-masterpiece that takes the form of a waking nightmare. Contrast that with the final 90 minutes, which are as wide-open and diffuse as the first 45 were tight and disciplined, and the film makes a good case study on where Lynch excels and where his work slips into indulgence and grotesquerie. Eraserhead excepted, Lynch has always worked best within the guardrails of genre: When tethered to a cohesive, even conventional, narrative, his impulse for the surreal and the bizarre tend to resonate more, because they surface out of a world we recognize as our own (e.g. Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, the Twin Peaks pilot, The Straight Story). Without any such anchor, the films tend to lapse into a loose association of—for serious lack of a better word—‘stuff,’ a clearinghouse of visual ideas and abstractions spilling out of his head to no apparent end (e.g. Wild At Heart, the late stretches of Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). Lost Highway starts as the best kind of David Lynch movie, and ends as the worst kind.”


Okay, now forget what you just read, because based on my second viewing of Lost Highway this week, my theory needs some work, or at least some qualification. Remember how much I admired—and still admire—the extraordinary rigor of the first third? Seeing it again, I haven’t so much come to terms with the relative messiness of the second two-thirds as I discovered that they’re much more rigorous (and related to what happens earlier) than I initially gave them credit for being. That doesn’t mean I’ll be able to unlock all the mysteries of Lost Highway here—it’s such a Möbius strip of a movie that I’m not sure it’s possible anyway—but Lynch tells his bifurcated story through an array of symbols, doppelgängers, and callbacks that tie everything together. Or almost everything: The puzzle pieces might fit in the end, but the picture is as blurry and unhinged as the inside of its dual protagonists’ heads. There’s a reason this film opens and closes with the David Bowie song “I’m Deranged.”

But oh, those first 45 minutes. Paying homage to Maya Deren’s experimental classic short “Meshes Of The Afternoon,” right down to the house’s vantage point on the street below, Lynch builds on repetition and the steady accumulation of simple rituals and objects. It begins with the buzzer ringing, and jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) answering the intercom. “Dick Laurent is dead,” a voice whispers, and then the strange visitor disappears. Some obvious questions linger for Fred and the audience: Who is Dick Laurent? Who’s leaving the message? And what does it have to do with Fred, who clearly doesn’t know about any of it? (Lynch reportedly based this scene on a similarly cryptic message left on his intercom.) In the meantime, Fred lives in an ultra-modern L.A. home with his beautiful but bored wife Renee, and spends his evening strangling his sax at the Luna Lounge.


Then one morning, a videotape arrives in an unmarked envelope on their doorstep. The 10 seconds of footage is simple, just a surveillance swipe across the exterior of their house, followed by an abrupt cut to snow. Renee speculates that perhaps it’s from a real-estate agent, but Lynch suggests a force more menacing and invasive, not unlike a similar conceit exploited brilliantly by Michael Haneke’s Caché nearly a decade later. Meanwhile, the soundtrack swells with the sort of ambient rumbling Lynch mastered in Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, and the house itself becomes an unsafe space, shrouded in deep reds and blacks. The hallways alone are so dark that passing through them seems like a pathway to oblivion, like those giant swathes of shadow in an old Val Lewton horror movie.

Then another videotape arrives, and another after that. The first moves past the exterior and into the house itself, scanning the living room and hallway and Fred and Renee sleeping in the bedroom. It’s charged with more static and white noise as the camera plumbs further along. The second returns down the same path, only this time, the bedroom shot ends on the blurry image of a man kneeling over a woman’s butchered body. We can perceive that the man and the woman are Fred and Renee, but the blurriness matters, in that the horror of the incident cannot be confronted head-on. It’s in this section of the film also that we meet the Mystery Man, an unambiguously evil gentleman played by Robert Blake in deathly white Kabuki makeup. In this, the film’s creepiest and most famous scene, the Mystery Man asserts his omnipresence in Fred’s life by having him place a cell-phone call home:

A true Los Angeles movie—and a dry run for Mulholland Dr., in much the same way Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha was a dry run for RanLost Highway was inspired in part by the O.J. Simpson case. Lynch isn’t interested in celebrity justice, the media, or any of the cultural hoopla surrounding the trial, just in the concept of a killer so steeped in denial that he’s able to escape culpability. The film is a brilliant feature-length manifestation of his subconscious: Fred’s efforts to beat back his guilt and refuse to take responsibility for his actions are a source of constant tension. Fred pretends that he doesn’t know the Mystery Man—and given his powers of suppression, he’s likely telling the truth—but as the man says, “You invited me. It’s not my custom to go where I’m not invited.” The Mystery Man is the devil on his shoulder, and he can’t be swatted away, though not for lack of trying; while locked in a cell, awaiting death by electric chair, Fred succeeds in transforming into another person, which sends the movie careening down an entirely different path.

The gearshift twist into the second two-thirds of Lost Highway brings with it another set of characters—many of them mirror reflections of the ones in the beginning—and echoes that unify the two disparate segments of the movie. Balthazar Getty takes over for Bill Pullman, literally materializing in Fred’s cell as “Pete,” a somewhat dull-witted mechanic who fulfills the standard noir role of dupe supreme. His Veronica Lake is Alice (Patricia Arquette again, with blonde hair this time), the duplicitous moll to Mr. Eddy, a vicious gangster played with teeth-gnashing élan by Robert Loggia. Pete is at least smart enough to know that he courts danger by throwing in with Alice, but he doesn’t have near the discipline to resist her advances. (Lynch makes a strong and repeated case for Arquette’s irresistibility here.) Based on what Mr. Eddy does to people who commit the modest crime of tailgating, he isn’t a man to be cuckolded:


The second part of Lost Highway isn’t as tight and focused as the first—cameos by Richard Pryor (in his last role) and Jack Nance are there just to up the weird factor, though I like the casting of half-mad Gary Busey as Pete’s father—but it isn’t as off-the-rails as Wild At Heart, Lynch’s other collaboration with writer Barry Gifford. Whenever the film threatens to stray, Lynch keeps bringing it back to the overall puzzle, whether it’s through Arquette’s elusive femme fatale, a reappearance of the Mystery Man, or Pete/Fred’s violent transformation back to the man he truly is. I cannot begin to unpack all these associations and what they mean, though as I wrote earlier, the overall picture isn’t meant to be crystal clear. Lynch structures the film as a giant loop, coming back to the David Bowie song and the “Dick Laurent is dead” message, but it wouldn’t be right to say it’s all neatly squared away in the end. It’s just not that kind of movie.

The epigram above from Fred gives the game away: “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened.” To Lynch, that statement is both a frank assessment of the self-deceptive nature of memory (see also: Memento) and an extreme example of a killer creating an alibi by lying to himself about who he really is and what he’s done. (Lost Highway practically anticipates Simpson’s fake-but-not-really-wink-wink memoir If I Did It, in which he presents a fantasy scenario about a crime he almost certainly committed.) Lynch improved on some of these ideas with Mulholland Dr.—a better film, if only for Naomi Watts’ volcanic lead performance, which far outstrips Pullman and Getty’s glazed-over turns here—but Lost Highway is more cohesive than it might appear at first blush. Like no one else, Lynch goes digging for truths that people don’t know or won’t acknowledge about themselves—within dreams, within the subconscious, within those impossibly dark hallways where we fear to tread.


Coming Up:
Next Week: [Vacation.]
July 23: Pootie Tang
July 30: Beetlejuice
August 6: Naked