Lost Highway Review

There is absolutely no middle ground with a film like Lost Highway. It's a genuine, bona fide love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie. Audiences either respond to it or switch off completely. As it turned out, when the film was released in 1997, most viewers chose the latter, baffled by a 'story' that seemed to self-destruct as it went along. Director David Lynch has a rare talent for confusing, infuriating and just downright alienating his audience. He epitomises the term 'offbeat' with his weird and often unsettling perspective of the world. Granted, he has made those tender, humanistic gems The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, but this sinister and menacing psychodrama has more in common with his other creepier, more disturbing work, like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart and the legendary Eraserhead.

Like those films, Lost Highway displays an almost intuitive eeriness, a pervasive sense of fear and approaching doom that rarely lets up, particularly during the film's first half. And this is very much a film of two halves, with one story suddenly and inexplicably metamorphosing into another at the halfway mark. For what it's worth, the story goes something like this. Jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) suspects that his alluring wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), might be cheating on him. The couple's seeming inability to relate to one another, coupled with Fred's inadequacy in bed, only adds to the conspicuous marital tension between the two. Things begin to get a little strange when they start receiving anonymous videotapes left on their doorstep. Initially, the footage merely consists of brief exterior shots of their house but subsequent tapes prove to be more invasive, showing the couple asleep in their bed. Alarmed, they call the police but nothing is done. At a party given by a friend of Renee's, Fred meets the Mystery Man (chillingly played by Robert Blake in weird make-up) who claims to know him and who can seemingly be in two places at once, two facts that seriously unsettle Fred. Later, at the house, Fred receives another videotape in which he is shown next to the dismembered body of his wife! Screaming out her name, the film abruptly cuts to him in a police station where he has apparently been arrested for her murder. Imprisoned, it is at this point that the film undergoes its most bizarre and baffling transformation. (It's also the point where I imagine many viewers give up on the movie altogether.)

Still in his cell, Fred is apparently transformed into young mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) who has absolutely no idea how he got there. Pete seems as real as Fred, with family and friends of his own who worry about what has happened to him, particularly his girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner) who senses a change in him. The tone of the film also changes at this point, the dark, moody, almost oppressive atmosphere of the first half now giving way to a slightly lighter, less claustrophobic mood as we enter Pete's world, a sunlit suburbia of white picket fences (recalling Blue Velvet) and happy families. Pete, we learn, occasionally works for big-time gangster, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), whose beloved girlfriend, Alice, looks remarkably like Fred Madison's wife, Renee. (Not too surprising since Patricia Arquette plays both roles!) Pete finds himself irresistibly attracted to her, despite being warned by a murderously jealous Eddy to keep away. They begin an illicit affair that, in the time-honoured tradition of gangster noir (which this half of the movie resembles), leads Pete into a lethal world of sex, double-crossing and murder. That's all I can say about the plot without giving the whole damn thing away (which, I admit, is difficult to resist since the movie itself appears to defy any real explanation, even when the whole story is revealed.) Sufficed to say, the film somehow manages to end roughly where it started, the story having come full circle.

So what the hell is going on? What is Lost Highway actually about? (You might want to skip down a few paragraphs if you haven't seen the film yet. Then again, considering the material, maybe not!) The film has been interpreted in many different ways. Some have seen it as simply two separate, distinct stories connected by nothing other than Lynchian weirdness. Others have viewed it as a new way of approaching the noir genre, where the tensions of a married couple are somehow transmogrified into this post-modern, gangster noir story. However, I think the best way to approach the film is to ask: what is real? What is imagined? The film seems to exist as a collision between dream and reality. It plays with the notion of the difference between objective reality and the subjective experience of it, in this case, Fred's experience of it. A key line seems to occur when Fred is asked why he doesn't like camcorders. He replies: "I like to remember things my own way...how I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened." This might best explain Lynch's overall intentions for the film. The narrative is, I think, best interpreted as the filmic vision of the subjective experiences of a deranged mind, a psychotically jealous man who kills his wife and then tries to alleviate his guilt by creating a new identity for himself. If this is the case, the viewer is indeed forced to wonder if any of the film takes place in objective reality at all. Perhaps all we have seen is simply Fred's twisted perspective.

In defence of this interpretation, the first half of the film does possess a dream-like quality, its tone deeply unsettling, sound and image full of portent and doom. It is as if key events have already transpired and Fred's mind now has to deal with them. The videotapes might then serve as a reminder to Fred of his crime, a tangible, objective record of what he has done. The Mystery Man seems to represent Fred's conscience, perhaps his superego, an 'entity' who has impelled Fred to commit murder but who also serves as a callous reminder of what he has really done and later who he really is. Indeed, at one point, we see the Mystery Man with a camcorder in his hand, adding to the conviction that Fred seems to need reminding of reality. Hence, Fred might be considered a prisoner of his own mind, a man who does not wish to acknowledge reality but who is nonetheless seemingly trapped by it.

To put it plainly then, Pete is Fred. It is Fred's insecurities about his wife, his suspicion that she is seeing someone else that drives him to kill her and very probably others, too. Part of this stems from his own sexual frustration. Early on in the film, he attempts to make love to his wife but fails to arouse her. Witness the murderous look on his face when she gives him a patronising pat on the back and whispers, "It's O.K." Fred has created this fantasy world where it is he, Pete, who gets the girls, he who is the sex machine, he who gets to make another man jealous. However, something inside of him simply cannot sustain this illusion. No sooner has this fantasy begun than reality starts to come seeping through it. To illustrate, Mr. Eddy is referred to as 'Laurent' by police, the man Fred has very probably killed in reality for sleeping with his wife; both Pete and his family seem unable (or more likely, unwilling) to discuss what happened the night Pete ended up in Fred's prison cell; and most importantly, femme fatale Alice, basically an idealised mental projection of Fred's wife, Renee, becomes more duplicitous and unattainable as Fred's fantasy crumbles around him. This progressive breakdown will culminate in the extraordinary sex scene in the desert, arguably the film's dramatic highpoint, when Fred's delusion is finally shattered.

There is so much that can be said about Lost Highway that I have really only scratched the surface here. I hope this review is not so confusing (or rambling!) as to prevent the reader from seeking out what I regard as David Lynch's finest work. His handling of sound and image, particularly evident in the opening scenes, is as masterful as we have come to expect from him, creating a uniquely disturbing atmosphere that stays with the viewer long after the end credits have rolled. The performances are exceptional, with Arquette suitably fetching in her dual role as Renee/Alice, and Bill Pullman a revelation as the dark and brooding central character, a man trapped by his own obsessions and finally undone by them. Great supporting work too from Robert Loggia, particularly memorable in a scary/comical sequence where he administers a terrifying beating to a fellow motorist who has the nerve to tailgate him.

In many ways, Lost Highway probably works best as a mystery and, like other great mystery stories, for example, the enigma of Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, the film works so effectively because it never attempts to provide all the answers. In this reviewer's humble opinion, Lost Highway is one of the most intriguing and endlessly fascinating films to be made in the 1990s. Nevertheless, whatever I think the film might be about (and I could be way off the mark in my own observations), I'm pretty sure that David Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford have wilfully crafted a cinematic puzzle that will never be satisfactorily explained. It is to the film's credit, however, that it offers enough brilliantly conceived stand-alone sequences (the party, the desert sex scene, to name but two examples) and tantalising insights into a fragmented mind that it more than stands up to repeated viewing. As a matter of fact, seeing this film more than once is essential if one is to try to fathom its meaning as well as appreciate what a remarkable piece of cinema it is.

Video

After numerous recommendations concerning the German DVD release of Lost Highway, I finally took the plunge and purchased a copy and I have to say I was impressed by the quality of the transfer. Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, this German release is probably about as good as the film has ever looked outside the cinema, superbly complimenting Lynch's extraordinary framing and compositional skills. Colour is well presented (if occasionally a little oversaturated) with the deep reds and blues of the first half coming across very nicely indeed. Considering that Lynch carried out advance film tests before making this movie in an attempt to see how dark he could go whilst still retaining an image on the negative, I had expected early scenes in the movie to look especially awful (particularly as I have seen a VHS version of this movie that is nothing short of unwatchable.) The scene where Fred disappears as he walks down the hallway of his house is an excellent example of this. Nevertheless, the DVD just about manages to hold its own, although the shadow detail could be better. Black level is very good, though contrast seems a little high. Overall then, this is a better-than-expected transfer.

Audio

Presented in both English (with optional German subtitles) and German DD 5.1, the sound is also impressive. Overall clarity is excellent, and Lynch's brilliantly chosen soundtrack, consisting of the likes of Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Trent Reznor, Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti along with This Mortal Coil's sublime 'Song To The Siren' (which I understand Lynch had wanted to use in one of his movies for a long time), comes across wonderfully well. Note: Some DVD owners have claimed that they have noticed a serious lip synch problem on the English language track but it only seems to affect certain players. I will say that I noticed a slight problem on two or three scenes in the movie but to be honest, I'm not sure I would have detected them if I hadn't already been alerted. It certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment of the film.

Extras

This is a David Lynch film so don't expect much in the way of extras. As a matter of fact, except for some ridiculously short interviews from Lynch and stars Pullman, Arquette and Loggia (none of whom seem to know what the hell kind of movie they're making), the only other extras are some German language trailers for Lost Highway, The Straight Story and Lake Placid. There are some nice moving menus taken from the film's opening credits, though. Disappointing, but more or less expected.

Overall

Forget about the lack of extras. The best reason for buying this edition of Lost Highway is to own this magnificent, massively underrated movie. The audio and video are both impressive, and if you are a fan of David Lynch's work or surreal cinema in general, then this is well worth adding to your collection. Recommended.

Film
10 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
3 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

Last updated: 16/06/2018 22:03:48

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