Monday, June 21, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Lost Highway (1997)

"There is no such thing as a bad coincidence."

-A pertinent line of dialogue from David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997)

"It should be acknowledged, straightaway," opined critic Eric Bryant Rhodes in Film Quarterly (Spring 1998, page 57), "that Lost Highway is, by design, extremely resistant to reduction into a definitive narrative account; by the film's end it is evident that Lynch has intentionally withheld the answers to questions inevitably provoked by the narrative's elusive and elliptical plot. It is virtually impossible to reconstruct a definitive and rational account of what happens in Lost Highway."

Critic Kenneth Turan called David Lynch's film the director's "most accomplished work since Blue Velvet" and termed it a "metaphysical stag film," (Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1997, page 10), while David Denby noted that the film is a "virtuoso exercise in spooky unintelligibility" (New York, March 3, 197, page 53).

Meanwhile, Jack Kroll at Newsweek suggested insightfully that with Lost Highway Lynch had become "the Heisenberg of cinema, telling us that the uncertainty principle rules our lives" (February 24, 1997, page 68).

Elusive. Metaphysical. Spooky. Uncertain.

All of these critical descriptors highlight the confounding essence of this beloved and beguiling David Lynch film noir. It's a movie that can't be intellectually "understood," perhaps, only "interpreted" in relation to the director's style and singular voice, in particular his pervasive use of "dream sense," the surreal language of dreams.

Specifically, Lynch has has publicly likened Lost Highway to a Psychogenic Fugue...a mental state of disassociation from oneself. That comparison could be the very key that unlocks a few of the film's most enduring and baffling mysteries.

We've met before, haven't we? Or We Got Some Spooky Shit Here...

Lost Highway
depicts the startling descent into madness of a jealous saxophonist named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman).

Experiencing strange dreams about his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) -- whom he suspects is having an adulterous affair -- Fred also comes to believe that someone is watching him inside his own home; videotaping him as he sleeps. Fred is a paranoid man, and even his house -- painted in deep, dark shades of crimson and scarlet -- appears to reflect his intemperate, suspicious nature.

When Renee is discovered murdered, Fred is arrested for the bloody crime, but then something truly strange occurs.

In his jail cell: another man seems to take his physical place. Fred wakes up...and is different. He is now Peter (Balthazar Getty), a young fellow, a car mechanic, associated with gangster Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent (Loggia). And Eddy/Laurent’s girlfriend is Alice (Arquette)...a dead ringer for the murdered Renee.

Behind this strange metamorphosis -- and this strange new life -- is a terrifying and ubiquitous "Mystery Man" (Robert Blake) with a video camera...a man who can apparently be in two places simultaneously.

In the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they're sent to a place where they can't Escape: Or The Splintered Psyche as Madison's "Escape" Valve.

A restless spirit of madness seems to haunt angry Fred Madison in Lost Highway. That spirit, while actually a part of Fred's psyche, is manifested externally in the film; as another "being" he physically encounters.

Specifically, this specter of violence, revenge and madness takes the form of the pasty-faced, grinning maniac portrayed by Robert Blake.

In the film’s most deeply unsettling, most dream-like sequence, this specter of violence and guilt confronts Fred at a party and informs the saxophonist that he, the Mystery Man, is at his house right now, killing his wife.

Of course, a person can’t be in two places at the same time but the Mystery Man urges Fred to call his own house to confirm his disturbing story. Fred does so, and at his house the Mystery Man answers the phone. “I told you I was here,” he says.

The idea underlining this horrific, surreal sequence is that Fred has effectively disassociated from himself, from his personal identity, in order to carry out an evil, brutal deed: the murder of Renee. Fred has created a Boogeyman, a monster, to complete the task for him, since -- as a rational, evolved human being -- murder is not an acceptable act. Instead, Madison has reached deep down into his reptilian brain and created this thing, this monster.

Psychogenic fugues or dissociative orders are often precipitated by intense stress, and there's plenty of that to go around in the early scenes of this Lynch film. Sexual intercourse between Fred and the gorgeous Renee goes poorly, for instance. After some slow-motion photography and the exaggerated sounds of panting, Fred loses his erection, and Renee appears frustrated. The impression is of a troubled marriage and of Fred's looming, impulsive rage, ready to be sated. The Mystery Man appears briefly in this scene too: superimposed over Renee's lovely face. The monster's sudden appearance here is Fred's "flash" of violent intent, of rage, when he proves impotent.

Jealousy and looming rage are manifested again in the film's very color scheme, in Lynch's presentation of another important sequence. After a public musical performance, Fred rings Renee up on a red telephone and he's likewise bathed in hellish neon-sort of red light. She’s not home, and Madison's conviction that she is cheating on him grows exponentially. His very world seems to visualize this “red” streak of jealousy. Unable to get satisfaction from her husband, Renee has sought fulfillment outside the relationship...or so he imagines.

After creating the "mystery man" as an alternate identity from which to commit the murder of cheating Renee, Fred then disassociates again after the crime, creating an additional personality, Peter Dayton, where he can hide from his intense feelings of guilt and responsibility. Those unlucky souls who experience psychogenic fugues in real life often create totally new personalities, in new environs, with no memory of their real personalities or histories.

Of great significance, Madison's new personality, Dayton, is a heroic, young character who liberates Renee (now Alice...) from sexual humiliation and slavery at the hands of a powerful exploiter and abuser, Eddy/Dick Laurent.

Where Fred is impotent, Dayton is virile, engaging in satisfying sexual intercourse with Alice on a beach by night. He is the "dream" persona of Fred, as an unspoiled, vigorous, desirable youth. Fred Madison does not "snap back into being" until the film's conclusion when his Peter Dayton identity closes the loop and informs him that "Dick Laurent is dead." The death of his competitor for Renee's/Alice's affections allows Fred to be restored to his "real" state.

Importantly, this scene represents a kind of cinematic Möbius strip, relating back to one of the first scenes in the film. There are two ways to interpret it. The first is the psychogenic fugue approach. The early appearance of an unseen "stranger" at the door, informing Fred that "Dick Laurent is dead" is actually the fledgling start of Madison's dissociative mania; the sort of mental canary in the coal mine that pushes Fred to kill his wife and his competitor for her affections.

Or contrarily, one might read the entirety of the film as a murderous, disassociated fantasy occurring in Fred's dreams as he awakens to receive that cryptic message. He is only told once that "Dick Laurent is dead," and every event that happens in the film seems to occur in that very instant; his dream of murder; his escape into another identity, etc. This is the Jacob's Ladder (1990) reading of the film, I suppose.

David Lynch's description of the film as a Psychogenic Fugue also relates, in fascinating fashion, to musical terminology. A fugue is defined as a piece of music consisting of "two or more voices." Fred Madison, the Mystery Man, and Peter Dayton are all different voices inhabiting one psyche and their tale might appropriately be described as a musical fugue as well as a psychogenic one. For instance, a "fugue" often begins with an opening key (here, the "key" in which Fred Madison exists). Then, further episodes establish additional notes or keys (the Mystery Man, Dayton...). Finally, after expressing these "new" notes, the opening key in a musical fugue is re-asserted as the piece ends.

That is precisely the structure of Lost Highway, with Fred Madison -- our opening "key" -- brought back for the film's conclusion. A fugue (psychological dream state) explains the movie's narrative, and a fugue (piece of music) explains the movie's structure.

I swear I love that girl to death: The O.J. Simpson Connection?

Those associated with this Lynch film have reported that Lost Highway represents the director's free-association meditation on the O.J. Simpson trial which occurred mid-decade, shortly before the production of the film.

This clue helps us discern another layer of the film. Pullman plays a public figure (a musician, not a sports hero), who becomes irrevocably connected to the murder of his beautiful wife.

The opening shot, a point-of-view from the dashboard of a car rocketing down a lonely highway by night -- the pavement illuminated only by headlights -- even recalls O.J.’s famous freeway chase in the white bronco.

Like O.J., Fred Madison also loudly proclaims his innocence, but he’s not necessarily a reliable witness. For one thing, Fred doesn’t like the prying eye of the video camera. “I like to remember things my own way,” he complains “not necessarily the way they happened...” But go deeper. If the glove does not fit, you must acquit. And if Fred Madison is Peter Dayton...who do you arrest for the crime?

A true appreciation of David Lynch’s cinematic work arises from interpreting his symbols and reading carefully his powerful, subconscious dream imagery. In the case of Lost Highway it feels like Lynch is attempting to capture the psychological condition of instinctual, unconscious, reptilian rage, the utter madness and insanity of a jealous husband who is destined to kill his wife. Even the settings reflect this rage, in shades of terracotta, crimson and blood red.

The Lost Highway of the film's title is, perhaps Fred Madison's threadbare sanity; his psyche now fractured into blind alleys, dead-ends and avenues that go, approximately, nowhere. Lynch takes us into this nightmarish fugue state, showing us pieces of the splintered psyche and making us feel Fred's impotent, bubbling rage.

And some real "spooky shit."


  1. Fantastic review/analysis of a film that is extremely tricky to pin down in terms of what exactly has happened. It's all in the perception of the film's protagonist as he says, "“I like to remember things my own way, not necessarily the way they happened...” I think this is arguably the most significant line in the film and the key to understanding what's the deal with Fred. We are seeing the film through his unreliable POV, a man who is trying to run away from the horrible act he has done but ultimately is doomed to repeat the same cycle again and again, trapped forever on the highway of the film's title. In some respects, you can see LOST HIGHWAY as warm-up to or rather anticipating MULHOLLAND DRIVE which also doubles back on itself and is told from the POV of an unreliable protagonist also trying to escape from an ugly reality through an idealized fantasy world.

  2. J.D: I totally agree with you. Not only is Lost Highway a great film, it is definitely --as you say -- the "warm up" for Mulholland Drive. Yet the distinction, I think, is that Lost Highway, if anything, feels even more sinister than Mulholland. There's something absolutely terrifying about this movie, and about Blake in this movie.

    Thanks for the comment, my friend.


  3. Manfromwithout5:37 PM

    I completely agree with your interpretations of LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DRIVE. I would say that LOST HIGHWAY represents the spurned, impotent, jealous "male" murderous intent and MULHOLLAND DRIVE the spurned, impotent, jealous "feminine" murderous intent. The two films bookend each other.