Movie Review : Lost Highway (1997)
* Spoilers, I guess? The movie is from 1997 so if you haven't seen it yet, there's a chance you come across spoilers every goddamn time you read about it. *
The first film to ever defeat me was David Lynch's now iconic Lost Highway. My friend Bob * and I were expecting a whole other movie based on the killer hard rock soundtrack featuring Nine Inch Nails' excellent song The Perfect Drug and Marilyn Manson's transcendent cover of I Put a Spell on You. Someone believe in this movie enough to invest major money into mainstream promotion. Fast forward fifteen years, a quasi-useless liberal arts degree and a newfound admiration for David Lynch's movies later, I was eager to test myself and give Lost Highway another go. It did not defeat me this time, beautiful people. Whether you haven't seen Lost Highway yet or have been defeated by it, let me break it down and help you to a more enjoyable viewing.
The story of Lost Highway might seem confusing and surreal at first, but let me assure you: it kind of makes sense. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) are getting blackmailed by an unknown party sending them VHS tapes recorded from inside their house. Fred gets arrested soon after receiving another mysterious tape where he's seemingly murdering Renee and is sentenced to death. Guards on death row find a young mechanic named Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty) sitting in Fred's cell one morning. Nobody understand what happens but since Peter hasn't committed any crime, he is released to his parents' care. He is soon visited by a young woman named Alice (also played by Patricia Arquette) who, you guessed it, looks exactly like Renee. What is going on? It's slightly more simple than what is looks like.
Part of the pleasure of watching David Lynch is trying to figure out what the fuck is happening. The key moment in Lost Highway happens near the beginning. When Fred and Renee have the police at their house. When asked why he doesn't like video cameras, he says: "I like to remember things my own way. Not necessarily the way they happened." Bill Pullman's delivery of that line is great. It's like everybody else in the room disappeared for a moment and he was talking to himself. The first part of Lost Highway basically is Fred's selective memory of the events which lead him to kill his adultery wife. If you look closely, there are subtle clues that hint to the questionable nature of what Lynch shows us. For example, Renee is always wearing makeup and the exact same high heels**. She washes her face at one point and she's STILL wearing makeup because it's how Fred wants to remember her.
This is where the movie starts getting really weird. Here's what you need to know in order to follow better: Fred really killed Renee. The VHS tapes he receives at his house are unfiltered memories of the event resurfacing. They're blurry and fragmented like real memories are, but the truth is there. Inescapable. Peter is Fred's escapist fantasy he imagines from his cell and this is where Lost Highway becomes such a brilliant movie about subconscious desires. Peter's life is mirror Fred's except none of the events are his or Alice's fault. She was enslaved into a pornographic ring by cartoonish villain Dick Laurent *** (the late, great Robert Loggia ****) and looked up to Peter for salvation and he, of course, nobly obliged. Every source of Fred's guilt is rewired towards an external source in Peter's storyline, which is why it's so convincing and feels so surreal at the same time. This is how fantasies work and we're not used to look at them like this. From an outsider's point of view. It feels voyeuristic.
What about the Mystery Man? Robert Blake delivers by far the most haunting performance in Lost Highway but also the most confusing. Who is he? Why is he present in both storylines? There were several interpretation of who the Mystery Man exactly is: some called him evil personified, others called him the inescapable truth. I have a simpler and sexier explanation for you: he's the devil. This is why he confronts Fred at Andy's party and claims he's at his house. This is why he keeps appearing and disappearing at will *****. This is also why he appears in Fred's storyline next to Dick Laurent (another construction) and talks about EXECUTION. Fred invited him in when things started going south with his wife and now controls his reality. Some people also argued that he controlled Fred's Pete fantasy in the second part of the movie and decided to tear it all down at some point, which I would mostly agree with. That's why he's so scary. He knows everything and is enjoying himself like only the devil would do!
Lost Highway is not my favorite David Lynch, but it's a close second to the immortal Blue Velvet. Perhaps it was a little ambitious for the era and the mainstream promotion put behind it, but it truly is a unique and successful reinvention of Hollywood's iconic film noir. I find it thematically similar to Mulholland Drive, yet more committed to what it was trying to say. We're fortunate to have an anomaly like David Lynch in contemporary cinema, a boundless and creative director who gets the attention of major studios and popular actors. He's an anomaly we should cherish, champion and enjoy while we have, because he's not getting any younger and there is no one else who does film like this. I hope this review/analysis will help you (re)consider Lost Highway as the brilliant achievement in storytelling that it is. It's a fantastic and timeless movie.
* My hetero moviegoing partner of then.
** Even when she's Alice, except they're a different color.
*** The name is an adorable wink to Lynch's pal and savior of his career Dino de Laurentiis.
**** There is this awesome urban legend that Loggia auditioned for Frank Booth's part in Blue Velvet, not knowing it was already given to Dennis Hopper and became extremely agitated on set, which was the genesis of his part in Lost Highway.
***** Leaving the gun in Fred's hands at the end.