Lost Highway is, arguably, the forgotten David Lynch film. It’s seldom mentioned when his movies are discussed, and it’s only just now received a proper DVD release in the U.S. (albeit it’s a bare-bones affair with no extras whatsoever). I’ll come back to possible reasons why it’s a second-tier film for Lynch, but for now suffice to say that second-tier or not it will undoubtedly please the director’s fans and is a satisfying mind-fuck.
Fred Madison (Bill Pullman shedding his nice-guy rom-com image) is a jazz saxophonist who’s married to Renee (brunette Patricia Arquette). It’s hard to say which is more claustrophobic – their beautiful but sterile house, or a marriage that consists of stilted conversation, awkward silences, and unsatisfactory sex. Fred adds suspicions of infidelity to his list of marital problems, and soon afterward the couple receive a videotape. The tape is simply a brief film of their house’s exterior. But subsequent tapes show footage of the inside of the house, and of Fred and Renee asleep in their bed.
Unsettling as that is, things get worse. At a party hosted by a person who might be Renee’s lover, Fred encounters the Mystery Man (played with sublime creepiness by Robert Blake), who informs Fred that they’ve met, and that he is not only speaking to Fred at the party but that he’s in Fred’s house at that very moment. A phone call seems to confirm this. Fred receives another videotape, this one showing that Renee’s been brutally murdered. Fred’s convicted of the crime and sentenced to death, and while awaiting his appointment with the electric chair starts suffering severe headaches. After a particularly nasty night for Fred, his guards open his cell to find not Fred but Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) a nice young auto mechanic with no memory of what he’s doing in Fred’s cell. The baffled police let Pete go, and he returns to his everyday life.
And then things get weird.
In many ways Lost Highway is a dry run for Mulholland Drive, with its Moebius-strip narrative and recurring and/or doppelganger characters. Yet it lacks the emotional heart of Mulholland Drive and fails to give the audience a character it can identify with. Though Pullman puts in a good, quietly tortured performance, we never learn enough about him to sympathize with his eventual plight. Pete is a more obvious choice for a sympathetic character, but before he can win over the audience he makes the boneheaded move of falling for Alice (blonde Patricia Arquette), the girlfriend of gangster Mr. Eddie (delightfully profane Robert Loggia). The real problem with the movie is Arquette, who isn’t a strong enough actress to handle the two roles she’s assigned, nor is she charismatic enough to make us understand why men would be driven to kill for her.
Lost Highway also lacks the odd transcendence of other Lynch films. Despite their grim subject matter, most Lynch films grant their characters moments of grace and even redemption. There’s no such moment in Lost Highway, which will no doubt please the “it’s better because it’s darker” crowd but may be one reason the film is somewhat forgotten. It’s the most pessimistic of Lynch’s movies.
That aside, Lost Highway looks and sounds gorgeous. No director uses silence, sound, and shadow quite the way Lynch does, and he makes even an ordinary hallway seem threatening. The score by Angelo Badalamenti with contributions by Trent Reznor, is effective as always (though like Lynch, Badalamenti seems to be doing a test run for Mulholland Drive). However, some of the overly trendy song choices including Rammstein, Smashing Pumpkins, and Marilyn Manson (who has a cameo) grate.
Fans will be pleased to see what they’ve come to expect from Lynch: haunting imagery (the scene of a house that explodes in reverse and slow motion is the one that lingers in the mind longest), oddball supporting characters (look for small roles by Gary Busey, Richard Pryor, and Henry Rollins), and a story that’s familiar yet plays out in unexpected ways. But perhaps that’s what keeps the film from being great – it’s Lynch doing what we expect of him.
Though the DVD looks and sounds lovely and is a tremendous improvement over the awful full-frame Canadian release, the extras are nonexistent. This shouldn’t come as a surprise with Lynch being notoriously reticent where his films are concerned, yet it would have been nice to have had something besides chapters.