Cult Cinema: Lost Highway (1997) - Reviewed

Early on in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette) begin receiving mysterious videotapes on their doorstep which appear to show their home being invaded while they’re sleeping.  After detectives are called to investigate, Fred is asked if he owns a video camera and remarks he hates cameras because he ‘likes to remember things his own way’ and ‘not necessarily the way they happened’.  This is the key to unlocking the labyrinthine twists and turns taken in the surreal neo-noir narrative David Lynch’s dark, erotic and deeply disturbing thriller about memory, identity, pornography, mafia, psychogenic fugue and the unexpected capability celebrity has for murder. 

Far more radical than anything in Lynch’s oeuvre up to this point, Lost Highway remains one of Lynch’s most compelling character studies for how it portrays in our worst moments of despair our psychological attempts to erase our past and generate new lives for ourselves and the ways everyone on some level leads a double life.  Co-written by Wild at Heart novelist Barry Gifford and clearly inspired by the fallout of the O.J. Simpson trial, Lost Highway takes Lynch’s favorite recurring motif of a black highway at night with yellow stripes careening towards the camera to new thematic heights, suggesting an endless road to nowhere shrouded in near total darkness as a kind of modern Hell.  Think of the image concluding Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in hyper drive, depicting the cast of characters trapped in a Hell of their making in the form of wandering amid an endless highway leading towards oblivion.

The first of what would become a new narrative structure for Lynch, where linearity no longer applied and openness to interpretation is everything, Lost Highway also marks the director’s first attempt to tap into the gothic industrial music scene.  At the height of Nine Inch Nails’ popularity, Lynch contacted frontman Trent Reznor to compose some original music for the film (including The Perfect Drug) and ultimately wound up producing the immensely successful soundtrack album featuring highlights by David Bowie, Rammstein, Smashing Pumpkins, Lou Reed and Marilyn Manson (who also cameos in the film alongside Twiggy Ramirez).  If anything, the soundtrack album outsold the movie it was affiliated with. 

As always, Angelo Badalamenti provides a truly atmospheric ambient soundscape consisting of mellow jazz to Penderecki inspired strings that strike terror in the listener.  This was also, prior to Lynch’s abstaining from mixing his films in surround sound, the first time the master of sound design mixed in Dolby Digital 5.1, providing a sonic experience that is all but entirely lost hearing it only on a small TV screen.  While most home theater aficionados will play the latest Michael Bay film to show off their sound system, I find myself always popping in Lost Highway for the otherworldly sound engineering and the volume range which seems to go from dead silence to high pitched screams without warning in an instant.

Next of course are the visuals which are the epicenter of Lynch’s focus.  Shot in 2.35:1 widescreen by Mulholland Drive cinematographer Peter Deming, the film has an eerie soft focus to it that has never been properly duplicated on home video.  This is a film with a lot of deep black levels and near total darkness save for moments that are abruptly blindingly bright with saturated colors.  It is so beautiful to look at that some shots of desert sunsets exist purely for our viewing pleasure.  This was also the first time Lynch began anamorphically distorting the image with scenes that seem to warp and stretch the screen proportions unnaturally, a technique he would revisit once more in Mulholland Drive.  It’s an uncanny cinematographic technique not seen since Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain and very rarely seen anywhere else.

It goes without saying, whether you come away understanding Lynch’s meditation on psychogenic fugue, the performances across the board are undeniably outstanding.  Bill Pullman gives the performance of his career as the tense and increasingly jealous Fred Madison, providing the blueprint for what would become the character James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2.  Patricia Arquette also has a great deal of heavy lifting to do and she pulls it off spectacularly, playing two completely different characters who may or may not be the same person and going the full distance in terms of sex and nudity with confidence and gusto. 

Also fantastic is Robert Loggia as the ruthless gangster Mr. Eddy, who in a standout scene where he rams a tailgater off the road and goes on a rage filled rant that would make Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth from Blue Velvet cower in fear.  It’s a sequence where, like the greatest of Lynch’s comic foul mouthed episodes, you’re not sure how to react.  Do you laugh or recoil?  Is it funny or awful?  This deliberate contradiction can be found in all of Lynch’s work, where from one second to the next the tone is uncertain if not drastically shifting extremes.  If nothing else, it’s one of the most memorable moments in the film and calls into question why Loggia didn’t get more critical recognition for it.  Lynch also doesn't shy away from plugging in unlikely cameos including the last role for Richard Pryor, Jack Nance and also leaving room for Henry Rollins and Gary Busey.

Ironically, the film maybe hit closer to home than many were expecting.  Take for instance the pale faced eyebrow shaven mystery man dressed in black played by Robert Blake (in his final performance in film), a kind of surrogate BOB from Twin Peaks keeping a watchful eye on all the lost souls trapped in the endless highway.  One of the central themes of Lost Highway involves a man charged with the murder of his wife despite lacking any recollection of committing the act.  It is not without a cruel sense of irony that years later Blake himself would be charged with the same crime, throwing an even darker shadow over the proceedings and making the mystery man that much more sinister and frightening. 

For some viewers, the film plays somewhat like Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket due to the drastic shift in tone and structure as it reaches the second act and those unaccustomed to Lynch will find the transition jarring.  I also, even now despite my adulation for Lynch, still don’t know where the character of Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) fits into the proceedings.  While his thick black leather jacket recalls the greaser regalia adorned by James Hurley from Twin Peaks, Pete’s chapter in the film tends to meander.  Despite what some still feel is a shaky second act, it all comes together full circle so well with such an unforgettable final punch that you find yourself disregarding the shortcomings surrounding Pete Dayton’s place in the film.   

In the end, approaching any Lynch film requires the use of all of your senses as a filmgoer even though it is unlikely you will come away with a final answer to it all.  For my money, it’s the study of a guilty man’s mind wrestling with himself trying to make sense of the crimes he may or may not have committed.  While this doesn’t achieve the monumental power of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, you could look at Lost Highway as a younger brother to that film given Lynch himself seemed to suggest both films took place in the same universe.  

If anything, Lost Highway takes you closer into a self-deluding mindset than any other film I’m aware of save for Lynch’s last two features.  As with any great film from a master filmmaker such as Lynch, you’re inclined to revisit it again and again as you begin to think you’re closer to putting your finger on what makes a mind like Fred Madison’s tick.  Like the opening and closing David Bowie track I’m Deranged says, you’ll feel the same sense of bewilderment and vague, uncertain sense of closure well after the end credits have rolled.  


- Andrew Kotwicki