A 4K restoration of the film offers a new chance to untangle its uneasily ambiguous, highly bifurcated plot.
by Cole Kronman
From Lost Highway (1997), dir. David Lynch (all images courtesy Janus Films)
“I like to remember things my own way,” grumbles Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), explaining his distaste for video cameras to two police detectives. “How I remembered them … not necessarily the way they happened.”
Were one to seek out the inaugural point of director David Lynch’s “late style,” this moment in his 1997 neo-noir thriller Lost Highway is as good a candidate as any. Excepting 1999’s The Straight Story (an audacious film in its own right), this time marked a sea change in Lynch’s output. More than ever, his work became characterized by nonlinearity, intrepid formal experimentation, and interest in the subjectivity of the image. The dialog also succinctly encapsulates Lost Highway itself, an uneasy Möbius knot of a film that’s every bit as unreliable as its characters. A new 4K restoration of the film is touring theaters nationwide, allowing a new audience to untangle that knot — or get wrapped in it.
It begins at its end, in a caliginous, sparsely furnished house somewhere in the Hollywood Hills. A voice (whose, we don’t know) crackles over an intercom: “Dick Laurent is dead.” Listening is Fred, a jazz musician who lives here with his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). Their relationship is strained, both of them taciturn. Unable to satisfy in bed, Fred siphons his sexual frustration into his ballistic saxophoning, more paroxysm than performance. The couple begin receiving unmarked envelopes containing VHS recordings of their home, culminating in a tape that seemingly depicts Fred hacking at Renee’s corpse on their bedroom floor. He is charged with her murder, imprisoned, and sentenced to death by electric chair. But that can’t be right. Fred doesn’t remember killing Renee. He doesn’t remember Renee at all. He’s not Fred; he’s Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young, attractive, virile auto mechanic who got a bit too friendly with a psychotic gangster’s wife and needs to skip town fast. He just has to wring some dough from a local porn mogul first. He can always run away, always start over, always be someone new, as long as he never slows down, never stops to think.
Lost Highway begins once, and then again; it ends, then seemingly loops back, feeding its own delusions ad infinitum. It’s Lynch’s most bifurcated feature, and its twin storylines seem at first to be tonally and narratively distinct. The opening stretch sees the director at his most paranoid and voyeuristic, with the jet-black crannies of Fred and Renee’s home enshrouding some omnipresent, unnamable malevolence. But when Fred falls asleep in his prison cell and awakens as Pete, the film becomes markedly sunnier, at least for a time. There is little connective tissue between the two characters. This sudden disparity lends the film an odd air of inconsistency, clearly intentional but no less destabilizing. Parsing its eclectic slurry of ideas proves increasingly difficult.
And then a commonality emerges: Alice Wakefield, Pete’s paramour, is also played by Arquette, physically identical to Renee aside from the color of her hair. (She’s blonde to Renee’s brunette — a dichotomy long present in Lynch’s work, gleaned directly from the classic noir that so fascinates him.)
Introduced stepping in lurid slow motion out of a Cadillac, stealing charged glances at Pete (and, by extension, the camera), we immediately understand Alice as an object of intense desire. She’s a sexier, savvier iteration of Renee who reciprocates her lover’s lust. Or it would appear that way, until even this fantasy crumples under Pete’s realization that sometimes women want things that aren’t him.
Male anxiety is the drain around which Lost Highway swirls. It’s what drives Fred to homicide, what compels him to fabricate a more palatable identity, and what leads to the violent collapse of that identity. Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch’s previous treatise on masculine fear of the feminine, concluded with its protagonist burying his anguish deep beneath a white picket fence, refusing to reckon with the horrors he’d unearthed.
A similar refusal anchors Lost Highway, here serving as its springboard rather than its terminus. We bear witness to the decay of unreality in real time, Fred’s guilt growing ever larger in the rearview mirror as he careens down an empty road, deeper into his strobing erotic nightmare.
In a rare instance of nearly elucidating the premise of one of his projects, Lynch has stated that the O.J. Simpson case was key to the inception of Lost Highway. How, he wondered, could anyone do something so heinous and still live with themselves, let alone be so assured of their own innocence? It’s fitting that the film, inspired by the most televised criminal trial in history, would concern itself so much with the paradox of film itself, a medium that illuminates and deceives in equal measure.
There is a diabolical figure in Lost Highway played by a goggle-eyed, greasepainted Robert Blake (who himself would go on trial for the alleged murder of his wife in 2005), credited only as “Mystery Man.” He skulks around the film’s margins with a video camera slung over his shoulder, its inky lens not unlike the barrel of a gun — documented reality rendered a mortal threat.
But this reality is not immune to manipulation. Lost Highway manipulates for two hours, shaping the imaginary and entwining it with the real. When the Mystery Man eventually stands at Fred’s side, his capriciousness is revealed: Cinema is only as reliable as those behind the curtain. Dick Laurent is dead because his death is caught on film. Dick Laurent is not dead, for precisely the same reason.
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