Lost Highway capped off a critical backlash against David Lynch that lasted for almost the entire ‘90s. Like its direct predecessors, Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lynch’s 1997 thriller can be so extreme that it makes the flourishes of Blue Velvet look positively tame in comparison. Lost Highway slowly tumbles into motion with dream sequences and chilly non-sequiturs such as “Dick Laurent is dead,” meaningless phrases that either flirt with self-parody or pole-vault into it, depending on your take.
Especially alienating is its mobius strip structure, in which saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is drawn in and out of a murder plot punctuated by sudden lapses of memory and eerie home videos of his home and bedroom shot by a third party. It takes a full 40 minutes to even get to the plot in question, in which Fred is convicted for the murder of his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), an event he does not recall even when watching home videos of him awash in her blood. Fred’s trauma propels the first and third acts, but Lynch’s cinema may reach the peak of its baffling, audience-baiting unpredictability when Fred suddenly turns into another man, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), 50 minutes into the picture.
It’s here where most people get off, but I had the great fortune of seeing the film after finally working through James Joyce’s legendarily impenetrable Finnegans Wake, and the parallels between the two are striking. Joyce’s modernist morass of multilingual puns and slurred dream language revolves, numerous times, around a sexual indiscretion detailed only in fragments whose frequent supplements and outright contradictions gradually give an impression of what really happened. Throughout, the central character of HCE takes numerous forms, from a kind of ur-patriarch to figures from Ireland’s historical and mythical past. Lynch’s film takes Joyce’s fitful sleep of national and personal guilt and reconfigures it around its most obvious generic cousin: film noir.
Noir almost always take place against foreboding night, but Lost Highway, like The Big Sleep, seems to take place in the space between wake and sleep. Fred’s shape-shifting act, like HCE’s, becomes a wildly manifested coping mechanism for his guilt, as well as a broad parody of noir protagonists who regularly see themselves as the victims even as they perpetuate their own schemes and selfishness against others. Pete, a sweet, working-class kid who gets dragged into the dealings of a mob boss/porn producer (Robert Loggia) and saves a woman (Arquette) from a sordid life, allows Fred to flip his own narrative and be the hero of his story. Likewise, he dispels his most evil instincts into the form of the terrifying Mystery Man (Robert Blake, all Chesire Cat grin underneath caked Kabuki makeup), who can be in multiple places at once and always creeps into Fred’s peripheral vision to remind him that no matter how far he runs and who else he becomes, he can never escape the truth.
Of course, the most oneiric aspect of all is the look of the film. Cinematographer Peter Deming mainly came from lighthearted comedies (with the notable exception of having lensed Evil Dead II), but his work with Lynch is a bold collaboration that pushes deep blacks well past the point of crushing and leaves detail smeared. Colors bleed into each other, and Lynch regularly clashes soft pastels with sudden shocks of deep crimson and amber. Even the sharpest images, like the spellbinding shots of Arquette showing up teasingly at Pete’s garage as overhead light throws halos over everyone’s head, have a bleary quality to them, a gauziness that suggests the camera were a half-open eye, crusted over with rheum and blinking in pain at even the low levels of light that penetrate the inky voids. More than any other Lynch film, Lost Highway has suffered from poor home video releases, with DVD unable to remotely match 35mm, itself prodding and pushed in conflicting directions by this drowsy nightmare.
“I like to remember things my own way,” Fred tells detectives early in the film when discussing why he doesn’t own a camcorder, and the film bears out an expressionistically rendered notion of selective memory shaded by fantasy. Duality and raging torrents beneath placid surfaces had long been tenets of Lynch’s filmography, but it is here that the stage is set for the director’s two totemic achievements of the aughts, one of which would recapitulate this film’s desperate wet dream of redemption in far more forceful, elegant terms, the other an attempt to revitalize those notions through the freeform possibilities of digital. Less of a madcap collection of ideas than Wild at Heart and not the piercing auteur statement of Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway is nonetheless a neglected film in Lynch’s canon, and one of his most direct fusions of high-modern aspirations and genre tastes that could be called populist if 85% of an average crowd wouldn’t be driven out the door by the half-hour mark.