Review: Lost Highway (1997)

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Cast: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, John Roselius
Director: David Lynch
Country: France | USA
Genre: Drama | Mystery | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


There is a difficulty in describing any David Lynch film; more than any other today, he is a director known for his surrealistic imagery and abnormality in his plots and the ways in which he presents them. His work is celebrated as an aversion of cinematic norms, an experimental manipulation of his audience and their expectations, and a unique atmosphere of often quasi-horrific intrigue. Like so many of his films, Lost Highway was a divisive instigation of bafflement as to its meanings, even the very basics of what occurs within it. Floating through a world not entirely dissimilar to that of the characters from Blue Velvet, Fred Madison is a man lost in a dead-end marriage, unable to sexually satisfy his wife and afraid she is cheating on him. A series of strange incidents—a mysterious voice over his buzzer proclaiming a man named Dick Laurent dead; the arrival of anonymous videotapes showing first the exterior of his home, then the interior and he and his wife in bed; a strange conversation with a mysterious man at a party, who somehow talks to him over the phone while never leaving his side—begins to confound the hapless Fred until one day a video arrives showing him murdering his wife. He is arrested and incarcerated, but one morning is inexplicably replaced by the young mechanic Pete, whom the authorities are forced to release, as clueless as he as to how he got there or what has become of Fred.

Robert Blake’s eternally haunting white epalpebrate face the kind of cinematic image that stays with each viewer to their grave…

Immediately in the opening act of the film, Lynch establishes an uncomfortable atmosphere, his tonal tension so heavily disturbing in its heaviness that it might be termed horror even. Bill Pullman plays Fred with a dead laconicism, his slow speech recalling the characters of Blue Velvet as much as the bare aesthetic of his surroundings. A sudden surreal image in the midst of his section of the narrative provides one of the most effectively harrowing scares to feature in a film rich in moments of emotional uncertainty and deliberate manipulation of expectations. The scene in which Fred encounters the mystery man is nothing short of terrifying, Robert Blake’s eternally haunting white epalpebrate face the kind of cinematic image that stays with each viewer to their grave. Lynch favours a drawn out dialogue delivery and overlong moments of wordless staring that multiply the horror aspects of his scenes tenfold, leaving us completely transfixed with a quiet fear, though uncertain of why.

When Fred’s section of the film segues into Pete’s by way of an oblique montage, it shifts completely from a unique tonal horror to a generic gangster movie. Save the uncertainty of finding himself in another man’s jail cell, Pete leads a completely normal life working as a mechanic. One of his clients, a wealthy and influential mobster named Mr Eddy, introduces him to his mistress Alice (like Fred’s wife, she is portrayed by Patricia Arquette), with whom Pete begins an affair. It would be wrong to criticise the cliché genericism into which Lost Highway descends—it very deliberately implements tropes of gangster and noir films to an exaggerated extent—but the length of Pete’s section of the film ultimately diminishes the overall quality. The comparative banality of his storyline serves a key purpose, and Lynch seems to want us to appreciate that we are now in a relatively straightforward linear narrative, but too much time is spent in dwelling on its details and the lingering eeriness of Fred’s section gradually begins to fade. The story never becomes boring, but Lynch is so focused on establishing its generic connections that it begins to lose the sense of foreboding horror constructed by its preceding act, and thereby some of the integral tension. The film’s conclusion, however, returns very definitely to the same sense of elusive meaning and oppressive atmosphere, making the flaws of this section but a minor hiccup.

Lost Highway is a strange, confounding, and utterly compelling viewing experience, but what does it all mean?

Lost Highway is a strange, confounding, and utterly compelling viewing experience, but what does it all mean? As with any truly great film there is no certain answer, nor should there be. In fan theories, something of conclusion appears to have been reached; a relatively widely accepted analysis of Pete as the psychosexual manifestation of Fred’s fantasies of fulfilling his wife. Yet this reading is far from all-encompassing, given the presence of Blake’s mystery man in the “real” section of the film, not to mention many other incongruities. To view Lost Highway as a film that can be concretely understood would be a mistake, its deliberate weirdness and narrative distortions Lynch’s way of expressing ideas on film narration itself and its expression of meaning. It is interesting to consider the role of the videotapes: it is their arrival into Fred’s life which initiates the entire plot; once he realises he is being watched, he begins to act. His “transformation” into Pete might be seen as the fantasies of his mind, but it could also be considered the transplantation of one protagonist into the plot of another. The mystery man’s role as an enigmatic grand orchestrator of events would appear a reflection of Lynch’s own role to an extent; there is enough in the film’s subversion of narrative precedents and its concepts of metafictional construction to facilitate this analysis, but this is but one of the innumerable possibilities one could discern.

Lost Highway is a film so deliberately multifarious in its presentation that it welcomes dozens of different and wildly varying interpretations, none of which could be called right or wrong. Indeed, it raises a fascinating point: what does our interpretation of what a film is do to the film itself? Cinema does not exist solely in the form of a single chunk of time bounded between credit sequences, immune to the world beyond it; rather, it is a constantly evolving medium, shaped by the reactions it provokes and the analyses of its audience. Lynch’s film might be taken as a study of one man’s sex life, a comment on narrative structure, a provocation of audience involvement, or any combination of these and so many other readings. Here is a film that can be something different to each person who sees it, a magnificent microcosm of everything cinema can be.

[notification type=”star”]86/100 ~ GREAT. Lost Highway is a film so deliberately multifarious in its presentation that it welcomes dozens of different and wildly varying interpretations, none of which could be called right or wrong.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.