Lost Highway (1997)

Directed by David Lynch

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Some movies take time to grow on you.  Whether because of theme, character or otherwise, there’s something that stays on your mind long after the viewing, something you obsess over or admire days, weeks later.  A David Lynch movie might fit in this category, as films like EraserheadBlue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. are certainly hard to forget, but Lost Highway is such an immediate experience, with so much harsh, jarring imagery that it’s hard to imagine I’ll remember much beyond the broad strokes a week from now.

I can’t tell if this is a good movie or not, but it’s definitely a David Lynch movie.  It’s strange, bizarre, haunting and occasionally funny.  There is an uneasy atmosphere from the start, and a story turn in the first forty minutes that might throw you off.  I mean, it threw me off.  One guy morphs into another in prison, and the rest of the story, though featuring familiar cameos, unfolds with a completely new direction.  Until the guy morphs back into who he once was.

There is a recognizable plot formula in here, but it’s hardly important.  You get the feeling that the story structure is just a way into the weird, abstract, unsettling core of the film.  Even then the plot is so thin that we find ourselves thrust into David Lynch’s maze before we ever really know the characters.

Some stories might demand a stronger reaction from the audience towards its protagonist, but Lost Highway lets us off the hook with nothing more than strange curiosity.  I never really felt for Fred (Bill Pullman), because like all the other characters in the story, there’s something off about him.  When strange things start happening, my interest in the film was based purely on spectacle.

Fred is a saxophonist married to Renee (Patricia Arquette in a brown wig).  One day they receive a videotape which shows recorded footage of their house.  A second tape shows them sleeping.  Their immediate reactions are muted, and it’s clear there’s something of a rift between them.  This being an entirely unsettling movie from the start, however, I wasn’t sure if I should read into these suppressed reactions.  Maybe their marriage is struggling or maybe this is just how they behave under normal circumstances.  Or maybe there are just never any normal circumstances in a Lynch movie.

The third tape to arrive shows that Fred has murdered Renee, and before we know it Fred is imprisoned.  Not long after he morphs into a younger man, 24-year old Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty).  No one understands what has happened, and Pete is released back home to his parents with no memory of what’s happened in the last couple of days.

Pete is an auto mechanic with some kind of relationship to an older, wealthy man named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia).  Mr. Eddy takes Pete for a ride one day and due to some road rage nearly beats a man to death.  Later Mr. Eddy shows up with a female companion, Alice (also played by Arquette, this time in a blonde wig).  All of a sudden Pete and Alice are having a heated affair, and when Mr. Eddy finds out, the two love birds hatch a plan to steal some money and make a run for it.  Then Alice is supposedly kidnapped, and Pete sneaks into a large mansion where he gets into an altercation which results in the grotesque death of a man we recognize from earlier in the story but whose name escapes me and is probably unimportant.

Pete is mortified, but Alice is pretty casual about it all, at least as casual as you can be when a man’s forehead is impaled on the corner of a glass coffee table.  No, you know what, she’s even more casual than that, so casual that it’s obvious something is amiss.

By this point in the story Pete actually is a pretty good protagonist.  He reacts, for the most part, to everything with the same shock that we would have were we to be dropped into this world.  He’s the only person for whom none of this adds up, but every other character, in particular Alice, behaves as though this is all following some kind of cosmic, pre-ordained plan.

So I don’t really remember how we get to the film’s climax in the desert.  Pete turns back into Fred, and Mr. Eddy turns out to be a man named Dick Laurent, a significant character but whose importance went right over my head.

Fred cuts Dick’s throat before Emperor Palpatine, who has been haunting Fred’s dreams, shoots him dead.  Then Fred goes back home and tells Renee, through the intercom, that Dick is dead.  He then sees that two cops have been following him (as they have been for much of the movie, occasionally acting as the Greek chorus), and he speeds away, leading them on a car chase deep into the desert and the setting sun as some German metal music plays.

Oh yeah, Fred then begins to morph into something like the Elephant Man before the movie ends.

Even as I describe this, I’m sure there are so many things I forgot to mention.  Much of the film feels very experimental and experiential, something to feel in the moment and then forget.  There are probably themes here, but everything is just so unhinged it’s hard to know what to take away from this.

There’s plenty of sex, sexual fear and probably something about the masculine identity.  The men in this story are controlling, violent, deranged and deeply lost.  We start with Fred’s and Renee’s marriage, and because the story is more or less shown through Fred’s eyes, we are more likely to side with him, to see his wife’s behavior as incriminating (we’re made to believe she’s having an affair) or at the very least strange.  To Fred, and to the audience, she is an enigma.  Later on Pete will find Alice to be an enigma, someone who captures his excitement but then leads him down a strange spiral.

Renee/Alice is like the femme fatale character in a film noir.  Her overt sexuality is a trap, luring in Fred/Pete, and you get the sense that they were doomed ever since they met her.

Man this is such a strange movie.

Out of context the story might feel mundane, even cheesy.  The movie is well-shot, but like parts of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drthere is a bland, colorful nature to the film which seems to betray the feeling the story offers you.  Lost Highway is set in Los Angeles, and frankly it looks like so many other movies.  There is some visual pizzazz, but for the most part scenes feel evenly lit, and the camera movement never calls attention to itself.

This is a twisted, surreal nightmare of a story shot like a TV movie.  Maybe that works in a way so that we’re caught off guard by what we see.  Individual screenshots would have a hard time conveying the emotion you get watching this film.

Up Next: Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Bob le Flambeur (1956), His Girl Friday (1940)

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