In the two decades since Eraserhead, David Lynch has established himself as American cinema's premier surrealist, our own Wizard of Weird. Although his first two Hollywood projects--The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984)--had room only around the edges for the sort of spooky shit at which he excels, his personal style found its greatest synthesis with traditional narrative in Blue Velvet (1986), still his masterpiece.
After Blue Velvet, one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the decade, one might have expected Lynch to have an easier time getting his projects before the camera. But at least two scripts, Ronnie Rocket and One Saliva Bubble (not the world's most commercial title), have been on-again-off-again for years.
While Lynch and television seemed like an unlikely match, it was, of course, Twin Peaks that brought him by far his widest audience--if only for eight months. Despite the show's quick decline and the popular failure of Hotel Room and On the Air (his two subsequent shows), Twin Peaks exerted an impact that outlasted its run: TP begat The X-Files and Northern Exposure, which respectively begat Millennium and Picket Fences, and on and on.
Both Wild at Heart (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) disappointed many of the Lynch faithful. The latter was unavoidably compromised by the problems of reassembling the TV cast; and, for all its wacko elements, the former felt like a potboiler: It had the director's trademark themes and stylistic flash, but it had as much unity as a vaudeville show. Sure, it was funny, it was intriguing; but, like his two other adaptations of pre-existing works, it was Lynch applying his particular style to a story that didn't seem to have sprung from his very soul the way Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks had.
Happily, in Lost Highway, Lynch's first feature in five years, the director seems to be tapping into his twisted subconscious more directly than he has in a decade. His most thoroughly surreal work since Eraserhead, this two-hour-plus fever dream is more of one piece than Fire Walk with Me and less desperate and jokey than Wild at Heart.
A plot synopsis of Lost Highway is particularly difficult because it's not really about plot--it barely has a plot--and it's tough to describe what makes the film such a riveting, baffling experience without giving away all the good parts. But here goes. The movie opens with the flare of a match, followed by headlights speeding down a nocturnal road, an image that is repeated several times. Without much fanfare, we meet Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a well-to-do sax player who lives in the Hollywood Hills (my guess) with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette with red hair). An anonymous message tells Fred someone named Dick Laurent is dead--unfortunately, Fred doesn't know who Dick Laurent is. And he barely cares, since he's more concerned with the possibility that his wife might be having an affair. But it's hard to know if he's a cuckold or a paranoid; frankly, he's already in the grip of some sort of mental or spiritual derangement.
One day, the couple find a videocassette deposited on their doorstep. After a few seconds' footage of the front of their house, it fritzes out to static. The tape has some connection to a bizarre character, referred to in the cast list only as Mystery Man. When Fred meets Mystery Man at a party given by Andy (Michael Massee), a slimy friend of Renee's, he recognizes him from an earlier hallucination or dream. Mystery Man looks like a diminutive Klaus Nomi impersonator or a refugee from Carnival of Souls: demonic, grinning, pasty-faced. (The actor was naggingly familiar, but I had to consult the press kit during the screening to see who it was; and he's so unrecognizable that, when I saw the name Robert Blake, I assumed it was some other Robert Blake. But, no--this is Baretta, looking totally different without his cockatoo.) He is ominously identified as "a friend of Dick Laurent," though we still don't know who Dick Laurent is. Yet M.M. knows things about--and reveals things to--Fred that are impossible to know.
More tapes arrive, each starting the same way but progressing a little further. Two deadpan cops--one fat, one thin--show up to investigate. "Do you own a video camera?" they ask.
"Fred hates video cameras," Renee tells them.
"I like to remember things my own way," Fred reluctantly says.
"The way I remember them," Fred says, "not the way it happened."
Pretty soon, it gets hard to tell which is closer to "the way it happened"--Fred's memory or the videos. Suffice it to say that Fred gets locked up for a crime that seems to exist only on tape: We never see the act or its aftermath directly. His mental condition deteriorates in jail--to the point that one morning he wakes up and he's someone else.
Without any clear internal explanation, Fred Madison transforms into, or is replaced by, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young auto mechanic from Van Nuys, California. For the rest of the movie, Lynch drops lots of hints about just what the hell is going on here while refusing to allow one consistent explanation. At first, it seems as though we are starting a new story, but--like the spiders Pete sees crawling all over his bedroom in one scene--little bits of Fred's world begin to infest Pete's reality. A gangster named Mr. Eddie (Robert Loggia, once again delivering in a choice role) may be Dick Laurent; Alice, Mr. Eddie's girlfriend, looks exactly like a blonde Renee.
And then the story gets more complicated, even more full of inconsistencies.
In terms of Hollywood narrative values, Lost Highway makes Blue Velvet and even Wild at Heart look positively conventional. And it lacks the air of sensational expose that formed Blue Velvet's subtext. It might be possible to come up with a class analysis--Fred is a professional, Pete's working-class--but it's hard to imagine anything more beside the point. Lost Highway is like a long dream story: Characters have two faces or names or both; some seem to have no existence for long stretches, while others are in two places at once; people who are supposed to be dead turn up alive; random moments are inexplicably charged with awe or terror. The interweaving of repeated images, words, and events is almost as rich as in Blue Velvet, but not nearly as neat.
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If you equate Van Nuys with Hell--an amusing, probably defensible notion--then Lost Highway could be seen as a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice: A musician descends into the land of the dead to try to reclaim his lover. I can see several likelier ways to read the film, none of them conclusive or wholly satisfying. To detail them now would only prejudice and limit your viewing of it. (And I'd have to give away virtually every surprise.) But this is Lynch's purest investigation into nothing less than the fabric of reality, experience, and identity.
It's also his furthest-out film since Eraserhead and his best since Blue Velvet. It is filled with so many reminders of his other work, stylistically and otherwise, as to be instantly recognizable as his. There are bits of Twin Peaks (Mystery Man's come-on to Fred is similar to Bob's seduction of Leland Palmer), Fire Walk with Me (Fred's passage into some other world resembles the picture/dream scene), Wild at Heart (the sudden outbursts of violence), and Blue Velvet (all over the place). It also evokes the wonderful 1995 Japanese film The Mystery of Rampo, itself heavily influenced by Lynch. The only other outside film Lost Highway draws on is Adrian Lyne's atypical Jacob's Ladder, which detailed a similar sort of psychological-existential unease.
Lynch's longtime composer Angelo Badalamenti is on board again, with an assist from Brit acolyte Barry Adamson. ("Something Wicked This Way Comes," off Adamson's Oedipus Schmoedipus album, which accompanies the party scene, is a bizarre, uncredited instrumental version of the Classics IV hit "Spooky.") And it's nice to see Lynch regular Jack Nance, who recently died, in one last brief role--not to mention getting to see Richard Pryor's mug on-screen, however momentarily.
Lost Highway really does represent a return to form for Lynch. It may appear as inchoate as Wild at Heart, but I think the seeming disorder is built into its essentially unanswerable concerns. Like, say, the last ten minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it simultaneously challenges us to "figure out" its puzzle and makes any clean solution impossible. Also like 2001, it took me two viewings to pick up half of what was going on, and it's a film better absorbed and experienced than analyzed.