This 1997 effort from David Lynch (co-written with Barry Gifford) is one of the director’s better efforts, but it failed to earn the same rapturous critical reception as BLUE VELVET. Reviewers seemed to see only a rehash of familiar Lynchian motifs, and ignored how expertly orchestrated and synthesized the themes had become in this film. Admittedly, LOST HIGHWAY may lack the shock value of BLUE VELVET (by this time, viewers were trained to expect weirdness from Lynch), but the film is every bit as fine a piece of work, and its demented darkness actually coallesces into a strange kind of giddy joy – not unlike the rush of adrenaline one feels after a brush with danger.
By the time he made this film, Lynch had become so well known as America’s premier Dark Dreamer that the mantle was almost too familiar. His most recent excursions into the bizarre, around this time, were so identifiable that they were beginning to resemble self-parody. His television show TWIN PEAKS did a good job of working this fact to its advantage: coming off the critical success of BLUE VELVET, Lynch (with an able assist from collaborator Mark Frost) managed to play around with audience expectations and thus delivered an excellent combination of the absurdly funny and the uncomfortably surreal. Meanwhile, in his feature films, the dark, subversive humor of BLUE VELVET, which contrasted nicely with that film’s more disturbing elements, gave way to what was almost outright camp in WILD AT HEART. By the time of TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, Lynch seemed to be tired of purveying black comedy. Instead, he chose to rub his audience’s noses in the darker aspects of the beloved television show; unfortunately, the audience, attuned to expect comic relief amidst the horror, turned away.
So what was left for Lynch to do at this point in his career, after his brief flirtation with mass market popularity had faded? Quite simply, he chose to follow his own muse back into the black recesses of his twisted imagination. There is nothing about LOST HIGHWAY that smacks of commercial calculation or audience consideration. Instead, Lynch delivered a brilliant film that forged his signature elements, film noir stylings, and hard-boiled plot motifs. Working from a basic, almost TWILIGHT ZONE premise (“What if I had a second chance?”), Lynch and Barry Gifford spun out a surreal tale that, while puzzling, follows its own dream logic to a satisfying conclusions.
Bill Pullman plays a jazz musician Fred Madison, who suspects his brunette wife (Patricia Arquette) is cheating on him. At a party, he meets the threatening Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who may be either the devil or a figment of Fred’s imagination. Soon thereafter, Fred’s wife is murdered and Fred is convicted. Locked in his cell, he has some kind of fit or seizure, and the next thng we know Fred has turned into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a teenage mechanic who falls in love with a beautiful blonde (Arquette again). This new romance is complicated by the intrusions from Fred’s old life: for example, Pete gets headaches when he hears one of Fred’s saxophone solos playing on the radio.The confusion between The two levels of reality eventually breaks down with the reappearance of the Mystery Man, and Pete turns back into Fred, who must hit the road to avoid the police, but not before delivering a message to himself.
Curiously, the confusing plot structure of this film were judged harshly at the time, but they pre-figure similar elements in Lynch’s subsequent (and much more critically lauded) MULLHOLLAND DRIVE, which also had its lead character shifting between two contrasting levels of reality. One should also note that, despite the intentionally obscurantist approach (Lynch wants you to puzzle things out for yourself and come to your own conclusions), the story isn’t that hard to figure out. Imagine for a moment that the Mystery Man had literally proclaimed himself to be the devil and then appeared in Fred’s prison cell to offer him a new life (including a new face and identity) in exchange for his soul. The rest of the story could play out more or less as written, and it would be much less frustrating for viewers who like things spelled out clearly. But the result would be much less intriguing.
While the obscurantist approach limits easy audience identification with the characters (especially when they chance identities!), Lynch’s mastery of the craft, both visual and audio, pulls viewers along for the ride. Gifford proffered explanation for the contrasting views of reality (a “psycho-genic fugue”) is useful for those puzzling out the film after seeing it, but it is not necessary to enjoy the actual experience of watching the movie. Those looking for a film that is challenging, different, and unusual will find much to appreciate.
LOST HIGHWAY (October Films, Janurary 1997). Directed by David Lynch. Written by Barry Gifford & David Lynch. 135 mins. Rated R. Cast: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia, Gary Busey, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Richard Pryor, Lucy Butler, Michael Massee, Jack Nance, Jack Kehler, Henry Rollins, Giovanni Ribisi.
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Copyright 1997 by Steve Biodrowski. This article originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in the April 1997 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 28, Nuber 10).