The City of Absurdity Lost Highway
a film by David Lynch

By Richard Rayner
Harper's Bazaar, February 01, 1997

It seems almost unfair to berate a brilliant filmmaker who has so obviously been floundering and flailing, but if, like me, you long to see David Lynch return to the weird mastery of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and those early episodes of Twin Peaks, then his new movie, Lost Highway, will ultimately prove another disappointment - fascinating at first, but messy, confusing, and even infuriating by the end. There's enough plot here for 10 stories. It's as if Lynch and cowriter Barry Gifford couldn't decide which one to make, confirming the trouble Lynch finds himself in right now, bound and condemned by the blazing originality of his own earlier vision.

Lost Highway is at its best in the thoroughly spooky first 40 minutes. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a jazz saxophonist, wild and crazy onstage, Prozac-mellow by day. He's married to a languorous sexpot, Renee (Patricia Arquette), with whom he lives in less than wedded bliss, their sterile Hollywood Hills home reflecting the strained emotional space between them. Something's very wrong, even though they don't quite know what, and then videos start arriving on the doorstep, next to their carefully furled copies of the morning paper. The first video merely shows the house's exterior. Subsequent ones start revealing the interior, as if tracking the course of a crime yet to be committed, and since Lynch cunningly hasn't let you in on the exact topography of the house, you never see how all its corridors and levels connect to one another. With no fuss at all, Lynch makes this bland physical space a place of terror, the way he did with Isabella Rossellini's apartment in Blue Velvet. This is moviemaking of the highest order, recalling Psycho or Polanski's Repulsion.

Then the crime apparently does happen: Fred is on death row, condemned, but with no memory of having killed his wife, and it's here that the story zooms off the rails, taking the first of many - far too many - campy twists. A transforming light arrives in the cell, and when a guard looks in the next morning, Fred is gone - vanished. Back in the outside world, the movie now follows a car mechanic, Pete (Balthazar Getty). When a gangster's moll, also played by Arquette, shimmies into his body shop, we gather that Pete has become Fred's guilty alter ego. Arquette is bleached blonde now, all legs and lingerie, strutting on platform soles of improbable thickness, the sort of femme fatale Fred feared his wife might be. She soon seduces Pete and persuades him to commit a robbery so that she can get away from her boyfriend (Robert Loggia), who is gibbering with his goons in the background. She's steering Pete toward some sort of vengeful retribution, meanwhile changing the color of her nails more often than the plot does directions, which is saying something, since there are so many layers, so many shifts, dead-ends, and detours.

Blue Velvet was one of the great films of the '80s, dream stuff, nightmare stuff, all the more terrifying because we didn't know where it was coming from or where it was taking us. Here the destination is also unknown, though determined by the constraints of genre. Lynch has swapped his highly personal vision of the violence seething beneath the crust of apple-pie America for something much broader and simpler - noir - and the exchange does justice neither to him nor to an honorable narrative tradition. He doesn't seem to respect the thriller form enough to make his refinement of it convince in the loving, knowing manner of, say, Tarantino. Is Lost Highway the condemned man's guilty fantasy? The dream of a man on the run? No answer is provided, and in the end I didn't much care. It would be generous to call this willfully baffling movie postmodern; really, like Wild at Heart, it's another flashy, searching gesture, almost a loss of nerve, despite the blood and the sometimes-nasty sex, despite the supertrendy soundtrack and a stellar supporting cast that includes Richard Pryor, Gary Busey, Robert Blake, and the radiant Natasha Gregson Wagner.

back to Lost Highway Reviews page
back to Lost Highway page
© Mike Hartmann