By JANET MASLIN, New York Times, February 21, 1997Some artists have to strain for the shock effects that leave a spectator haunted and unnerved. Not David Lynch. The unnatural is second nature for Lynch, whose twisted, libidinous imagery yields nightmare films of such strange and menacing flair. At their evil best, which is also their worst, they leave you in no great hurry to be alone in the dark.
"It's like when you are sitting alone, you sometimes have the feeling that there are different parts of you," Lynch has said, explaining the state of mind summoned by his new film. "There are certain things that you can do, and there are certain things that you would never do unless there was a part of you that took over." That's reason either to see Lynch's coolly ominous, attention-getting "Lost Highway" or to dial 911.
"Lost Highway," an elaborate hallucination that could never be mistaken for the work of anyone else, finds Lynch echoing the perversity of "Blue Velvet," the earlier film of his that this most closely resembles. Both films share an eerie, mocking tone and some of the same aural and visual vocabulary. (Foreboding sounds like a dull roar. Certain walls have a womblike reddish hue. Women excite a furious mix of lust and loathing. Drivers hurtle down the middle of dark roadways, racing along the yellow line.)
Never again is a Lynch film liable to be as radically original or disturbing as "Blue Velvet"; this director repeats himself too readily for that. But "Lost Highway" holds sinister interest of its own. Much less shrill than "Wild at Heart" or "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," the only other Lynch features since the 1986 "Blue Velvet," this one constructs an intricate puzzle out of dream logic, lurid eroticism, violence, shifting identities and fierce intimations of doom.
In describing the film's deliberate ellipses and the weird, unexplained transformation of its main character, comparisons to Kafka and Lewis Carroll are invited. A more useful point of reference may just be "The Wizard of Oz," since there's no indication that Lynch, for all his skill in manipulating this story's strangeness, is any less baffled by his film's conundrums than the audience will be. And he allows a too-deliberate pace to lessen the tight grip this material needs. When exploring the scarier realms of the subconscious, it's best never to let the viewer get the upper hand.
The plot, a conversation piece to set the Internet buzzing: Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his red-haired wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), are essentially strangers. Everything about Renee leaves Fred alienated in the extreme. He feels humiliated. He can't interest her sexually. He doesn't trust her, and for good reason (everything about Ms. Arquette's sexy, deadpan delivery suggests new frontiers in marital treachery). When Fred, a musician, goes out to play at a jazz club, Renee says she will stay home and read. No heroine of Lynch's has ever looked ready to curl up with a good book.
"Must be from a real estate agent," Renee says when a mysterious videotape arrives on the doorstep. Probably not: the tape spies on Fred and Renee when they thought they were alone. It doesn't take much more of this for Fred to be ready for a crackup. It happens when he goes to a party and meets the film's ghoul, played in truly frightening fashion by Robert Blake in whiteface. (Lynch's tricky humor, manifest in many of the film's smaller touches, provides background music that sounds like the pop song "Spooky" to welcome Blake, who is exactly that.)
A cellular phone and a video camera are all it takes to turn Blake's character into the scariest screen gnome since the red-cloaked dwarf in "Don't Look Now." Next thing Fred knows, Renee is a bloody corpse and he himself is on Death Row without a clue about what exactly has happened. The film enjoys its well-timed moments of deliberate confusion, even though audience patience will eventually wear thin.
In jail, Fred suddenly changes so greatly that he becomes a young garage mechanic named Pete Dayton. Pete, played by Balthazar Getty with the same guarded, desperate manner as Pullman's, hasn't killed anybody, and so he is entitled to be set free. Pete's half of the film mirrors and distorts Fred's story, and then it introduces Ms. Arquette a second time. Now she's the blond moll of a gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). And she has become a much hotter number, sexually desperate for Fred/Pete.
The fact that both Ms. Arquettes show up in the same photograph, or that she repeats some identical dialogue in both incarnations, is the sort of detail that "Lost Highway" invites its audience to ponder. A structure that begins and ends at the same moment in time, with a debt to the Mobius strip (or to "Pulp Fiction"), is another intriguing feature. But the film has more of these touches than it has explanations. Eventually it raises the overwhelming possibility that nobody is entirely in the driver's seat.
As the film moves closer to its vision of oblivion, it presents Eddy as a leering sadist (a Lynch fixture) who traffics in pornography and seamy thrills. Eddy's transgressions are supposedly perverse, but the movie exploits Ms. Arquette as frankly as he does. As ever, Lynch brings much more gusto than is absolutely necessary to the crueler, raunchier, more misogynist aspects of his material. It says something about the film's target audience that the rock stars Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (on the soundtrack) and Marilyn Manson (playing a porn actor) are part of this show.
The film's subtly fascinating aural track credits Lynch for sound design and once again employs the wonderfully unsettling music of Angelo Badalamenti. (It's worth the extra trouble to see this film in a theater with decent speakers.) The screenplay is by Lynch and Barry Gifford, who wrote the novel "Wild at Heart." Another of his books, "Night People," included the phrase "lost highway." Those two words apparently gave Lynch all the inspiration he needed.
Rating: "Lost Highway" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes violence, profanity, supernatural strangeness and graphically rendered sexual situations.
Directed by David Lynch; written by Lynch and Barry Gifford; director of photography, Peter Deming; edited by Mary Sweeney; music by Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Patricia Norris; produced by Deepak Nayar, Tom Sternberg and Ms. Sweeney; released by October Films. Running time: 135 minutes.
Cast: Bill Pullman (Fred Madison), Patricia Arquette (Renee Madison/Alice Wakefield), Robert Blake (Mystery Man), Balthazar Getty (Pete Dayton), Robert Loggia (Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent) and Marilyn Manson (Porno Star No. 1).