The City of Absurdity Lost Highway
a film by David Lynch
'Lost Highway' Travels a Weird Route

by Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, February 28, 1997

David Lynch film is captivatingly bizarre

One of the hallmarks of a David Lynch film is the element of surprise -- the sense of not knowing what will happen next and the queasy dread that what you're about to see could disturb and haunt you and linger in your head for a long time.

Lynch established that agenda in "Eraserhead,'' his first feature- length film, and he hasn't abandoned it to a futile quest for mainstream acceptance.

It's impossible to imagine Lynch making a conventional film with "normal'' people and "normal'' entertainment values - a fact that binds his fans to him but alienates many critics and moviegoers.

In "Lost Highway,'' which opens today at Bay Area theaters, Lynch continues his exploration of the unknown and delivers a dreamlike meditation on reality, identity and paranoia. Set in a bland city that resembles Los Angeles, "Lost Highway'' stars Bill Pullman, fresh from play ing the enthusiastic president in "Independence Day,'' as Fred Madison, a spooked saxophonist who finds himself terrorized by a man who enters his house when he's asleep and videotapes him and his girlfriend Renee (Patricia Arquette) as they sleep.

At a party, he meets a smirking trickster, played in ghostly white makeup by Robert Blake, who declares himself the culprit. Blake invites Pullman to dial his own phone number and to listen as Blake, who's standing before him, "answers'' at the other end of the line.

That's just a taste of what Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford, whose novel "Wild at Heart'' inspired Lynch's 1990 film of the same name, have to offer.

There's also a murder; a fire; a personality transformation involving an auto mechanic (Balthazar Getty); a gangster's moll, also played by Arquette, who cons Getty into committing a crime; a memory lapse by Getty; a reappearance by Pullman; and a series of bizarre foreshadowings and precognitive images that may or may not pro vide clues to the mystery of "Lost Highway.''

The result is a world, part film noir, part apocalyptic acid nightmare and pure Lynch, in which nothing can be trusted or relied upon - least of all our psychic well-being.

It's a weird movie, in that spooky/sicko, deadpan way that Lynch's movies always are, and it's guaranteed to repel anyone who likes entertainment wrapped in tidy resolutions and optimistic fade- outs.

The visuals, Angelo Badalamenti's music and Lynch's sound design -- his perennial sound designer, Berkeley's Alan Splet, died in 1994 - are all effective, and the comic bits, specifically Robert Loggia's scene as a mobster berating a tailgating motorist, are all effective.

Filmmakers such as Lynch deserve our admiration for creating new cinematic idioms and exploring new ground. At the same time, "Lost Highway'' often feels like a stunt - like an arcane, deliberately perverse game that Lynch knew would never make sense. It's also feels, with its similarities to "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,'' "Blue Velvet'' and "Wild at Heart,'' like overly familiar territory. Lynch's great wish is to shock and arouse us, but in using the same kind of music, camera effects and offbeat editing rhythms over and over, his work is beginning to look like variations on a single theme.

Arquette, whose low-in-affect style is perfectly matched to Lynch's, gives the strongest, most memorable performance - and brings to mind Kim Novak's similar dual roles in "Vertigo.''

There is also a cameo by Richard Pryor, along with appearances by Gary Busey, rock star Henry Rollins and Natasha Gregson Wagner, daughter of the late Natalie Wood.

LOST HIGHWAY: Mystery. Starring Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Loggia, Robert Blake, Gary Busey, Richard Pryor and Natasha Gregson Wagner. Directed by David Lynch. Written by Lynch and Barry Gifford. (R. 135 minutes. At the Embarcadero, California in Berkeley, Aquarius in Palo Alto and UA Pavilion in San Jose.)

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© Mike Hartmann