by F.X. Feeney, from Mr. Showbiz, February 1997David Lynch's new film is one of his best, and one of the most artistically adventurous American movies this side of Hitchcock's Psycho. Like Psycho, it begins in the arid day-to-day world of an anonymous couple, Fred and Renee (Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette). Like Psycho, it "changes identities" partway through. But where Hitchcock simply (if shockingly) bolts from one protagonist to another, trading Janet Leigh for Anthony Perkins, Lynch--in a dreamy shift of narrative gears that is his trademark--actually causes the hero to physically transform from one human being into another.
Fred finds himself on death row for the murder of Renee--a killing we never see, and which he doesn't remember committing. Suddenly, in a flash orchestrated by an enigmatic demon (played with menacing gusto by Robert Blake), Fred vanishes into thin air and is replaced in his cell by a twenty-four-year-old delinquent named Pete (Balthazar Getty), who has no idea how he got there and no connection of any kind with the missing Fred. The police, amazed at this change but taking it in admirable stride, phone Pete's parents and send him home. What else can they do? They put a tail on him. The two cops who monitor the kid's every movement thus form a kind of sitcom Greek Chorus to the accelerating strangeness as Pete is drawn into an illicit love affair with Alice (again, Patricia Arquette!) who may be Renee's twin sister, or--given this movie's upside-down-cake logic and the fact that we never actually saw her murdered--may be Renee herself. Or is she a vengeful spirit, come to ferret Fred out of his hiding place inside Pete?
Anything's possible. Lynch has landed us in storytelling territory so weird and new that a more precise plot synopsis would probably be incoherent, like the handbook for the afterlife that the dead are required to read in Beetlejuice. Yet from beginning to end, Lynch keeps us anchored in a very plausible, slightly comical, hypnotically humdrum world where people drive cars, go to work, and haunt their own apartments. For all that these characters relentlessly transform, inside and out, their world is solid and constant--and from the get-go, this is a reassuring indicator that Lynch knows exactly what he is doing. We are never anywhere except where he and co-writer Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart) want us to be.
And where's that? For the most part, in a state of quiet terror. But all this sex, death, mayhem--all this blurring of the borders between lives--what does it all mean? Nothing but itself, apparently (and this is the single quality that will most passionately divide the movie's audiences). The title is the only clue we get, the one through-line uniting these incoherent identities and events. The "lost highway" is (perhaps) the self, or the soul; beyond it, though, Lynch and Gifford steadfastly refuse to indicate a meaning--their point seems to be (as it would be, in any private nightmare that you or I might have) that there are some truths that can't be articulated, only demonstrated in image and action. This is the principle that drives all dreams, all drama, all forms of art. A work of art is what Lynch has brought off here--working closer to the pure dream state than any other American moviemaker.
Rated R for nudity, violence.