The City of Absurdity Lost Highway
a film by David Lynch
Highway to Heck

"LOST HIGHWAY" shows only glimmers of David Lynch at his disturbing best.

by Stephanie Zacharek, February 28, 1997

"strange things are happening like never before/My baby told me I would have to go/I can't be good no more/Once like I did before/I can't be good, baby/Honey, because the world's gone wrong."
"World Gone Wrong," traditional blues as performed by Bob Dylan

"I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night/And I think to myself, what a wonderful world."
George David Weiss and G. Douglas' "What a Wonderful World"

Like no other filmmaker, David Lynch knows in his soul that the world gone wrong and the wonderful one are the same - not mirror images that shift back and forth according to the phase of the moon or some giant collective whim, but two amorphous halves of a whole, their poison and nectar seeping into each other. Even in the context of Lynch's most dismal movie, 1990's "Wild at Heart," or his latest, the disappointing, noirish "Lost Highway," it's futile to discuss the dark vision of David Lynch, simply because that vision doesn't exist independent of an intense, deep-rooted romanticism.

Not even 1976's "Eraserhead" - Lynch's first and perhaps most unsettling movie, a singular exploration of fear, awkwardness and loneliness - can be called a nightmare picture of the world. It exists in its own world, one in which even the most slippery, unnerving nightmare wouldn't be any kind of departure. And yet the movie's final shot, the hero, Henry, locked in an embrace with "the lady in the radiator" - his comforting romantic vision come to life, with her cotton-candy hair and cheese-puff cheeks - is nothing short of a grainy valentine to silent-movie romanticism. Henry's eyes are closed in exaggerated, childlike bliss, his raised eyebrows betraying both total exhaustion and a relief he hadn't dared hope for. "Eraserhead" isn't a vision of a world gone wrong - it's a vision of a world in which nothing has ever been right. And yet even in this world, where the hero's only chance for romantic fulfillment is a tiny lady who sings and dances inside his radiator, his dream - or rather, the dream he'd have dreamed if he'd dared - comes true: He gets the girl.

The only problem is, Lynch hasn't always been true to his vision - and "Lost Highway" is a prime example. Lynch's best work - "Eraserhead," "The Elephant Man," the "Twin Peaks" pilot and the incomparable "Blue Velvet" - are so astonishing, so subtle and florid at the same time, that even a competent, tolerable movie like "Lost Highway," with its slashes of brilliance, seems like a betrayal. Here, Lynch has traded some of his disturbing originality for noir formula and schticky weirdness.

The story revolves around jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who may or may not have killed his sultry, vampy wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette, in a magnificent, smoldering performance - hardly a surprise, after her stellar work in "Beyond Rangoon" and "Flirting with Disaster"), and is sentenced to death. Before he fries, though, a mysterious thing happens: After having a frightening hallucination, he melts into another identity. When the guards make their rounds, they find Fred gone from his cell and grease monkey Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) in his place. Pete is freed - there are no charges against him - and he tries to go back to his old life and his old girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner, whose fragility is touching). Then, one day, the spitting image of Renee (Arquette again, reincarnated as a luscious blonde, a gangster's moll named Alice) slithers into his world only to split it apart.

There's no need to even try to make sense of the plot: Lynch, who cowrote the script with "Wild at Heart" author Barry Gifford, is merely playing around with the idea of twisted, intertwined fates and the notion of the eternal return. This movie's big "meanings" are actually the most insignificant things about it. Aspiring to be the most artful and profound Lynch film yet, "Lost Highway" is really his most facile. The short guy in white-face makeup and dark-red lips (Robert Blake), who shows up now and then to make mysterious pronouncements and creep people out, is a symbol of the weirdness for weirdness's sake that does "Lost Highway" in. Most of the bizarre happenings seem to have come from a recipe, instead of being plumbed from the subterranean reaches of Lynch's heart, which is the effect Lynch's ideas have at their best.

And yet even in "Lost Highway," despite all its dank hopelessness, Lynch's romanticism creeps through like a thick purple vine - one that bleeds. The movie's opening 40 minutes are a numbing vignette of a disintegrating marriage that could have been filmed in stop-time, the pace is so deliberate and awkward. Arquette, in her fearless, starkly feline performance as Renee, is a heartbreaking femme fatale. With her sleek, dark Bettie Page hairdo and cushiony curves, she's a fleshy, enticing ghost conjured out of pure shadow and light.

Fred and Renee talk to each other in clipped sentences that have been smashed flat, dried out, designed (like their starkly furnished ultramodern house, its rooms bisected by sharp diagonal shadows even in broad daylight) to communicate only the bare minimum: "You're up early." "That dog woke me." "Who the hell owns that dog?" But the spaces between their words hang in the air, heavy and silent, like carbon monoxide. Their lovemaking is so rigidly mechanical, it's painful to watch: Fred reaches for her across their shadowy bed, and she obliges, slithery and seductive as a serpent but completely vacant, despite Fred's obvious desire for her. Afterward, she pats his back stiffly, as if her hand were an android's. The brief scene does more than telegraph psychic suffering: It delineates, with a scalpel's precision, the negative space that's replaced the erotic delight that this couple used to take in each other.

Once "Lost Highway" starts taking its myriad hairpin plot turns, it loses that suggestive power and becomes more calculated as it moves on. That's particularly disappointing in light of the rawness of Lynch's last picture, the much-maligned 1992 "Fire Walk with Me." A "prequel" to the "Twin Peaks" series that explains exactly what happened to the murdered Laura Palmer, "Fire Walk with Me" is a bumbling mess of a movie, sloppy and strange in all the wrong places - yet it's so intense, moving and upsetting it stays with you. Sheryl Lee, as Laura, digs so deep into her character, she seems to turn it inside out: She's a victim not merely of incest (her father is her rapist and her killer) but of her own misplaced desires and self-destruction, and her performance is like one silent, sustained wail of pain.

What's most astonishing about "Fire Walk With Me" is the way Lynch walks Laura through her suffering - he doesn't get off on it. Through the camera lens, he makes sure her beauty remains uneclipsed and uncompromised, even in the midst of her self-inflicted degradation. Although "Fire Walk with Me" bitterly disappointed most "Twin Peaks" fans, it's really the natural tail end of the gracefully twisting thread that Lynch started with the series' pilot: That breathtaking opening episode, with all its artful tone shifts and off-balance humor, ultimately reads as one mournful, elegiac love letter to Laura Palmer. In both direct and unspoken ways, Lynch shows how the whole town - from Grace Zabriskie as Laura's crumpling, grief-stricken mother, to icy Joan Chen, who closes her lumber plant as a gesture of respect for Laura and her family - feels devastated by her loss. Even his exaggeratedly peaceful shots of pine trees swaying in the breeze are just another way of reminding us of her absence. Angelo Badalamenti's plush, resonating guitar chords sound like sonnets. They're miniature hymns to her beauty, which hasn't even been diminished by the fact that she's now just a pale corpse washed up on the shore.

It should be disturbing that Lynch lavishes so much love and attention on a blue-lipped corpse, and yet his love for his character Laura is more lyrical than necrophiliac. She's Molly Malone, or the Bonnie who lies over the ocean, the girl who died of a fever or was perhaps lost at sea, and maybe all it takes is the right song to bring her back. In an age of movies filled with hip irony, what sets Lynch apart is his total lack of irony. His exquisite "Elephant Man" delves so fearlessly into the spongy heart of loneliness that in the end, it isn't a movie about a monster at all, but a meditation on how even the most well-adjusted among us can at times feel painfully freakish and out of place.

In "Blue Velvet" - a movie so in love with both the familiar conventions and the dangerous possibilities of the movies - the opening and closing shots of velvet-red roses against an ice-blue sky are like twin promises. Even in the midst of the nihilism of "Lost Highway," we get a glimpse of a love that's hermetically pure, if only for a moment: Alice steps out of a car and walks toward Pete as if she were buoyed by a cloud, while Lou Reed sings "This Magic Moment" on the soundtrack, the words hovering in the air like soap bubbles the two new lovers could actually touch. For Lynch, this is a wonderful world, even when it goes spinning off its axis. Even if the guy can't always get the girl - or bring her back with a sonnet or a song - he knows she's out there, somewhere, if only because he can hear her, alive and laughing, in the wind that rushes through the trees. It takes a crackpot to make a movie as deeply terrifying as "Blue Velvet." And it takes a sweetheart to make one so impossibly beautiful.

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© Mike Hartmann