Some 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
"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
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).