Road Kill

David Lynch in decay.

Lost Highway
Directed by David Lynch
An October Films Release

Lost Highway, David Lynch’s first movie in five years, is a virtuoso symphony of bad vibes. As he proved in Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), and Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch has a miraculous gift for running a pipeline from his psyche to the screen. No living filmmaker can create a dream world so complete, to a molecule, and none can tickle the unconscious so directly. All surfaces are radiant (or irradiated) signposts to a deeper, more horrific reality. But where his masterpieces looked inward, Lost Highway has a baleful eye on the throng. It’s an assaultive, punk-rock notion of moviemaking, a head-banger. Sitting through it, I felt as if my brain were being whirred into a gray-matter milkshake, as if Lynch were convinced that this was the end of art: to fuck with people’s minds.

The movie, co-written by Lynch and novelist Barry Gifford, begins with a tantalizing sense of mystery, the tall-tale kind that makes you ask, “And then what happened? And then? And then?” Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a jazz musician who gives himself over to his fractured solos, appears convinced that his wife (Patricia Arquette) is having an affair. (Based on what we see, we’re convinced, too.) On the front step, his wife finds a videotape, which features fuzzy shots of the couple’s house. The next day, a second tape is found—only this one goes further, the unknown cameraman proceeding up a darkened staircase and fastening on the couple, asleep.

The insects chitter, a dog barks incessantly (“Who the hell owns that dog?”), a pair of detectives (flatfoots) sit on a dirty yellow sofa and shrug, stymied. Distances among pieces of furniture hint at the gulf between man and wife, who have sex in a bedroom that looks like a black pool. We register her long, auburn hair, her black nails, her gold ring, the hollows of his back, the primordial rumble on the soundtrack, and the flashpot image of a wheyfaced silent-movie gargoyle (Robert Blake, who, like Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet, will become Hip Ghoul of the Year). At a cocktail party, the ghoul appears, makes a beeline for Fred, and fixes him with a pair of glittering eyes: “We’ve met before … at your house, don’t you remember? As a matter of fact, I’m there right now.” Says Fred, “That’s crazy, man.” Says the ghoul, producing a cellular phone, “Call me.”

What happens next has a serpentine logic, but it doesn’t add up in any other way, not even as a nightmare. Bodies are swapped; characters reappear with different hair colors and names; a second, twentysomething garage-mechanic protagonist (Balthazar Getty) embarks on a second story line, having sex with both his girlfriend (the luminous Natasha Gregson Wagner) and a gangster’s moll (Arquette) who’s the blond version of Fred’s wife. (The detectives from the first story watch from a car and say, “Fucker gets more pussy than a toilet seat.”)

What does it mean? A clue comes early on, when Fred, asked if he owns a video camera, declares that he hates the device because he likes to remember things his own way, “how I remember them, not necessarily how they happened.” The statement is fair warning, and the charitable view of the picture is that it unfolds in a paranoiac’s memory. The problem is that the paranoiac has seen a lot of old films noir, and has taken to recycling their clichés—soullessly, in quotation marks, with a blasting rock backbeat. (David Bowie tries to sound like Iggy over the opening credits, and Lou Reed does an amusing, monotonic vocal of “This Magic Moment” as the blond Arquette steps out of a car in a clingy, low-cut dress and high heels, blank as a department-store dummy.) It’s a testament to Lynch’s lack of confidence that he’s forced to jack up the volume on the soundtrack like a cheap horror-meister. The ringing of phones is meant to cut through your head like a scalpel, and there’s a Giant Sucking Sound during the couple’s sex scene that’s like something out of a Ross Perot fever dream.

Lynch and Gifford tried for the same hallucinatory throb in their last collaboration, Wild at Heart (1990). But with Laura Dern doing sultry cat stretches and Nicolas Cage striking hipster poses and simultaneously commenting on them, and with Lynch trying to blow out of his system the constraints of a television series (Twin Peaks), the movie spiraled into gross-out self-parody. This time, Lynch has cast actors who play it deadeningly straight, and he and Gifford have given them dialogue that manages to be both lean and turgid—portentous utterances with lots of space between them. Pullman, who is often bathed in red light, gives an uppercase performance: He’s INTENSE, he’s TORTURED. Arquette, playing two women, or one woman, or all women, is a satin zombie—or two satin zombies, one blond, one hennaed. As Pullman’s leather-clad alter ego, Getty doesn’t act so much as worry handsomely. This is the first time Lynch has shut down his leading players. It’s as if he’s lost his faith in actors’ powers of discovery. But then, if character is irrelevant, actors must be too.

Apart from Robert Loggia’s flamboyantly saturnine gangster, Mr. Eddie (also known, inexplicably, as Dick Laurent), who listens to the purr of his huge Mercedes behind a fat diamond ring and pronounces it “smooth as shit from a duck’s ass,” most of the fun in Lost Highway comes from watching Lynch paint himself into a narrative corner and wondering how the hell he’s going to get out of it. I’d love to report that the movie has a knockout capper. But the cries of “Cheat!” that attended the later episodes of Twin Peaks are likely to be heard again. After much teasing, Lynch tells you that the mystery transcends lowly narrative, that identity is mutable, that Bob—a k a The Evil That Men Do—has us all in a headlock. That’s right, it’s another Shaggy Devil story. In fiction, Paul Auster and (especially) Jonathan Carroll have been successful in creating genre pieces that fold back on themselves, that make a leap to the metaphysical without incurring the reader’s wrath. I don’t think Lynch will be so lucky.

In Eraserhead, there was a rapturous quality in even the most grisly images. Amid the terrible loneliness of human (and industrial) life were flecks of opalescent beauty, and of connection. In Lost Highway, the plugs have been pulled, and what’s left is a misanthropic cackle that echoes in the void. It’s distressing to think that Blue Velvet was the climax of Lynch’s hopeful phase, that his view of humanity has been downhill from there. It’s not that the vision here is so bleak, but that it’s so reductive, and that it leads nowhere. Lost Highway is Eraserhead without the wonder, Eraserhead conceived by an angry man recycling stale genre movies and making them staler and more primitive yet. Yes, Lynch is putting things on film that no one has put there before, but in his grasp of human psychology he seems to be moving backward, and all the technique in the world can’t keep his vision from becoming rancid.

To be blunt, I’m fed up with film noir, period—with its (now) hokey use of expressionist angles and lighting, its limited motifs, its adolescent depiction of women as unknowable and unpossessable. (The female in LostHighway uses sex to enlist the patsy male and then, the dirty work done, points a gun at him. “You’ll never have me,” she sneers.) Even that silly Frog word noirassez, enough. In their climax, Lynch and Gifford (who celebrates the genre in a book of enthusiasms, The Devil Thumbs a Ride) steal from the great nuclear noir Kiss Me Deadly, but they go further. They take its paranoia into the realm of quantum physics. They leave out the connections and make like they’re Einsteins. But at the finale, watching the broken white lines of the highway hurtle out of the screen like projectiles, you don’t think you’ve taken a quantum leap. You think you’ve been taken for a ride.