Dismissed by reviewers and ignored by audiences in 1997, Lost Highway has come to occupy an increasingly central place in David Lynch’s evolution. This malevolent neo-noir was a return to first principles—not since his hallucinatory debut, Eraserhead (1977), had a Lynch film so completely taken up residence inside someone’s head—but it was also a sign of things to come. Except for the G-rated detour of The Straight Story (1999), * his subsequent films—the sumptuous Hollywood nightmare Mulholland Drive (2001) and its degraded video corollary Inland Empire (2006)—have assumed the form devised in Lost Highway. All three, which could be said to make up a psychosis trilogy, are nonlinear puzzle-movies in which the otherworldly ambience and the rifts in space-time are a direct outgrowth of the protagonist’s mental trauma.
Simply put—simple being a relative concept here—Lost Highway is the story of a jazz musician (Bill Pullman) who apparently kills his possibly unfaithful wife (Patricia Arquette), then turns into someone else (Balthazar Getty) who promptly begins an affair with the dead woman’s doppelgänger (Arquette again), or maybe it’s the same woman, not actually dead and wearing a blond wig.
The film has taken ages to make its way to DVD, and in a rudely perfunctory edition at that—not a single extra, unless you count subtitles. (The British and French releases, featuring interviews with Lynch and the actors, are superior options if you have a multiregion player.)
Still, Lost Highway has attracted a growing cult. Critics complained about its incoherence, but today the film seems easier to parse than, say, Inland Empire or even cult brainteasers like Memento, Donnie Darko, and Primer. With its myriad doublings and insistent twinning of the sex and death drives, it has been a goldmine for psychoanalytically inclined scholars (including philosopher Slavoj Žižek), who have deciphered the plot in terms of repressed memory, wish fulfillment, and repetition compulsion. Despite his famous aversion to interpretations, Lynch has encouraged these psychological readings by describing the hero’s condition as a “psychogenic fugue” (a disorder whose main feature, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, is “sudden, unexpected travel away from home … with inability to recall one’s past”).
It’s not just shrinks and academics who have been inspired. David Foster Wallace’s essay in Premiere magazine on the making of the film is a masterful blend of set-visit reporting and critical biography. One of the movie’s eeriest plot points—a couple terrorized by surveillance videotapes—later turned up in Michael Haneke’s Caché. Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth, making an explicit link between a psychological and a musical fugue, reimagined Lost Highway as an avant-garde opera, with a libretto by novelist and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. “When I saw the film for the first time,” Jelinek said, “it was like a blow to my brain stem.”
Those who love or loathe Lost Highway, which Lynch co-wrote with novelist Barry Gifford, probably do so for much the same reason: It’s visceral to the point of discomfort. The first third—practically wordless, confined to interiors, scored to an especially bass-heavy version of Lynch’s signature drone—is a sustained creepfest that belongs with the retreat into the Black Lodge in the Twin Peaks finale or the Club Silencio interlude in Mulholland Drive. Fred and Renee (Pullman and Arquette) live in a big, bare Modernist box and in a constant state of nameless dread. Their conversations are stilted and ominous, and so is the sex. Rooms are balefully underlit; labyrinthine corridors lead into pitch darkness. (Lynch bought the building, in the Hollywood Hills, especially for the film, and it now houses his production facility; he lives next door.)
The paranoid mood intensifies with the mysterious appearance of VHS cassettes on Fred and Renee’s doorstep: Apparently someone is taping them as they sleep.
The use of video here foreshadows Lynch’s conversion to digital. After shooting Inland Empire on consumer-grade video, he vowed never to go back to celluloid. Even in Lost Highway, beautifully shot on film by Peter Deming, it’s clear that to Lynch, video communicates a different kind of truth. The tapes are not mere stalker artifacts; they signal the return of the repressed. When a detective asks whether the couple owns a camcorder, Fred says he hates them, and his explanation is telling: “I like to remember things my own way … not necessarily how they happened.” The discovery of Renee’s dead body, not incidentally, happens on video.
Lynch later revealed that the film’s basic drives—murderous jealousy and repressed guilt—emerged from an obsession with the O.J. Simpson case. Interviewed on the French DVD, he says, “Here’s a guy who—at least I believe, you know—committed two murders and yet is able to go on living and speaking and, you know, doing and golfing. … How does the mind protect itself from that knowledge and go on?”
The O.J. connection makes the presence of Robert Blake in a pivotal role all the more unnerving. (Blake was later tried and acquitted for the murder of his wife.) The first act reaches its sinister peak with the appearance of Blake’s kabuki-faced ghoul. Accosting Fred at a party, the Mystery Man, as he’s identified in the credits, claims he’s at Fred’s house at that very moment and proves it with one of the freakiest phone calls in film history.
The scene is a textbook illustration of that uncanny sensation so specific to Lynch films that they are often simply called Lynchian (per David Foster Wallace, “one of those Potter Stewart-type words that’s definable only ostensively—i.e., we know it when we see it”). At their creepiest, Lynchian moments involve a shock of recognition (or self-recognition) and a metaphysical impossibility: déjà vu, seeing a doppelgänger, being in two places at once. When the heroines of Mulholland Drive are huddled in Club Silencio, the onstage cabaret is revealed as a sham (the singer collapses but the song goes on), forcing Naomi Watts to confront the failure of her own fantasy. In Inland Empire, Laura Dern finds that she has somehow wandered back to an earlier point in the film and is spying on … herself.
In the trance state that often takes over in Lynch’s films, these moments are the equivalent of a hypnotist’s clap. Sometimes these rupture points, when illusions fall apart or the action shifts from one reality to another, are cued by code words or phrases that recur throughout, gaining mystical significance with each repetition: “This is the girl” from Mulholland Drive; “I’m not who you think I am” from Inland Empire.
Lost Highway has its own magic phrase. In the first scene, the intercom buzzes at Fred and Renee’s house, and a voice declares, “Dick Laurant is dead.” When Fred looks out the window, there’s no one there. (Lynch says this happened to him one day, an unknown voice intoning those very words.) At the end of the film, the same intercom buzzes and the same phrase is spoken, but this time Fred is the speaker, not the listener.
The narrative resolves into a Möbius strip, ending where it begins (albeit from a jarringly different perspective). The lost highway that races by in the David Bowie-scored opening credits is not quite a road to nowhere but, perhaps more alarming, an infinite loop. The relation between circular form and obsessive content attests to the vortexlike pull of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a sacred text for Lynch (who also explored the blond-brunette dichotomy in Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive). Žižek argues that the narrative’s shape mirrors “the very loop of the psychoanalytic treatment in which, after a long detour, we return to our starting point.”
Lynch made Lost Highway after a five-year silence (his previous feature, the widely panned Twin Peaks:Fire Walk With Me, had depleted his cachet), and it appears to have unlocked something in him. The movie is itself a rupture point within the Lynch cosmos. It moved his films even closer to the logic of the unconscious, not least his own. In the French DVD interview, he acknowledged as much. The protagonist’s flight from reality “has a beautiful feel to it,” he says. “I get the psychogenic fugue almost every afternoon.”