Chronolynchical #5 – Lost Highway

Lost Highway, 1997. David Lynch. US/FRA.

Guest Poster – Colin Oakley, Slacker Cinema.

Lost Highway is not a road I’ve travelled down for at least a decade, but when I was asked to contribute a piece to CHRONOLYNCHICAL, for some reason it was the first film of David Lynch’s that came into my head. Perhaps I’ve subconsciously been wanting to reassess it, and all I needed was the right reason to do so. I remember viewing it back in my teens, when my cinematic tastes were just forming. I was familiar with Blue Velvet but hadn’t seen any other Lynch works. In hindsight, this was perhaps too big a leap forward into Lynch’s peculiar and dreamlike filmography for me. I was confused by the reason behind it all, and frustrated that I couldn’t point to the cracks in the conundrum. When re-acquainting myself with this film in preparation for this article, I was eager to watch it again, hoping that I’d be able to decipher its intricate puzzle through older and more cine-literate eyes. Ultimately though, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s just no easy answer to its riddles. That’s certainly a trait that you’ll find more in David Lynch’s films than any other auteurs’.

As to what Lost Highway refers to, it’s kind of a metaphysical passage that the main characters pass through. It may be exemplified by a literal road; it may be a shadowy corridor that has no end in sight. The story concerns the crossing over between two seemingly disparate people, starting with Bill Pullman as Brad, a troubled jazz saxophonist with visions of a pale-faced maniac invading his dreams, and moving onto Pete (Balthazar Getty), a young car mechanic who’s got himself involved with a local crime boss. Why these two lives are going to be entwined we don’t know, but there’s as many similarities between the two men as there are differences. Both of the lead male roles seem like a perfect fit for Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan, albeit at different stages of his career. As to why he didn’t play the Brad character (I’m sure he would have been offered it), I don’t know. I think it’s fair to say that Bill Pullman’s casting may have had something to do with his physical similarities with MacLachlan.

Brad receives a call over his intercom informing him that “Dick Laurent is dead”. The informant is gone before Brad can investigate, and neither he or his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) has ever heard of Dick Laurent. The situation takes a further leap into the bizarre when videotapes start to turn up on their doorstep, showing footage of the inside of their house. At a party organised by Andy (Michael Massee), Brad encounters the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), a nightmarish pale-faced man with wild claims of being inside Brad’s house as they speak. He may be lying, he may be connected to the mysterious videotapes, or he may not even exist.

When Brad views a videotape showing him kneeling over Renee’s bloodied corpse, he ends up arrested for her murder and incarcerated on death row. This is where the film undertakes what is perhaps the strangest plot twist Lynch has ever used. It may be better described as an existential brain freeze, showing its main character undergo a metamorphosis into a completely different person, and its plot turn on a dime and go in a seemingly different direction. From this point on the action follows Pete, a young street punk with no idea how he ended up in the jail cell.

Pete has somehow got involved with a local mobster known as Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia), and starts up an affair with Blonde bombshell Alice (again played by Patricia Arquette), who just happens to be Mr Eddy’s moll. In keeping with the noir theme, Alice is very much of the femme fatale mould (much more so than Renee), with a shadowy past, crucial to the plots unravelling.

The contrasting and complimentary plots of Pete and Brad start to come together like a Newton’s cradle. Sometimes the elements sway in harmony, and sometimes they come crashing together with a notable impact. As well as the ubiquitous Mystery Man, there’s the reappearance of Andy, the moustachioed pornographer who’s party Brad attended in the first chapter. As to how the doppelgangers Alice and Renee are connected, well, therein lies the key to it all. Perhaps the answers are in the smokey shack that Brad kept having visions of and that Pete is driving to right now.

Are we taking a trip into one man’s subconscious, or are Pete and Brad two separate people joined by some mysterious force? There’s certainly a lot of unanswered questions in this film, and within the world of David Lynch, there’s the possibility of anything being true. If Lynch was to state the reason behind it all today, there’d be cries from people who believe their own theory is better. Lost Highway is quite informed by other Lynch works, in particular the power and effect of dreams on the human psyche. As for its place in the David Lynch oeuvre, I find it’s best experienced as a companion piece to Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s later film that continued the themes of identity and narrative confusion.

Lost Highway shares a number of similarities with Mulholland Drive’s dream like narrative, among which is the theory that all of Pete’s story is merely a complex nightmare for Brad’s character. I can see the potential for this to be true, but that would mean discounting or discrediting a lot of the earlier plot points, like the videotapes. There’s also the duality of the characters, most notably the Alice and Renee characters both played by Patricia Arquette. It may also be worth noticing that like Mulholland Drive, one is blonde and the other, brunette. In an obvious nod towards Hitchcock’s Vertigo, this also occurs in the Twin Peaks television series. This may of course just be coincidence but it’s an interesting thing to note. The speculation of meaning has always played a large part in Lynch’s work, which is probably why he has always provoked debate.

A lot of the comforting, familiar Lynch staples are present in Lost Highway, and it’s worth noting that this was Eraserhead star Jack Nance’s last on-screen role, passing away shortly before its release. Regular Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti provides a suitably bleak score, but his work is also complimented with contemporary rock bands such as Rammstein and Smashing Pumpkins.Was Lynch making a conscious effort to appeal to a younger, hipper audience? Maybe.

Purposely and defiantly incoherent, this is certainly not a film you can approach half-heartedly, and is definitely not the best example to use as an introduction to Lynch’s work. Not that it doesn’t accurately represent a lot of David Lynch’s common themes, but it’s so obtuse and bizarre that it has the potential to steer you away from his other works at the sheer mention of his name. Don’t get me wrong, Lost Highway is certainly an interestingly head-scrambling watch and a unique cinematic experience, but not a film I’d recommend for Lynch newcomers. However, if you’re a fan of Mulholland Drive’s puzzle logic, this is an interesting precursor to try and decipher.

Colin Oakley is the brains behind Slackercinema.com. He can be also found on Twitter here.

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