“Dick Laurent is dead.”
It’s the sentence that both begins and ends the film. It is spoken to and by the same person. The audience clearly hears it twice, yet we’re never quite sure if the one-sided conversation actually happened, or if it was all just some fractured, schizoid dream. David Lynch has been quoted as saying that Lost Highway is an example of a psychogenic fugue, a state of mind often characterized by an abandonment of personality and memories, like amnesia. In their place, another persona emerges. It may be a fantasy version of oneself, or a more idealized concept of one’s inner strengths and/or weaknesses. In this case, a convicted killer named Fred Madison may or may not physically transform into troubled mechanic Pete Dayton. Considering it comes from the mind of America’s premiere auteur, all (or none) of it may be true.
When it finally found its way onto DVD last month, Lost Highway became the finally filled gap in Lynch’s digital career. After self-releasing his short films and Eraserhead, there have been substandard to personally supervised versions of his canon. As a filmmaker, his scope is breathtaking. He’s tackled the avant-garde and heavy melodrama (The Elephant Man), provoked science fiction fans with his unique take on Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune, delivered the ultimate small town crime spree spin with Blue Velvet, and deconstructed myth through his devastating revision of the Wizard of Oz (Wild at Heart) and Tinsel Town itself (Mulholland Dr. ). And no one is soon to forget his forays into television, both the masterful (Twin Peaks) and the misinterpreted (On the Air).
Yet it’s Lost Highway that remains the crucial turning point in his oeuvre, the meaningful moment of aesthetic “I don’t give a shit” when the filmmaker allowed hallucinogenic visions to forever merge into his very definition of Lumierian language. It stands in sharp contrast to even his most complicated efforts, purposefully insular and manipulated like a mobius strip. It resembles a creative purgative, every idea the man has ever had regurgitated onto celluloid and structured like an infected night terror. It is erotic, aggravating, endearing, unidentifiable, genre-bending, genre-embracing, loaded with recognizability and as indecipherable as an ancient alien dialect. The end result may not fulfill the promise of its nasty neo-noir leanings, but like any attempt at something great, it succeeds more than a million other examples of the sort.
The story is purposefully divided into two (much of the movie uses bifurcation and duality as an easy symbol). We begin with the tale of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) - noise jazz musician by night, nervous husband by day. His knockout of a wife, Renee (played with Viagra-like arousal by a never better Patricia Arquette), has a past that remains unspoken between them, yet it’s clear it has something to do with shady characters and sexual sleaze. One day, a package arrives at their door. It turns out to be a videotape of the house. The next day, another cassette arrives. This time, the tour wanders inside and into their bedroom. At an uncomfortable party where Renee’s hinted-at history slams into her present, Fred faces off with a white faced reveler (Robert Blake). The next day, a far more disturbing VHS arrives.
Events best left unspoken play out, leading to Fred’s arrest and incarceration. One night, via inference and literal smoke and mirrors, our hero turns into troubled youth Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty)…maybe. Released from jail and sent home with his parents, our oddly out of place protagonist returns to his life as an auto mechanic. One of his best customers is local mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). The police know him as…Dick Laurent. As Pete starts a torrid affair with the Mafioso’s mistress, Alice (played again by an equally enticing Arquette), the trap is baited. Our femme fatale wants her boy toy to rob a skuzzy smut peddler. She sets him up - all he has to do is show up on time and commit the crime. It’s Double Indemnity meets outtakes from Trent Reznor’s private snuff films.
As riddled with secrets as it is obvious in its obsessions, you can completely gauge Lynch’s fetishes while watching Lost Highway. The open road is definitely one of them. As he did with the title fabric in Blue Velvet, the director turns a nighttime drive along a deserted yellow-streaked blacktop into an exercise in unnerving suspense. The female form is another one. Like Laura Dern in Heart, Arquette’s dual role requires her to get topless quite often, and the languid shots of her undulated breasts will have male members of the audience ‘standing’ at attention. Speed is also an element in the film. Several sequences appear over-cranked, using the frenetic pace and visual hyperactivity to suggest everything from impending doom or highly charged eroticism.
And then there’s Lynch’s main fixation - death. It even wears a clever kabuki mask here, and is played in a perfect example of comedic cosmic foreshadowing by Robert Blake. Call his character the Grim Reaper, the Angel of Destruction with an available video camera, or the voyeuristic nature of our own internal anguish, but the diminutive actor with the fireplug physique disappears into Lynch’s lunatic fringe, and the transformation is terrific. When the white faced demon confronts Fred at the party, he plays it so cool as to cause frostbite. Yet the exchange becomes so heated that the fires of Hell literally leap from Blake’s eyes. During the last act, when Getty goes for Arquette’s convoluted plot, the figure returns. Yet strangely enough, it’s not the visage of Pete he confronts, but Fred once again.
There are several ways to interpret this. One is that Blake represents our hero’s inner horror, the tormented level of envy, jealousy, anger, or outright distrust that drives Fred to kill. The mystery man does show up right before the last videotape, and before Dick Laurent meets his first/last line fate. Similarly, his camera can be viewed as the preparations for the murder. Like someone premeditating and plotting, we first see the house…then the set-up…and finally, the abominable act itself. Last but not least, Blake could also be a retarded red herring. Lost Highway is literally overloaded with the kind of subjective, incomplete symbolism that drove many a fan of Twin Peaks to toss their remote at the TV. From unexplained tattoos to sentences that seem spoken as the punchlines to untold jokes, our video vamp may just be a really cool idea that Lynch doesn’t know how to fully explain.
If one had to venture a guess as to what all this splatter and speculation means, if forced to find a bottom line to what can frequently feel like a disjointed collection of cinematic scraps, the best interpretation of Lost Highway is this: after killing his wife in a fit of envious rage, unbalanced musician Fred Madison spends his prison time locked in an elaborate fantasy. He imagines he is Pete Dayton, and concocts for the fictional character a fractured home life, a pleading and needy girlfriend (played by Natasha Gregson Wagner) and a slightly sexy job as a glorified grease monkey. Into this false front arrives the men he hates - Dick Laurent (who we learn was once associated with Renee) and pathetic pimp Andy. Naturally, our hero deals with them both. Just as he’s about to be executed, he envisions an escape and a comeuppance for everyone who ever wronged him. The lost highway literally becomes his personal leap into the acceptance of destiny.
Of course, there are several logic leaps contained in such a conclusion. The police investigate Andy’s “accident” and reveal that Pete’s - not Fred’s - fingerprints are everywhere. Our mechanic’s parents also indicate that Mr. Eddy, or the Mystery Man (it is not clear) accompanied him on the night when he took Fred’s ‘place’. Lynch literalizes the transformations, showing open skulls covered in grue pouring/consuming smoke and clamor, and we are supposed to believe that Alice is merely Renee re-envisioned, yet the two act decidedly different, even down to speech patterns and sexual prowess. In fact, it’s clear that very little in Lost Highway lends itself to easy explanations or clear cut conclusions. In some ways, Lynch has fashioned the first crime drama where the specifics of ‘what’ happened are always overshadowed by the other five categories of inquiry.
Yet for many, it remains the director’s most outstanding artistic statement, a true template of his talent and temperament. Ask anyone to name their favorite Lynch film, and few may mention Highway. But ask them for the movie that more resembles what he stands for as a filmmaker, and this will come in a close second (to Eraserhead, usually). Indeed, this could be the story of Henry Spencer spun into a James M. Cain tall tale, a moody and atmospheric swipe at the traditions laid down by decades of classic cinema. The acting is uniformly good, with several performances changing our perspective of otherwise unexceptional (Pullman, Arquette, Loggia) talents. Yet the true star of this amazing movie is the man behind the camera. Like a great dictator enveloped by his own idealism, Lost Highway reflects who and what David Lynch truly is.
That’s why, for all its artifice and pretense, its unfathomable complexity and celluloid lyricism, this movie more than any other replicates the mind of its maker. It takes everything he’s touched, everything he’s learned, everything he’s gained, and everything he hopes to earn and tosses it into a breeze blowing away from the mainstream and into an absurdist surrealism all its own. Many will find it maddening. Others will call it indulgent and overly ambitious. Some may even decry its value all together. But for those who sync up to Lynch’s freaked out fugue state, complete with unanswered questions and discontinued details, the results are resplendent. Lost Highway may be a maze from which there is no escape, but few will complain about getting consumed by its peculiar parameters. Besides, it’s quite a ride! Just ask Dick Laurent.