GREAT MOVIES ESSAY: Lost Highway (1997)

***CONTAINS SPOILERS***

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway is a film constantly on the verge of exploding. Characters react through instinct: shouting, swearing, having sex whenever the opportunity arises, committing brutal violence, sobbing, shaking and being forever paranoid. The narrative coils in on itself until past becomes future, and memory twists into reality. It at once makes perfect sense whilst simultaneously being absolutely incomprehensibly mad. It is style over substance, yet paradoxically the substance is the style – and when you re-watch it, you realise that beneath the style is actually some degree of substance – there might not even be substance, I don’t know if the word ‘substance’ can be applied to such a film, what the bloody-hell is ‘substance’ anyway?

That sentence probably didn’t make any sense, neither does Lost Highway – a lurid piece of ‘car-crash cinema’ which constantly performs ‘cinematic gymnastics’ – bending itself into bizarre, awkward positions, but thankfully, never breaking in two.

Möbius strip - where a piece of paper conjoins the beginning and the end together by coiling and twisting on itself. Many have described Lost Highway's narrative similar to this shape

Möbius strip – where a piece of paper conjoins the beginning and the end together by coiling and twisting on itself. Many have described Lost Highway’s narrative similar to this shape

David Lynch’s 1997 film is many things: a horror, a comedy, a thriller, a romance, a gangster-flick, a crime-drama, an exploitation pic, a sexploitation pic, a parody, an erotic dreamscape, a pseudo-porno, a noir, a neo-noir, maybe even a bloody road-movie.

You may watch Lost Highway and wonder why none of the characters are developed, or why the pacing flits around from slow to fast, why two actors are playing the same person, or one actor playing two different people (who simultaneously might actually be the same person), you may think David Lynch is being self-indulgent or being bizarre for bizarreness sake. If you think any of these, you’d be missing the point. Lost Highway is all storytelling, it is about the winding road of the narrative itself. It’s not about the meaning, it’s about the ride. It is confusing, baffling, unsettling, hilarious, bizarre, violent and very very sexy.

The opening shot of the film can only be described as a point-of-view shot from a car itself. In the distance we see absolutely nothing; the headlights light up the road and the yellow road-lines hurtle and spin towards us constantly, as we head towards oblivion. This image has now become iconic with David Lynch’s other infamous images, such as the baby in eraserhead, or Frank Booth breathing heavily into a gas mask.

Following this, we cut to Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) who is living with his wife, Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette). It is interesting how every synopsis of the film states that Fred thinks that his wife is cheating on him, yet this notion is never mentioned in any dialogue in the film. It is all implied through visuals and the physicality of the actors. The dialogue exchanges between Fred and Renee are small and diluted. There are countless awkward silences. There is no passion, no intimacy, and this is bizarrely quite unsettling. Furthermore to this, when they have sex, what we have is an incredibly unsettling and awkward sex scene. It is done in slow-motion, a cliched technique perhaps. Not so here. Each shot is a medium shot – and we see both of their faces in view, extreme close-ups are never used, so what we have is a sex scene done almost objectively, slowing everything down so we can see the emotion on the character’s faces. During this scene, Fred Madison looks physically uncomfortable, as if he is in pain somewhere, there is no pleasure at all, and his wife Renee stares blankly into the distance. Sex scenes are usually always emotional, and if they’re done in slow-motion, the previous statement is further accentuated. Not here. It is unsettling how David Lynch warps one of the most intimate acts into an uncomfortable scene, and then heightens it by using slow-motion so effectively (a technique which I usually despise, but here works). Immediately, with out any trigger events to kick off the film’s narrative, we know that something is not quite right, and this is through Lynch’s genius at creating uncomfortable atmospheres through simple yet inventive ways – like the gas mask in Blue Velvet.

Following this, we begin to get some form of narrative develop, and we think that Lost Highway is turning into an unsettling psychological horror. The couple begin to recieve video-tapes, the footage being of their house, and later on, footage of them sleeping.

Fred and Renee's unsettling relationship is recorded on camera for us and them to see...

Fred and Renee’s unsettling relationship is recorded on camera for us and them to see…

But this is a David Lynch film, what we think the genre may start off as, will definitely warp and change like plastecine. Lost Highway is a film which can be considered to have elements of multiple genres and due to this, it refuses to be categorised.

Later on, we see Fred Madison watch footage of himself screaming pscyhotically in front of his wife’s dead body, whilst covered in blood. The Fred watching the footage looks confused, this never happened, we just saw his wife a few minutes ago, she’s still in the house…or is she? Is it the same house? Is it the same Fred Madison? Did the characters change in the space of one cut? Perhaps they didn’t – it is difficult to work out. And this is the point.

And then before we know it, Fred is sentenced, and put on death-row. But is this the same Fred we know? Are we actually still watching the footage which seconds ago, Fred was watching looking utterly terrified and confused. It is never revealed. and then the film spirals even more out of control. In a sense our interpretations control our opinions on the characters, as they conclude whether one section is dream, reality, and if it happens in a fake or an imagined location. In a sense, the viewer is made to choose directorial decisions.

In his prison cell, Fred starts to develop severe head-aches, the pain begins to extend itself in the outside world, the camera shakes violently, the sound of electricity is heard and blue sparks of energy strike across the cell. The guards then check the cell to reveal two surprises:

1) Fred Madison is not in the prison cell

2) Somebody else has replaced him

We presume that the electricity and the severe head-aches are signifiers to the cause of what has happened – it is hinted that Fred Madison has turned into the new character, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). But even this, we are unsure of.

What we now see – in my opinion – is a parallel universe which perhaps exists in another dimension, or arguably, in Fred Madison’s head. In this world, Renee Madison is now Alice Wakefield (performed by the same actress, but in a blonde wig). Eddy – or ‘Dick Laurent’ – suspects that his wife is cheating on him…ironically, with the ‘reincarnation’ (?) of Fred Madison. In the opening world, Fred Madison murders his wife (?), but here, he murders his wife’s lover (who may be an extension of Fred Madison, as they are both married to Patricia Arquette’s characters).

What we have here is a film constantly interracting with the viewer, forcing you to question what has happened and why. Lynch says that he dislikes people asking for meanings to his film, and preferrs viewers to come to their own interpretations. I think Lost Highway is about male anxiety and identity, the longing to be someone else or your situation to occur to another person. Perhaps the second world we see is inside Fred Madison’s head and all of the character’s are an extension of him and the people he has met. Yet this theory contradicts himself. If Fred turns into Pete Dayton, we have a clash of personalities. Pete Dayton has an affair with Alice Wakefield, and the former Fred Madison would disaprove of that. If Fred Madison does turn into Pete Dayton, Fred Madison’s character is ironically more closely connected to Eddy as he suspects his wife of having an affair. What we have here is a blurring of identity, characters turning into other characters who their previous selves would disapprove of. There former friends become their enemies.

Yet through all of these contrasts of motifs and identity, there are some things that stay the same – just about. In both worlds, we have the character only known as ‘The Mystery Man’, a bald painted man who’s weapon is a sinister grin and a camera.

'The Mystery Man' in David Lynch's 1997 film, Lost Highway

‘The Mystery Man’ in David Lynch’s 1997 film, Lost Highway

Perhaps the link to unlocking the film’s mysteries is said in a quote at the beginning by Fred Madison when he states why he does not like cameras: “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened.” The Mystery Man is the only constant force in the film, and we get the sense that he is the driving force of the movie, the person that controls all of the events, memories, how they happened and how they didn’t happen, and then records them for us to see – he is David Lynch characterised.

This is the first part of David Lynch’s ‘LA Trilogy’, three films that concern Los Angeles, filmaking, and film-watching. We are shown Fred and Renee watching a film, The Mystery Man making one, Alice Wakefield starring in a pornographic film, and then later watching said film being projected. In a sense, the film is almost about itself, and it maintains a form of self-aware brechtian-esque feel to it, and due to this, its difficult and challenging appeal is heightened. Throughout it pays homage to numerous genres. Noir: the image of the femme-fatale, sexually alluring, lips covered in red, and eyes which have a deadly fetishistic appeal. Perhaps even horror: the sequence where a man’s head goes straight through a glass coffee table, his head has a huge piece of glass inserted into it, and blood splatters all over the flaw.  Here, it’s as if David Lynch takes a genre, all of its conventions and amps them up so that they become extremely obvious. It’s a bizarre place betwen self-parody and something quite unsettling. For example, the Mystery Man. When we first see him, his dialogue is ripen with cliches: “We’ve met before haven’t we?, “I’m there right now.” We don’t know whether to laugh at the ludicrousness of the cliches or feel disturbed, because the person who’s speaking these is covered in white paint and has a creepy grin.

In Lost Highway, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but you definitely enjoy the ride.

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2 thoughts on “GREAT MOVIES ESSAY: Lost Highway (1997)

  1. Like all David Lynch films this one is highly open to interpretation. It has been a few years since I’ve last watched this but I recall interpreting it in an almost pseudo-spiritual sense. The character essentially experiences some kind of metamorphosis and thus becomes someone else but because both characters share the same “fate” or “destiny” they are one in the same despite being different physical entities. This is how I recall looking at it anyway, haha, although I need to pull it out and watch it again to see how/if my perspective has changed.

    • Yes, all of Lynch’s films are so open to interpretation due to their bizarre – yet brilliant – narratives. I think all of the character’s are somehow a physicalised extension of Bill Madison’s mind (kinda like Solaris, which I’ve just reviewed). Some characters seem to be experiencing the same problems are feeling similar emotions as Fred Madison, so perhaps all of these people are different sides/aspects of Fred Madison…Who knows? 🙂

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