A Sexy, Sleek as a Stiletto, Surrealist, Moral Homily: LOST HIGHWAY (1997) at 20 Years

“Lost Highway” (1997)

This analysis of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) originally appeared at Cinapse.co.

It is very rare to see a film that does a number of things right, accomplishing a plethora of goals all at one time. David Lynch, a master of the new school of film noir, surrealism, and drop-dead sexy, sleek as a stiletto entertainment, hits effectively on almost every front with Lost Highway (1997), a film the world has been blessed with for twenty years this year.

Richard Pryor in “Lost Highway” (1997), his final appearance on film.

Lost Highway is very much a surrealist moral homily couched in one man’s (Bill Pullman) psychopathology that festers around hidden, subconscious jealousies surrounding his wife (Patricia Arquette); but it is also very sleek, stylish, sexy entertainment with big stars including Henry Rollins and Richard Pryor (this was the gifted comedian’s final appearance on film). In the vein of unconscious psychological exposition, Lost Highway is really the solid ancestor of Lynch’s later efforts Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006), and to a lesser degree the child of Blue Velvet (1986) and the grandchild of the more abstract grandfather of them all: Lynch’s maiden voyage in feature films, Eraserhead (1977). Just like those films, there will also be many unique interpretations here. All will be valid for the individual, yet none will reign supreme over another only until and if David Lynch himself gives his solid, unequivocal interpretation of what the film means. This will likely never happen, however, because David Lynch believes each of his films stands on its own without any need of interpretative aid. In fact, Lynch believes this so strongly that he does not even allow chapter breaks in the DVD and Blu-ray releases of his films, to not disrupt the viewing experience through disrupting the film’s continuity.

Like Mulholland Dr. especially, Lost Highway requires some assumptions on the part of the viewer in order to get even a solid grasp on what the film might mean. The analysis put forth here is precisely that, a set of assumptions based on the information that can be gleaned from the film. It is not the final word in Lynch or Lost Highway or the gospel truth regarding this film, if indeed such a truth can exist in the exquisitely complex, darkly manic noir of such a complicated artist as David Lynch. It is this imperfect analysis that puts forth the idea that Lost Highway is primarily a psychological and surrealist moral homily.

Also like Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway is divided into sections that could be called the real, the psychotic episode (concerned with the alternate reality of Pete Dayton), and the resolution. The first and third sections revolve explicitly around Fred in reality, the third deals with Fred projecting himself and his life in a way that both distracts and dissociates him from his wicked ways. In this way, because Fred is not shown sleeping between the sections as Diane (Naomi Watts) is in Mulholland Dr., the divisions in Lost Highway are not nearly as clean in terms of their expository qualities as in Mulholland Dr., yet they still accomplish their goal of moving the story along in a compelling way. There is still, however, the tell-tale sign that acts as a device to shift between the sequences that is Fred’s (and later Pete’s) nosebleed between the scenes, an occurrence that could be indicative of brain damage altering his perception of time and reality.

While Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire both deal with a “woman in trouble” (as does Lynch’s earlier effort, 1986’s Blue Velvet), Lost Highway deals with a man in trouble. The film starts off with an ominous voice over jazz saxophonist Fred Madison’s (Bill Pullman) intercom whispering, “Dick Laurent is dead,” (this incident allegedly happened to David Lynch in real life). We get to meet Fred’s wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) soon after this strange episode, when something even weirder happens to the couple: a strange video tape in a brown manila envelope appears on their outside stairs. Someone, it appears, has been video taping the outside of the couple’s house. This only gets odder when the next day a video tape taken inside the house of the couple sleeping in their beds appears on their steps.

Bill Pullman as jazz saxophonist and wife slayer Fred Madison in “Lost Highway” (1997). He actually played the sax solo in this scene.
Patricia Arquette as Fred’s wife Renee before her switch in Fred’s psychotic break sequence to her other identity Alice Wakefield in “Lost Highway” (1997)

In investigating the tapes, it is very strongly asserted (and later confirmed) that Renee has been roped in by the mob into working in the burgeoning pornography industry. The fleeting thought of her cheating on Fred (also later confirmed), and Fred meeting “the mystery man” played by Robert Blake, who oddly enough was also later charged then acquitted by a California jury of killing his wife, lays the seed of murder in Fred’s subconscious. The mystery man is largely an emblem of evil and really an objectification of Fred’s murderous desires, and therefore a piece of Fred himself.

Robert Blake as “the Mystery Man,” emblematic of the evil in Fred in “Lost Highway” (1997). Blake reportedly told David Lynch during filming that he thought his character was the devil.

It is the shift in between the reality sequence and into Fred’s psychotic break in prison (where he sits on death row for the brutal murder of Renee) when things get very odd. The scene begins with a guard doing his regular rounds on the ward when he sees that it is not the forty-something Fred sitting in his cell, but a 24 year old convicted of auto theft and put on probation named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). Other interpretations could suggest that it was something akin to time travel that switched the two men but this does not really fit the narrative. It is much more likely that the scene was a manifestation of Fred’s brain damage (remember the bloody nose) and insomnia that caused him to dissociate into the figure of Pete.

Balthazar Getty as Pete Dayton or the figure sublimated as relatively innocent in Fred’s damaged, dissociated brain in “Lost Highway” (1997)
Robert Loggia (Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent) opposite Robert Blake (the Mystery Man) in “Lost Highway” (1997). The scene of this phone call shows again how the Mystery Man is emblematic of the evil that men do, in this case, both the evil of Dick Laurent and the evil that will be done to Dick Laurent later by Fred.

The Pete Dayton narrative gets into the story of Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), Pete, and Renee’s alter ego in Fred’s psychotic episode: Alice Wakefield. Here, as in Mulholland Dr., Lynch uses the Hitchcockian dual-character device put to great use by Kim Novak as Maeleine Elster and Judy Barton in Vertigo (1958). Pete and the life weaved around him are really nothing more than Fred’s subconscious attempt to cope with the bleak reality that he killed his wife upon finding out that she was cheating on him with Mr. Eddy and also with various men in the porn industry.

A very direct nod to the dual character dynamic of “Vertigo” (1958) and its influence on Lynch, here we have Patricia Arquette as Renee (dark hair) and Patricia Arquette as Alice Wakefield (blonde hair) in the same picture in “Lost Highway” (1997).
Kim Novak as the sophisticated socialite Madeleine Elster in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958). This is before her transformation into Judy Barton.
Kim Novak as Judy Barton in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958). Notice the relative lack of sophistication between this shot and the shot above of her as Madeleine Elster in the film.
Another still from “Lost Highway” (1997) that could be seen as a direct homage to “Vertigo” (1958): think of the scene of Scottie’s nightmare and the floating heads in it in Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

It is revealed through the Pete Dayton psychotic break sequence and into the resolution sequence (where both Pete and Fred appear, albeit separately in time) that Mr. Eddy is Dick Laurent, that Fred, with the Mystery Man (his shadow side), slit Laurent’s throat and shot him. It is also revealed in the resolution sequence that it was Fred who spoke the cryptic words, “Dick Laurent is dead” into his own intercom. This scene also adds some credence to the time travel idea that will be seen in some interpretations. The film ends as it began with a car speeding along a dark, lost highway, with Fred screaming as he is seemingly electrocuted, this is emblematic of his ultimate fate of meeting the electric chair in San Quentin prison.

The Lost Highway that ultimately swallows Fred.

Lost Highway is through all these things not just sleek and sexy noir but a moral homily on how jealousy festers and how the porn industry treats its actresses, that is couched in the devices of surrealism and the theories of deviant psychology. I am confident it will still pack its powerful punch to the brain in another twenty years.