‘Lost Highway’ at 25: Chapter One of David Lynch’s LA Saga

‘Lost Highway’ explores many of Lynch’s well-known idiosyncrasies and thematic and visual obsessions.

October Films
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David Lynch’s Lost Highway is a tantalizing amuse-bouche into the director’s late-career work, which includes Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and Twin Peaks: The Return. Twenty-five years after its release, it stands as a movie that occupies a unique positioning in Lynch’s filmography: it serves as both a geographical transition from small-town suburbia to Los Angeles, and the first true playground wherein Lynch manifests the nightmares of California’s social elite and blurs the lines between actors and their fictional personas —all fixtures of his 21st-century work.

Lynch’s fascination with multiple identities and universes is often manifested through a juxtaposition of contrasting elements in his art direction and makeup: blonde and brunette, blue and red velvet, light and dark (or, generally, electric currents, which constitute positive and negative charges). Only in Lost Highway does the theme of living as two people in two planar dimensions become an explicit plot point. Bill Pullman plays a cool, charismatic saxophonist named Fred Madison who becomes framed for the murder of his wife and is sent to death row. Out of a berserk spatial time warp — once again channeled by electric currents, Lynch’s favorite special effect — he turns into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a dim-witted and uncharismatic mechanic who has no recollection of his alternate persona as Fred. 

Along with Pullman and Getty, Patricia Arquette also assumes another identity, although she plays both of these herself: Fred’s wife Renee and Alice Wakefield, the mistress of porn producer Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia). She is the dichotomous Lynchian Blonde-Brunette (Alice and Renee respectively), just like Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks (who plays blonde Laura Palmer and her brunette cousin Maddy Ferguson) and the pairing of Naomi Watts (blonde) and Laura Harring (brunette) in Mulholland Drive.

Early in the film, Pullman’s character tells Renee that he had a dream that someone who looked like her was in trouble. In Lynch’s world, dreams and nightmares are not irreality but rather a different reality. Robert Blake plays The Mystery Man, a character who assumes the same status as spiritual predecessor Killer BOB from Twin Peaks and his spiritual disciples The Man Behind the Diner in Mulholland Drive and The Phantom from Inland Empire. They are all evil incarnate, and their role is the singular node at which multiple universes and dreams intersect and multiple characters eventually reconcile with their past and alternate identities. 

Lynch has always had a huge impact on my disillusionment with suburban American life — after all, it’s where I, like many in my generation, grew up. In his films, he turns what has long been considered a heavenly enclave into a disorienting nightmare of alienation. From Blue Velvet to Twin Peaks, the suburbs of Lynch’s films look serene and dreamlike but rumble with terror underneath their well-paved and landscaped surfaces. Likewise, Los Angeles, home to Hollywood and the entertainment industry, is a place with a dreamlike veneer and a false hope for its newcomers that soon turns into a death sentence. 

Film becomes a meta-element in Lost Highway, as its central murder and the point from which multiple identities thread out originate in a videotape. (Lynch described his inception of the project as an idea about a “videotape and a couple in crisis.”) After dreaming about Renee being murdered, Fred sees a videotape of himself hovering over her dead, bleeding corpse. Dreams manifesting themselves into video become a central point of Inland Empire, too: throughout that film, Laura Dern’s multiple roles metastasize into real identities, and her actress character’s persona or “role” in a film becomes inseparable from her real existence. Again, is a role actually a fantasy, or is it another dimension of reality for Lynch? Is what Fred sees on the videotape him or a different version of him? These questions linger, but they’re left in the air because Lynch doesn’t use time, intra-dimensional travel, and re-enactments of scenes, characters, and motifs to tie things together, but to break them apart at the seams.

Lynch’s ability to shift and change tone in his films is analogous to his shifting of realities. Lost Highway teeters on the lines of soapy drama, cheesy comedy, and terribly unsettling surreality depending on the timeline it’s playing with. The film’s most famous sequence — where Pullman’s character meets The Mystery Man at a party — is a perfect example of how Lynch’s command of mood plays his audience like a fiddle. A light jazz beat plays in the background of a lively party, but as The Mystery Man begins talking, the soundscape becomes deafeningly quiet. Composer Angelo Badalamenti’s patented synth hovers ever so slightly as the conversation completely turns. Blake is incredible in this sequence, his eyes piercing the screen and the smile on his face looking stretched and inhuman — a predecessor of sorts to Laura Dern’s terrifying gaping smile in Inland Empire.

A similar sequence also occurs in Mulholland Drive: in Winkie’s Diner, a man talks about a dream he had of another man behind the dumpster. As it happens, an exact replication of the dream sequence manifests in reality. These moments serve as a further tethering of the line between realities in Lynch’s films.

On its own, Lost Highway is a winding and spinning thriller that highlights many of Lynch’s well-known idiosyncrasies and presents probably the smoothest camerawork and filmmaking of his career. It hints at and signals the oncoming of his 21st-century masterpieces Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. Just as in those films, with Lost Highway, Lynch goads us into building the shapes of a narrative in our heads, and then keeps introducing impossible angles and sides to create a confounding sensation of fear and dread in LA.

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