A Look at Lost Highway
David Lynch’s Lost Highway turns 25 this year. By most measures, this was the least successful film of David Lynch’s career, struggling with audiences and critics alike, disappointing his most diehard fans, and going on to recoup less than $4 million of its $15 million budget at the box office. In his review at the time, Roger Ebert described the film as a cold and nonsensical shaggy dog story. Harsh! Despite that, I’ve long had a soft spot for Lost Highway. It was the first of Lynch’s films that I had seen, but even I have found the film hard to champion as more than an interesting, but messy, experiment with a cool Trent Reznor-produced soundtrack. That changed for me recently though, and I’ve finally come to a reading of the film that I think does tie it all together in a way that elevates the film for me to something a bit more on par with the other well-regarded films of Lynch's career, like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. As I see the film now, I think it does have something interesting and timely to say about the lengths a certain kind of man will go to in order to self-mythologize away their sins, trying to protect their place as the hero of their own story, and control the narrative around the women they’ve wronged.
Before making the case for my take on the film, I think it will be helpful to look at where I think Lynch may have gone wrong in how he presented this film to audiences. Lynch largely avoids explaining his films, preferring for them to speak for themselves. However, one of the details that Lynch had let slip in the years since Lost Highway came out was that, at the time he and Barry Gifford were writing it, Lynch was fixated on the OJ Simpson trial - specifically how the mind of a murderer protects itself when they know they have done something truly awful, something that doesn’t fit with the more heroic image they have of themselves? What allows such a person to smilingly go about their daily life, seemingly unaffected by the terrible thing they’ve done? Co-writer Barry Gifford was more forthcoming than Lynch in interviews, but never describes this particular bit of Lynch’s inspiration. Instead, he talked about their initial idea being a story about what would happen if one person were to wake up as someone else - a story about someone experiencing some kind of psychological fugue, but told in the spirit of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Were either of these threads more straightforwardly laid out for those initial audiences watching the film, it might have been somewhat more clear that Lost Highway is supposed to be a film about a man failing to reconcile his conception of himself with the fact that he has murdered his wife.
The story of Lost Highway, at least initially, is that Bill Pullman is a jazz musician named Fred Madison, and Patricia Arquette plays his somewhat distant seeming wife, Renee. Over the course of the first act of the film, a series of videotapes show up on the doorstep of their house in unmarked envelopes. The first tape shows a slow pan across the front of their house before cutting to static. The next tape shows the same but then moves inside the house before it too cuts out. The third tape moves further inside their house, into their bedroom, showing the two of them sleeping in their bed, but from a seemingly impossible overhead angle. And the last tape, Fred finds and watches alone, seeing himself on-screen, kneeling next to his wife’s mutilated body. As he realizes what he’s watching, he stands and calls out to his wife, but the film crash cuts to his being beaten during an interrogation about her murder. This is quickly followed by Fred’s conviction and sentencing to death by electrocution. Before Fred can be executed, though, he starts experiencing a series of increasingly severe headaches; he’s found to have vanished from his death row cell one morning, and been replaced by a different person: a confused young man named Pete Dayton, who doesn’t know how he got there. From here, the film shifts to a mini-noir subplot about Pete Dayton. After being released from Death Row, Pete gets mixed up with an overtly archetypal femme fatale named Alice, also played by Patricia Arquette. Pete very quickly falls into an affair with Alice, despite his own girlfriend and the very dangerous man that Alice is involved with: Mr. Eddy, played by a menacing Robert Loggia. In order to escape from the wrath of Mr. Eddy, Alice convinces Pete that they need to rob a guy named Andy, so they can get together enough money for the two of them to run away together. Pete goes along with the plan but accidentally kills Andy during the robbery. He and Alice leave for a cabin in the desert where they will meet the man they will sell their stolen goods to. They make love outside on the ground, lit by the headlights of the car. Pete tells Alice how much he wants her. But, Alice tells Pete that he’ll never have her, then gets up off him, and walks away. When the camera comes back to Pete, we find that he has turned back into Fred. Fred takes off in the car to track down and kill Mr. Eddy. After he kills Mr. Eddy, the film ends with Fred driving down a highway at night, leading a police chase, and starting to violently convulse before the credits roll.
On most interpretations, Fred’s convulsions during the chase in the car are when he is being executed in the real world. My understanding of what happens in the film is that Fred Madison murdered his wife, but is unable to accept the idea of himself as a murderer. His break doesn’t happen when he is on death row, but has actually already happened by the film’s first scene. When we first see Fred, he has already killed Renee and is trying to process it. We see him sitting by himself in the dark, smoking, withdrawn, and agitated. He’s suddenly lit as if a window curtain has been opened. Very out of focus through the doorway behind him, we faintly see a bed with a red and white coloring that does look like bloodstains. We’re in closeup on Fred Madison, but then there is a cut that jumps the line to show him from the reverse angle as their door buzzer rings, with the lighting of the scene also brightening significantly. This cut appears to be the point where we first enter the psychological fugue of the story. Considering we’re only about 45 seconds into the first scene of the film, it makes sense that audiences may not have been ready to make such a leap on their first viewing.
Because the entire film occurs in the fugue state, it’s hard to know how to view Fred, because everything is mediated through how he wants to see himself, first as himself and then as Pete. There is an interesting scene in the first act after Fred and Renee received the videotape that showed them sleeping. They call the police to report what happened. When the police arrive at the house, both Fred and Renee feel different. The lighting in their bedroom is much brighter, and neither of them is dressed as stylized as they’ve been to this point - almost as if the presence of the police causes Fred to picture this scene differently. There’s also an incredibly telling exchange between Fred, Renee, and the two detectives:
Detective: Do you own a video camera?
Renee: No. Fred hates them.
Fred: I like to remember things my own way.
Detective: What do you mean by that?
Fred: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.
The whole film is an expansion of this idea. We’re never getting at what happened, just at what Fred has decided for himself happened.
Where the film gets really interesting for me, though, is how it contends with Patricia Arquette’s characters. On the reading that Fred is already entering a fugue state when the movie first begins, we never see a version of Renee that isn’t mediated through how Fred sees her. Her entire presence in the film is filtered through Fred’s male gaze. In Renee’s early scenes, she is distant from Fred, uninterested in the show he’s performing on that first night, preferring instead to stay home and read. But Renee seems to light up at the party they attend when she is drinking and talking to her friend, Andy. Here we can see the seeds of Fred’s jealousy. When Fred transforms into Pete, he creates for himself a new version of Renee, in Alice. Alice is aggressive and sexual in the ways Renee isn’t with Fred, falling for Pete at something like first sight. Alice is also mixed up in shady sex work with Mr. Eddy and his pornographic business. While Renee is largely withdrawn from Fred, Alice is the driving force behind coming up with the plan to rob Andy, manipulating Pete to participate by dangling herself as his reward if he follows through with the plan. Alice is also duplicitous in ways we don’t see Renee being, as we can see by Alice first going behind Mr. Eddy’s back with Pete, then setting up Andy for them to rob, and then abandoning Pete as soon as their job dealing with Andy is done. Pete appears to be a victim of manipulation, while Alice is the one pushing Pete to steal and inadvertently kill. Alice is the inverse of Renee, and, in Fred’s mind, a temptress responsible for everything that would ultimately go wrong. It’s Alice, Mr. Eddy, and Andy that are the villains of the story, not good old Fred. As he sees it, he’s a blameless angel.
That Patricia Arquette is able to portray all of these facets of Renee and Alice is a wonder, considering the film never gives her any clear and objective ground to stand on. Arquette has said in interviews that Lynch, though he worked with her and created a safe place for her to do some incredibly vulnerable work, never gave her straight answers on what exactly she was playing. That actually helps the performance because the film is never giving us the reality of who Renee was. Fred has already taken that from her and us before the film begins.
Something else that feeds into the energy of the film, is the presence of Robert Blake and Marilyn Manson. Neither were quite as infamous at the time of filming as they’ve gone on to become, but both would go on to be credibly accused, and even convicted, of crimes that are of a piece with the themes of Lost Highway. In his last acting credit to date, Robert Blake plays a character called Mystery Man, a malevolent character that seems to represent the murderous impulse hiding inside Fred. He would next enter the news in 2002 when he was arrested for the murder of his wife. He would be found not guilty in the criminal trial but found liable for the wrongful death of his wife in a civil trial. Marilyn Manson made his acting debut in the film, appearing briefly in a snuff film played in one of the climactic scenes, and he also featured prominently in the film's soundtrack, notably a scene where Arquette’s Alice is forced at gunpoint to strip for Mr. Eddy. Over the last 18 months, a number of women have come forward with accusations against Manson of physical and sexual abuse. The presence of both figures in the film is distasteful, but they are cut from the same cloth as the character of Fred Madison.
Lost Highway isn’t a complete success. It still took me over two decades to come up with a reading of the film that worked for me, and that’s asking an awful lot of any audience. That said, I do now think it has something much more interesting to say than it’s been given credit for. It’s not especially interesting as the story of a man who killed his wife, but it is fascinating as the story of a man who would unmoor his entire reality rather than accept the fact of himself as a bad person who has done a reprehensible thing.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.