Funny How Secrets Travel: David Lynch's Lost Highway
Lost Highway is an inescapable nightmare of a movie.
Bill Pullman plays Fred Madison, a jazz saxophonist who suspects his wife, Renée, is having an affair. His suspicions get the better of him — actually they manifest into a mysterious, pale-faced Mystery Man played, almost too well, by Robert Blake. It all leads to Renée’s murder, Fred’s imprisonment, and things get even stranger when Fred transforms into a completely different person, yeah. David Lynch is never one to explain his work and, much like Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks, with Lost Highway you either accept the mystery and resolve to be confounded, or you don’t. Because let me tell you, there’s enough to be confounded by in Lost Highway.
While mostly inscrutable, there’s a singular apparent theme in the film — the modern state of masculinity is fragile and destructive. Renée, played by the forever-gorgeous, ever-talented Patricia Arquette, says she’s going to stay home and read instead of going out with Fred. “Read? Read what, Renée?”, he asks, trying to tear away at what he perceives to be her devilish, feminine wiles. We never see Renée having an affair, we only see Fred’s perception, a supposed affair that magnifies his own inadequacies. They have sex, passionate at first, but Fred’s inward frustrations come through and it ends unsatisfyingly for both. Shot in slow motion — part of cinematographer Peter Deming’s (Mulholland Drive, the new season of Twin Peaks) beautiful work — the sex scene ends with Renée gently tapping Fred on his back. “It’s okay.”, she says. The undercurrent of Angelo Badalamenti’s horrific score heightens Fred’s breaking point — the dent in this man’s ego becomes a break in a dam, unleashing something sinister.
Fred attends a party and there he meets with a Mystery Man, played by Blake. He says he’s at Fred’s home right now. “That’s fucking crazy, man.”, Fred says (a natural response). It’s actually not so fucking crazy; Fred calls his home phone and the Mystery Man picks up on the other line, as he’s looking right at Fred at the party. Each Mystery Man lets out a terrifying cackle. The spiritual displacement of Fred is made ethereal by the Mystery Man’s presence — there’s no escaping what will happen next.
Now, the performance of Robert Blake as the Mystery Man who essentially drives Fred to kill his wife shouldn’t go overlooked. Blake, four years after Lost Highway’s release, was put on trial and ultimately acquitted of his wife’s murder. Whether or not Blake committed that crime, his performance as the Mystery Man adds another skin-crawl inducing layer in retrospect. Blake is eerily perfect in the role and his laugh that won’t leave your head anytime soon.
Before Renée is brutally murdered, Fred seems to disappear into another realm; he walks down a pitch-black hallway and reappears only to discover a video tape of the ghastly crime scene. He mentions early in the movie, he doesn’t like video cameras because he prefers how he remembers things, rather than a recording telling him what happened — of course, when he sees himself covered in blood next to his disembodied wife, he’s stunned and has no memory of the murder. Lynch would later switch from film to video filmmaking, going from Mulholland Drive to Inland Empire, and the violent scenes he shoots in video here are a precursor to the imagery we'll see years later.
Much of Lynch’s projects revolve around a place beyond ours, a place of light and dark — The Black Lodge is a running motif which is seemingly where the Mystery Man comes from and where Fred disappears to before he murders his wife. Like Twin Peaks, we see a Bob-like character and we have a murderer who claims not to have control of his own body — there are even red curtains signifying the connection between Lost Highway and Twin Peaks. Can you go to that dark place and come back the same? And what will you bring back with you? These are the questions constantly Lynch asks.
The Los Angeles murder of a wife, the maintained innocence of the husband — it’s no surprise Lynch and co-writer Barry Gilford were influenced by the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Lynch doesn’t like to analyze his own work, but even he admits the Simpson story was too much in the public consciousness that it had trickle into the film. Lynch was intrigued by how Simpson went from (allegedly) murdering two people in cold blood one day, to going out to play a round of golf the next, like nothing happened. Lost Highway is about the fugue state, a man trying to flee the violent act he’s committed by creating a new world and a new identity to inhabit. Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, which was released in the same year, tackles some of those themes, as well — “Yeah! A whole different take on the same thing!”, Lynch says about the Soderbergh's film.
Fred is convicted of murder and while in prison he has a splitting headache, one that actually splits his skull in two and transforms him into Pete (Balthazar Getty). Fred’s body is gone, but a part of him is in Pete, a young car mechanic who’s living with his parents (Lucy Butler, Gary Busey). Pete plays out a 1950s teenage crime drama, with Robert Loggia playing a crime boss, Mr. Eddy, who befriends him. Then Pete meets Eddy’s girlfriend, Alice, and the two begin to have an affair behind Eddy’s back. A cliché for sure, but the mind trip continues as Alice is played by Patricia Arquette, trading Renée’s brunette Betty Page locks for a platinum blonde look.
Pete, like Fred, has a crisis of masculinity — he has his own girlfriend, Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner), who he has a normal teenage romance with, but when Alice comes into the picture, his jealousy turns him into an insecure wreck. Pete and Alice continually meet at seedy motels for their romantic hook-ups, but when she cancels one night, Pete reverts back to Fred’s volatile state, using Shelia just for sex. Pete desperately wants to be with Alice, so much so that he’s willing to steal from an amateur porn producer, Andy (Michael Massee), for her. Soon, the Mystery Man returns and Pete and Fred become one as things come around, full circle.
We’re witness to a gnarly, sinewy transformation in Fred’s cell as he becomes Pete, but we never see Pete’s point of view; his transformation haunts his family and girlfriend. Like Mulholland Drive, there is a transference the means of which is never explained. The ‘how’ is not important, it’s all about the ‘why’. In Mulholland Drive, jealousy drives Naomi Watts’ character to dark places in its second half. There’s body switching in both movies, and there’s a deep dive into varying degrees of self-punishment. And while there’s beautiful, pure love in Mulholland Drive, there’s no sign of that in Lost Highway. The film begins with Fred being suspicious of his wife and they don’t really share any tender, loving moments — it’s all about control and possession from the male perspective, with sex being the catalyst.
Lost Highway is Lynch’s Vertigo. Hitchcock's classic is about obsession, and similarly deals with masculinity — while James Stewart's Scottie tries to control Madeleine/Judy by changing her appearance in an attempt to ease his own fragility, Pete/Fred tries to attain Renée/Alice through sexuality. Both Scottie and Pete/Fred fail in their attempts, learning too late that the female spirit cannot be contained. While in the middle of another wild sex scene, this time out in the desert in the dead of night, Pete/Fred keeps saying, “I want you. I want you.” To which Alice says, “You’ll never have me.” Pete/Fred doesn’t know how to love — sex is one thing, but to truly love someone, that act is lost on him. Renée/Alice pulls away from him, not wanting to play a role in which she has no control.
Lost Highway feels like Hell; the film is cyclical, with Pete/Fred seemingly reliving the same torture over and over. Fred goes into a new body, escaping from the 'reality' of his wife's murder into a dream world as Pete, only to suffer even more by making the same mistakes. This might be Lynch’s darkest film — even in films like The Elephant Man and Eraserhead there are moments of lightness and hope. There is no hope in Lost Highway; David Lynch condemns Pete/Fred to eternal suffering with no hopes of redemption. Lynch has always been a man of secrets but at least one thing is clear about Lost Highway: toxic masculinity and the ill-conceived notion that a man can cage femininity lead to damnation.
Lost Highway is on iTunes and Showtime On Demand right now.