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The Lynch Ledger-Entry Seven: Lost Highway (1997)

It should come as no surprise, to any of my regular readers, that I am a fervent fan and follower, of the work of David Lynch. That being said, I was somewhat unprepared by just how knocked out I was by this latest viewing of 1997’s “Lost Highway”. Every time I see it, the puzzle pieces connect a bit more easily…yet it still maintains a healthy helping of the seemingly unattainable. I like that. I don’t want to figure it all out. There’s power in its slipperiness. But there’s also so much obvious strength and gravitas…whether intentional, or not. For instance, who could have known that “Lost Highway” would be the final(so far)film performance of Robert Blake, before gaining eternal infamy in a trial for killing his own wife(Blake was acquitted). Blake plays the “Mystery Man” in this film, but it appears very cut-and-dried to me, what exactly he’s supposed to represent. And Blake’s real life troubles only make the movie that much creepier. Also, Richard Pryor never had another film role after his wheelchair-bound Arnie in “Lost Highway”. Pryor was suffering with(and would ultimately perish in 2005 from)multiple sclerosis during the making of the film, and it’s probably the last time many got to hear his rapidly deteriorating voice. “Lost Highway” also serves as the final bow of Jack “Eraserhead” Nance, who died before the film’s opening, due to a subdural hematoma, suffered during a drunken street brawl. So, now, even more so than when it hit screens, “Lost Highway” is dripping with regret, horror and ennui. It only enhances an already brilliant Lynchian creation, and makes this evil road trip that much more mesmerizing.

But many of you will still be scratching your head when it’s over. And a sizable portion of that group will be prone to take the most typical approach…they’ll get ANGRY at the movie. I think that’s what happened with Siskel & Ebert when they both panned the film on their review show back in 1997. Of course, their dual “thumbs down” notice was used by Lynch and the studios for an interesting advertising technique. It prominently featured the critics’ bad reviews, featuring the tagline, “two more reasons to go and see “Lost Highway”. Brilliant(although the late Mr. Siskel apparently called the act “petty”). Also, is “Lost Highway” a subconscious reaction from Lynch to the media coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, as David himself later claimed to realize? The timing makes sense, and it does make the film even more intriguing if you know that going in. That “discovery”, plus Blake’s eventual trial when accused of murdering his wife, only adds more darkness and malice to an already sinister feature about…the brutal killing of a spouse. You won’t be able to escape it. In fact, I suggest watching “Lost Highway” with the lights out, late at night, at high volume, and letting Lynch take you on a haunted journey for 135 minutes. You’ll immediately be hypnotized by that opening drive on a desert road…I promise you that much. And the music will enact a vice grip on you too. It has a pulsating rock soundtrack including work from Trent Reznor, David Bowie, Rammstein and Marilyn Manson, along with the perennial score composition from Lynch muse, Angelo Badalamenti(with additional music by Barry Adamson).

Fred(an excellent Bill Pullman)is a successful, Los Angeles-based musician that receives a mysterious videotape on his steps one morning, after hearing a malevolent voice on his front door intercom. The tape shows a shot of the outside of Fred’s house, and is somewhat dismissed. But then more videos arrive, displaying the inside of Fred’s home…and eventually shots of he and his wife sleeping. Now, they call the police. Despite pleadings from Fred’s wife, Renee(the gorgeous, and once ubiquitous film actress, Patricia Arquette), the cops confess that there’s not much they can do at this early stage of the investigation. Fred and Renee attend a party that night, where Fred encounters a “mystery man”(Mr. Blake)who soon engages him in conversation. Quickly, the “mystery man” is perpetuating some sort of “mind game” on Fred, and appears to be able to be in more than one place at the same time. But is it a mind game? Meanwhile, femme fatale Renee, gives the impression of possibly being less than faithful to her husband. So, when she eventually turns up dead, the police have no choice to arrest Fred, after he is located with her body. Fred is tried and found guilty…then sentenced to death. In his prison cell, Fred is soon plagued by incapacitating headaches and bizarre visions. Then, one night, Fred seemingly “disappears” from his cell…but it’s not an easy-to-explain “escape”. In fact, Fred has somehow been replaced in his penitentiary cage, by a young auto mechanic named Pete Dayton(a very good Balthazar Getty)! And so begins an odyssey that takes us through a parallel story line, with hints of the one we left behind, along with the introduction of gangster “Mr. Eddy”(an incredible Robert Loggia)…who happens to have a very familiar looking girlfriend. It’s a descent that is dark, violent and increasingly sexual.

I think it’s only possible for “Lost Highway” to become cohesive through repeat viewings. At least that’s been my experience. But hey, if you “got it” all on the first shot, you have a better eye than me. I’ve always been an advocate of the film, but it was a real shock to find how connected I was with it upon this latest watch. It’s really fan-fucking-tastic. However, as hinted at earlier, I believe a great multitude will experience it once, hate it, and dismiss it—without ever learning to appreciate just how gorged with mordancy and dread it is. Its payoff is not simple or easily decipherable. But it is a mind-blowing, head-tripping “WTF”! Oh to have been lucky enough to see “Lost Highway” on a big screen at a midnight showing! I lament the missed opportunity, but…maybe some day? What the heck happened to Fred? Is Renee one person, or two? Is Mr. Eddy really named Dick Laurent? How does Pete Dayton get inside that jail cell? What is the purpose of the “mystery man”? Yup, you’ll ask them all. And if you’re patient enough for the search, it’s a marvelously wild ride. Lynch taps into some version of a universal psyche with this film, and it plays like a primer for what he would eventually accomplish with 2001’s “Mulholland Dr.” “Lost Highway” has aged like a fine wine, and the look that cinematographer Peter Deming gives the picture is sometimes as dark as pitch, and at others gorgeously seductive. My words can’t do it justice, you’ll simply have to see for yourself. It is a rich and wondrous film experience. With Patricia Arquette returning to the big arena with “Boyhood” earlier this year, I confess to having forgotten how beautiful and effective she can be. And Robert Loggia provides us with a wonderful taste as to why he just might have been an exemplary alternative to Dennis Hopper, in the role of Frank Booth(from “Blue Velvet”). Loggia’s a gas(pun definitely intended). And “Lost Highway” receives my official confirmation…as one of David Lynch’s finest.

Grade:  A

next month’s Lynch Ledger Entry: 1999’s “The Straight Story”

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3 comments on “The Lynch Ledger-Entry Seven: Lost Highway (1997)

  1. fred madison has difficulty sleeping. the prison doctor gives him a pill and says now you’ll sleep. then we see fred’s dream life. he is not impotent.he is virile. he is not being cheated on. he is the cheater. the mystery man is the personification of fred’s psychosis. everywhere you go there you are…and slowing the dream becomes a nightmare from which fred can not escape.

  2. Love your take on this, John! Thanks for stopping by and sharing! ML

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