(SPOILERS) ‘90s David Lynch might have been “purer” in its distillation of weirdness, but generally speaking I found it less satisfying than his ‘80s experimentations with studios and pre-existing source material. There was Twin Peaks, of course, several of the episodes he directed ranking among the best things he has ever done, but his features lacked something, revealing themselves as either a hip, pop version of his sensibility (Wild at Heart) that would predict much of the “colourful” pulp revelry of Tarantino and his imitators, or a distended, half-masterfully dark, half-distractingly ungainly bookend to his cancelled TV show (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which despite its subsequent re-evaluation, is still a bit of a bodge). Lost Highway arrived five years after, his third collaboration with Barry Gifford (after Wild at Heart and Hotel Room) and is at once as wilfully weird as you’d expect from Lynch, replete with de rigueur doppelgangers, fractured time and shaken identities, yet curiously reductive for the first time, such that the uncanny could be wrapped in a neatly explicable bow.
Do you want an easily digestible Lynch film? I mean, all his pictures have unique and elusive aesthetics (images, sounds), but more specifically in terms of character and tenor? Because Lost Highway, really, is no more special than Shutter Island directed by someone who takes crazy pills for breakfast (or TM pills). Perhaps that’s the Gifford influence, but the picture suffers more from its dive into an alt-reality than Wild at Heart does into a heightened one.
Perhaps, if we were left thinking that Fred (Bill Pullman) really did swap with Pete (Balthazar Getty) and that Renee really did have a noir femme fatale twin/double Alice (Patricia Arquette), rather than Pete and Alice being the products of a “psychogenic fugue” resulting from Fred’s brutal murder of Renee, there’d be more to chew on abstractly. As Lynch put it, in worryingly lucid language (it ought to be a concern, if he’s making sense and easy to pin down), “The persons suffering from it creates in their mind a completely new identity, new friends, new home, new everything – they forget their past identity”. He also compared it to the OJ Simpson murder case.
But the picture begins intriguingly enough. Sure, elements don’t quite satisfy. Bill Pullman is as much of a blank here as he is in any of his lead performances, but initially at least, you wonder if this might be intentional, that he and his alter ego are supposed to be interchangeable canvasses upon whom it’s impossible to project very much. The problem there is, even if that’s the case, it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. Some actors ask to be watched, and neither the leading men in Lost Highway do that.
Consequently, when we see Bill grunting and sweating away on his sax, we’re not entirely sure this isn’t supposed to be as self-parodic as the gangster movie Fred falls into (as Jeremiah Kipp notes, for all his rage – a distillation of Fred’s? – Robert Loggia’s Mr Eddy is a kind of toothless Frank Booth; ironic, as Lynch cast Loggia based on his expletive-fuelled reaction to missing that role).
And yet, Robert Blake’s Mystery Man is a marvellously iconic character/villain, deserving of a better picture, and the unnerving first (second?) meeting at a Hollywood party, as the Man informs Fred he has met him before, at his house (“As a matter of act, I’m there, right now”), handing him his chunky cell phone as confirmation, is a classic Lynch scene for all the right reality-bending reasons.
The Mystery Man might be regarded as the shadow self of Fred and Pete, leading him both from and to self-recognition. Of course, there’s a case to be made that Pete is, in fact, the original deal and Fred his construct, owing to the detectives at Andy’s mansion discovering his print’s (not Fred’s) “all over this place”. That might be intriguing if it altered the basic set up in some way, but it doesn’t. Not really. Indeed, I’d suggest that, rather than seeing this as “objective” reality, it’s a signifier of the addled existence Fred/Pete is experiencing (the Mystery Man has just been interrogating Pete with “And your name? What the fuck is your name?”)
Patricia Arquette delivers a far superior performance to her insubstantial co-leads, although her delivery is sometimes pitched on the inaudible side and it’s difficult to escape the impression that Lynch isn’t just flagrantly objectifying her, be it in the sex scenes or Mr Eddy’s “audition” in front of a room full of gangsters (the seedy underbelly here has no resonance in the way it does in Blue Velvet, it’s only ever a distant construct).
I had a similar response to the underused Natasha Gregson Warner as Pete’s dumped girlfriend Sheila, who seems to have been cast on the basis of her breasts. There has always been a voyeuristic angle to sex and nudity in Lynch pictures, but hitherto it has felt integral to the story being told. Here, it just comes across voyeuristic, at the whim of David.
Also problematic are the obvious cameos, including Richard Pryor, Marilyn Manson and Henry Rollins. They stick out the way Clooney or Travolta do in The Thin Red Line, distracting from the material. On the other hand, Gary Busey is great as Pete’s dad; you can see a whole backstory of him and wife Candace (Lucy Butler), middle-aged spread ex-bikers, reduced to passive medication by TV, not so far from Emilio Estevez’ transfixed folks in Repo Man.
Michael Massee (sadly recently deceased), who brings something of a Willem Dafoe-esque sleaze bag to his minor role, and Blake (whose striking appearance was all his idea, which given his troubled life is unsurprising) are also standouts. Jack Nance, in his final Lynch appearance, plays a mechanic protesting at Pete changing the music station. Indeed, it’s unfortunate that Pete, with his being a grease monkey, biking and involvement with a dangerous girl (and his musical side), reminds one of the least interesting character in Twin Peaks, James Hurley. Or perhaps that’s intentional again.
Part of Lost Highway’s problem is that it doesn’t feel like a film Lynch was compelled to make. It’s more like a doodle of various interests and obsessions, lacking an essential quality. Even the soundtrack, often the best aspect of his pictures, is burdened by some impulsive decisions (I love the use of Bowie’s I’m Deranged on the opening and closing titles, and Trent Reznor’s contributions feel entirely appropriate, but Marilyn Manson and the impossible to take seriously Rammstein by Rammstein are eclectic yet also cumulatively less distinctive than we have come to expect from the director). Nevertheless, being a Lynch joint, the sound design is richly unsettling, underscoring every scene and invariably proving instrumental in ensuring they carry the impact they do.
Jonathan Rosenbaum commented of the picture that Lynch “hasn’t developed his themes one iota in a quarter of a century” but I’d argue it’s less flattering than that. He seems to have actively regressed here, to junk psychology and undisguised adolescent ogling. There are great moments in Lost Highway, but also long stretches where the atmosphere just isn’t enough, less-than-compelling protagonist(s) failing to take up the slack. Even the picture’s great advocates seem to acknowledge its great deficiencies. It would take getting out of, rather than being under, his own skin to get back on track.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.