Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a musician whose wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) may be cheating on him. We’re not really sure and neither is he. One day, a videotape shows up on the steps of their front door in a plain brown envelope. When they watch it there is grainy camcorder footage of the outside of their house. They don’t think too much of it but another tape arrives and this time there is footage of the inside of their house and, most chillingly, of them asleep in bed. There is definitely some tension in their relationship judging from all the pregnant pauses in what little conversations they have. Or it could be Fred’s inability to perform adequately in bed, which she responds to with a condescending pat on the back and a, “It’s okay.”
Two police detectives investigate and in typically amusing Lynchian fashion are useless. Their ineffectual nature anticipates the equally useless cops in Mulholland Drive. Fred and Renee attend a party at Andy’s (Michael Massee), a friend of hers and someone Fred saw leaving with his wife one night while he was performing at a nightclub. At the party, Fred encounters a mysterious man (Robert Blake) dressed all in black and with Kabuki white makeup on his face. He walks right up to Fred and asks, “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Fred doesn’t recognize him but the man says that they met at the Madison’s house and, most disturbingly, he’s there right now. Of course, Fred doesn’t believe him until the man calls his house and he responds. Fred is understandably unnerved after this creepy conversation.
He and Renee return home to find no one else there but we see a light moving fast through the upper floor of their place. The first half of Lost Highway is an unsettling slow burn of uncomfortable silences and a feeling of paranoia and dread in the Madison house. Fred often disappears into darkened hallways that almost feel like the recesses of his mind. Lynch accomplishes this through very little light and a subtly disturbing soundscape of atmospheric noises. The last videotape that arrives features Fred next to the badly mutilated dead body of Renee and before he knows it he’s on death row for her murder. This is where things get really strange as at some point Fred transforms into a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). The authorities are understandably mystified and let Pete go.
He goes back to living with his parents, going out with his girlfriend Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner), and working at a local auto shop. On the surface, Pete is the opposite of Fred – he’s young and virile, having sex with not only his girlfriend, but a beautiful blond woman named Alice (Arquette again). He’s also friends with local mobster Mr. Eddy (a ferocious Robert Loggia), an intimidating guy who loves his car (“This is where mechanical excellence and one thousand horsepower pays off!”) and does not tolerate people who tailgate. However, Pete also gets involved with Alice who just happens to be Eddy’s girlfriend. Over time, Fred’s world slowly seeps into Pete’s. For example, Fred’s gonzo saxophone solo from the first half of the film plays over a radio as Pete works on a car and it gives him a headache.
While on death row, Fred tries to escape his fate by creating a fantasy world where he’s everything he’s not – a stylish neo-noir filled with dangerous gangsters and sexy women but this is only a temporary reprieve as the problems that he had bleed into his fantasy world. Like Fred, Pete wanders the darkened places in his home. He is Fred’s idealized image: young, strong and virile. He even has control over Renee’s doppelganger, Alice but this is fleeting and she once again exerts her dominance, this time as a dangerous femme fatale. She ropes Pete in on a dodgy job of robbing an associate of Mr. Eddy’s and predictably it goes bad but with a Lynchian spin where even his characters die in weird ways (it involves furniture). The sequence evolves into a surrealist nightmare. More importantly, this scene is where Fred and Pete’s worlds bleed together and it becomes obvious that Fred isn’t going to escape his fate.
This culminates in a scene where Alice and Pete make love in the desert while waiting for the man who will fence their stolen goods. It is one of the most beautiful and chilling moments in any Lynch film. He lights their naked bodies to the headlights of a car while the hypnotic “Song to the Siren” by This Mortal Coil plays over the soundtrack. Lynch then turns this beautiful moment on its head when Pete passionate tells Alice over and over, “I want you,” to which she replies by whispering in his ear, “You’ll never have me.” She walks off and once again Fred has failed to control the object of his affection and frustration, even in his own created fantasy world. It is inevitable that these two worlds collide because Fred is consumed by the guilt of what he’s done. Ultimately, he is unable to escape his true nature as symbolized by the film’s rather abstract climax.
From the powerful shot of a car speeding down a darkened, deserted stretch of highway at night that begins and ends the film, Lost Highway contains many stunning visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Peter Deming) that will haunt you long after seeing the film. For example, the use of light, or rather, lack of it adds to the mysterious atmosphere that envelopes the film. Characters disappear down darkened hallways only to reappear later on. Many of the scenes in the film are lit in such a way that they almost resemble a painting that you could reach out and touch. There’s also the fantastic introduction of Alice captured in slow motion as Pete sees her climb out of Eddy’s convertible to Lou Reed’s cover of “This Magic Moment” and we can see why Pete is immediately attracted to her.
Angelo Badalamenti, but also enlisted the help of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and British musician Barry Adamson. Together, they take Lost Highway to new levels of menace that the filmmaker was never able to achieve before. Their contributions greatly enhance the film's already impressive soundtrack.
The origins for Lost Highway started with something strange that happened to Lynch. A stranger rang the director’s doorbell, pushed the button of the intercom and told him, “Dick Laurent is dead.” When Lynch walked to the window and looked out he didn’t see anybody. This understandably troubled him for some time. On the last night of filming the Twin Peaks movie, he had a brief vision that would become roughly the first third of his next project: “It was like the first third of the picture maybe, minus some scenes we had in the final script ...This thing I had went all the way up to the fist hitting Fred in the police station – to suddenly being in another place and not knowing how he got there or what is wrong.” A few years later, Lynch read Barry Gifford’s story Night People and at the end of the first chapter two characters talk about a lost highway. Lynch loved those words and contacted Gifford who suggested they write something together.
A year later, the two men sat down and began to exchange ideas they had for the film. Both men had their own notions of what the film should be and these differed quite radically – to the point where they rejected each other's ideas and eventually their own. "Then I told Barry about this series of things that came to me one night. The very last night of shooting Fire Walk With Me these things shot into my head. I was driving home with Mary Sweeney and I told her about them. What I told her sort of scared her and it sort of scared me too. And when I told them to Barry he said, 'Jeez, I really like that,' and that was the start of a brand-new direction.” Gifford and Lynch decided that at some point in the story a transformation should occur and it would result in another story but have connections with the first one. Within a month, they had written the screenplay.
Lynch always wanted to work with Bill Pullman and so when it came to casting the role of Fred Madison, he was the first actor he thought of to play the role. The director felt that Pullman had a “pretty intense side to him which wasn’t exploited in his previous roles.” Furthermore, Lynch saw in the actor’s eyes, “intelligence and a vein of madness inside them. And to force it to come out I pushed during rehearsals.” Another significant bit of casting was Robert Blake (In Cold Blood) as the Mystery Man, the creepy figure who may be a part of Fred’s imagination. The veteran actor was responsible for the look and style of the character. One day, he decided to cut his hair short, part it in the middle and apply Kabuki white make-up on his face. "And the makeup people said, 'You're going crazy, man! Nobody in this movie looks like that; everybody looks regular!' I said, 'Leave me alone; just give me some shit.' I put this black outfit on. I walked up to David, and he said, 'Wonderful!' and turned around and walked away." Blake clearly knew what he was doing as his character exudes a sinister vibe every time he appears on screen.
So what is Lynch and Gifford’s take on what the film means? The director said in an interview, “It’s Fred’s story. It’s not a dream. It’s realistic, though according to Fred’s logic.” During filming, Deborah Wuliger, the unit publicist, came upon the idea of a psychogenic fugue, which Lynch and Gifford subsequently incorporated into the film. "The person suffering from it creates in their mind a completely new identity, new friends, new home, new everything – they forget their past identity,” Lynch said." In addition to being a mental condition, he also discovered that a fugue was also a musical term. "A fugue starts off one way, takes up on another direction, and then comes back to the original, so it [relates] to the form of the film.” Gifford took the idea of a psychogenic fugue and ran with it. "This was something I researched with a clinical psychologist at Stanford, so we had some basis in fact here. After we found that freedom, more or less it was just a matter of creating this surreal, fantastic world that Fred Madison lives in when he becomes Peter Dayton."
Henry, Michael. “The Moebius Strip.” Postif. November 21, 1997.
Strauss, Bob. “America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker Chases His Demons Down a Lost Highway.”