"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, January 20, 2012

Lost Highway

After the critical and commercial beating David Lynch took with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), his next film Lost Highway (1997) was seen as a comeback after a dry spell of five years. At the time, there was certainly a strong push in appealing to a young, hip audience with a splashy cover story in Rolling Stone magazine (Lynch even shared the cover with Trent Reznor) that drew attention to the film’s soundtrack featuring then popular musicians Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and The Smashing Pumpkins. However, this did little for the film’s potential mainstream appeal as Lynch delivered another nightmarish neo-noir tale of jealousy and murder that may or may not be taking place inside the mind of a killer. In some respects, the film anticipated Lynch’s later masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001), it too is a mystery that appears to take place within the fevered imagination of its protagonist.

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.

The first and last line spoken in Lost Highway is "Dick Laurent is dead." Initially, it seems no more important a line than a simple teaser to draw us gradually into a dark, atmospheric world. However, much like the severed ear found lying in a field in Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), this phrase is the key to unlocking a mystery that lies at the heart of Lost Highway. The mystery that is central to this film seems to be a conventional one — nothing more than a man accused of killing his wife. This is only a superficial reading, however. Look a little deeper and it becomes apparent that Lynch has swathed this mystery up in layers of abstractions and contradictions that makes watching Lost Highway akin to solving a riddle. Another key line that I believe is crucial to understanding what happens to Fred is when he tells the cops, “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” So, the second half of Lost Highway could simply be him remembering things his own way.

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.

Lynch's films are also known for their rather complex soundscapes. In one way or another, the director has always taken a personal approach to the use of sound in his work and how it matches with the images on the screen. Lost Highway is no exception and may well be the best use of sound in his films since Eraserhead (1977). The film's soundscape quite often layers sound upon sound with incredible effect. It may only be the use of minimal sound effects buried in the background to suggest a feeling of ominous foreboding in a scene or a piece of music brought to the foreground, threatening to overwhelm everything else. And for the music Lynch not only continued to work with his longtime collaborator, 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.

The first cut of Lost Highway ran just over two-and-a-half hours. After a screening with fifty people, Lynch cut out 25 minutes of footage. Not surprisingly it received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, “I have nothing against movies of mystery, deception and puzzlement. It's just that I'd like to think the director has an idea, a purpose, and an overview, beyond the arbitrary manipulation of plot elements. He knows how to put effective images on the screen, and how to use a soundtrack to create mood, but at the end of the film, our hand closes on empty air.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “More in its imagery than in its baroque plotting, Lost Highway is best at creating a sense of unease. Working with cinematographer Peter Deming and longtime composing collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch has put together some thoroughly spooky situations. In the hands of this crew, even something as straightforward as a ringing phone in an empty room can create the feeling that the most awful thing is about to happen.”

The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “Highway, which Lynch has pretentiously dubbed ‘a 21st-century noir horror film,’ is nothing more than a 20th-century cul-de-sac. The maker of such great works as Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks has finally run out of road.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “By the time the film reaches its heart of darkness (it has something to do with a porno movie), Lynch, for the first time, seems to be using avant-garde tricks to pass off as 'taboo' what looks to the naked eye like mere routine sleaze. Lost Highway has scattered moments of Lynch's poetry, but the film's ultimate shock is that it isn't shocking at all.” Long-time Lynch supporter Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Despite the shopworn noir imagery and teenage notions of sex, this beautifully structured (if rigorously nonhumanist) explosion of expressionist effects has a psychological coherence that goes well beyond logical story lines, and Lynch turns it into an exhilarating roller-coaster ride.” Finally, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “A structure that begins and ends at the same moment in time, with a debt to the Mobius strip (or to Pulp Fiction), is another intriguing feature. But the film has more of these touches than it has explanations. Eventually it raises the overwhelming possibility that nobody is entirely in the driver's seat.” Most interesting, Lynch took Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs down verdict as a badge of honor and plastered it large on newspaper ads for his film.

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."

Ultimately, what makes Lost Highway so good are the risks Lynch takes. After the crushing commercial and critical defeat of Fire Walk with Me, one would think that he would have take the safe route and made a conventional film. No way. As he did with Blue Velvet, Lynch decided to follow his muse and make a film on his own terms. Lost Highway is easily Lynch's darkest, bleakest film since Eraserhead. There are no happy endings in this film. No one escapes into radiator heaven. Characters that stray onto the lost highway simply stay lost with no chance of escape. While watching this film, you must be prepared to think as Lynch constantly questions how you perceive things — both people and events. What is real and what isn't? He also plays around with the notion of déjà vu by not only repeating images but also dialogue which forces you to pay close attention to what is going on. Lost Highway really is a film that you have to see more than once just to get all the little details that you missed the first time around.


Henry, Michael. “The Moebius Strip.” Postif. November 21, 1997.

Pizzello, Stephen. "Highway to Hell." American Cinematographer. March 1997.

Rodley, Chris. Lynch on Lynch. Faber & Faber. 2005.

Strauss, Bob. “America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker Chases His Demons Down a Lost Highway.”

Szebin, Frederick; Biodrowski, Steve. "David Lynch on Lost Highway." Cinefantastique. Vol. 28 no. 10. April 1997.


  1. I love this film.

    I remember I was living in Los Angeles at the time that this film premiered. I could not get anyone to go and see it with me. Those critic reviews were brutal. I ended up seeing it on opening weekend in an almost empty theatre (me and like two other people). Very Lynch-esque.

    David Foster Wallace wrote a very famous piece on this film when he visited the set. I recommend it, J.D., if you haven't read it.

    I think, ultimately, Lynch had the last laugh, here. Most of the critcs who bashed him for Lost Highway hailed him as a genuius for utltilizing similiar artistic techiques in Mullholland Dr. and Inland Empire.

    Great writing as usual, J.D., and have a good weekend.

  2. True about having to see this one more than once. I pride myself in having a detailed and sense making explenation for Mullholand Drive, but I cant say the same for Lost Highway!

    To me, Lost Highway and Inland Empire are his two most incomprehensible films, but I love to watch them anyways. I always find something that does make some sense to me, but then bam! Lynch throws me another curve ball and I get lost. But it only happens with these two films.

    Sad to hear that Fire Walk With Me wasnt a hit, I personally dig that one though I find it to be one of his weirdest films...and most unsettling films. But thats precisely why I love them, because of the emotions they evoke in me while I watch them. Ultimately, I know that this is Lynchs purpose with his films, to make us film, something. Anything!

  3. A terrific film, and while it may not be entirely straightforward, after many viewings, the logic makes perfect sense (at least my own interpretation) I made my son watch this one and asked what he thought, he said "tense." which pleased me. As you pointed out those initial pauses in conversation set up the tension wonderfully and it carries all the way through. Pullman was brilliant, and Blake's character may be one of the creepiest enigmas on fim. Great review too. Your details definitely added to my appreciation of this film.

  4. I think it's one of Lynch's better films and definitely a mixture of his willingness to be experimental as well as being accessible in some parts.

    The soundtrack for me is one of my favorites as I'm a big NIN fan. That was the reason why I wanted to see the movie when it came out but never came to my local multiplex at the time.

  5. Great write-up, J.D. I love love love LOST HIGHWAY and consider it to be my favorite Lynch film. I wrote an 18-paragraph review of this two years ago but never posted it because I felt it was a bit too much and consisted of a lot of pretentious over-analyzing on my part. What I do love about this movie and MULHOLLAND DRIVE is that they could be about absolutely nothing, but there's enough there for people to interpret both films as whatever they want. Great conversation pieces.

  6. Hans A.:

    I also remember when this film came out and it missed or town so I had to travel 30 minutes or so out of my way to see it but it was worth it! It was in a tiny theater with a screen about the size of decent sized big screen TV but it still didn't diminish the impact of Lynch's film.

    I have read Wallace's set report on the making of the film, which had an odd vibe to it, not like the usual puff pieces.

    "I think, ultimately, Lynch had the last laugh, here. Most of the critcs who bashed him for Lost Highway hailed him as a genuius for utltilizing similiar artistic techiques in Mullholland Dr. and Inland Empire."

    Agreed! Well said, sir. thanks for stopping by!

    The Film Connoisseur:

    LOST HIGHWAY is a tricky film but I don't think any more so than MULHOLLAND DRIVE. INLAND EMPIRE is certainly his most dense and I really need to watch it again as I was mostly lost while watching it.

    As for FIRE WALK WITH ME, after BLUE VELVET, it is my fave Lynch film. In fact, on a given day, it is my fave but it all depends on my mood.

    I totally agree with you about how Lynch's films provoke an emotional reaction. Well said. That's why I dig 'em also.

    Brent Allard:

    I agree that upon several viewings you start to make sense of most of the film. It isn't just weird for weird sake that's for sure.

    Always liked Pullman and he is excellent in this film. An unusual casting choice but Lynch knew what he was doing.


    Yes, the soundtrack is awesome. A nice mix of bands like NIN with lounge-y stuff by Barry Adamson and even weird metal band Rammstein.


    Wow! Glad to hear that you're a big fan of this film! Thanks for the kind words. I really dig this film also and have found that it has improved greatly over time. I agree with you that one of things that makes LH so good is how much it is open to interpretation and debate. Every time I think I have it all figured out, there is something in the film that throw a monkey wrench into my theory!

  7. Saw this in Amsterdam at midnight. Perfect ambiance tho the film never gels for me. I'm sad for what Robert Blake could bring to films today givenm how memorable he is here.

  8. Fantastic piece, J.D. I love this film too, but have always felt, personally, that the movie just frustrates any definitive or near-definitive interpretation of its story. The idea that the second, younger character is the mental projection or fugue of the Bill Pullman character is convincing, but I always have the nagging feeling that that's not quite the whole story, and the looping structure contributes to the disquieting implications of the movie. Mobius strips indeed. It's a lot more head-twisting than Mulholland Dr. in that respect, never really allowing a comfortable interpretation that explains what's going on with any degree of certainty. I tend to just let it wash over me now, digging into all the thematic subtexts: sex and marriage, masculine insecurity, and so on.

    I love all the coded references to Kiss Me Deadly, too, another film I adore, and which Lynch is clearly riffing on at certain points here.

  9. christian:

    Wow, to see LH in Amesterdam! Perfect ambiance indeed!

    Ed Howard:

    Thanks, Ed! You are correct in saying that LH manages evade any definitive explanation or analysis, which is what keeps me coming back to this film. To see if another viewing will reveal some clue or hint at what it all means. But you're right, mostly I just let it wash over me and enjoy the ride.

    And yes, the references to KISS ME DEADLY are cool to see. Obviously, Lynch is a fan.

    Thanks for stopping by!