Review: Lost Highway (1997)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #746

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: February 21, 1997
Sub-Genre: Noir/Mystery
Country of Origin: France, United States
Budget: $15,000,000
Box Office: $3,700,000 (North America)
Running Time: 134 minutes
Director: David Lynch
Producers: Mary Sweeney, Tom Sternberg, Deepak Nayar
Screenplay: David Lynch, Barry Gifford
Special Effects: Gary D’Amico
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Score: Angelo Badalamenti
Editing: Mary Sweeney
Studios: Ciby 2000, Asymmetrical Productions
Distributor: October Films
Stars: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Loggia, Robert Blake, Gary Busey, Lucy Butler, Michael Massee, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Richard Pryor, John Roselius, Louis Eppolito, Jack Nance, Scott Coffey, Al Garrett, Giovanni Ribisi, Henry Rollins

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Smashing Pumpkins “Eye”

[2] Angelo Badalamenti “Red Bats With Teeth”

[3] Barry Adamson “Something Wicked This Way Comes”

[4] Trent Reznor “Driver Down”

[5] David Bowie “I’m Deranged”

Have you ever felt uncertain about yourself and your place in society? The term “identity crisis” was coined by psychologist Erik Erikson as a definition for the failure to achieve ego identity during adolescence. According to his studies, it is during this stage of a person’s development that self-image is formed and depends on a number of factors. A critical one is childhood as it is here that trust, autonomy, and initiative are hardwired. Another is the dreaded puberty as it is here that the body begins to undergo significant changes and those pesky hormones start to run rampant. Somehow we’re expected to navigate this mindfield, find ourselves, and eventually break free from our chrysalis with a true sense of identity. Succeed and we’re equipped to face adulthood with confidence and certainty. Fail to solve this puzzle in the allotted time and it’ll crop back up in due course, don’t you worry about that.

I hadn’t the faintest clue about my own personal identity when coming of age and it took most of my teenage years to even begin to decipher. At sixteen-years-old, I was promptly spat out of the educational system, none the wiser as to who I wanted to be or indeed who I actually was. The only visible signposts read of other people’s expectations and how they expected them lived up to. But what about me? Did free choice not figure into the equation? Desperate not to disappoint, I assumed the identity I believed others would’ve chosen for me and threw all of my eggs in this basket. But it all felt so impersonal. That’s where the late thirties come in handy as, sooner or later, the question is bound to crop up once more. Who the hell am I? In my mid-forties, I finally have an idea of the answer. Took fucking long enough.

Los Angeles jazz saxophonist, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), is currently suffering his own crisis of identity and, if he thinks it’s a head fuck now, then he really doesn’t know the half of it. On the surface his life appears reasonably happy and, his relationship with wife Renée (Patricia Arquette), at the very least functional. If nothing else, the sex is great.

Granted, there may be the odd red flag like VHS tapes mysteriously showing up on their front porch containing footage of the outside of their happy home or Renée’s face suddenly resembling that of a pale man while making marital whoopee, but it’s probably down to a lack of sleep or burning the candle at both ends. Nothing to worry about.

Or at least until Fred’s friend Andy throws a party that is. By this point, Fred’s more than a little spooked. You see, more tapes have shown up since, only this time the footage has been captured inside their house and there are even shots of the couple asleep in their bed.

Probably not a good time for a strange pale-faced fellow to approach Fred and introduce himself. It’s not the fact that this Mystery Man (Robert Blake) claims they’ve met previously that rattles his cage so. It’s when he announces that he’s at Fred’s house at this very moment and suggests Fred tries the house phone if he doesn’t believe him, that the mood suddenly changes dramatically.

Of course, Fred knows how ludicrous a suggestion this is and promptly calls the Mystery Man’s bluff. However, it’s evidently no bluff when the phone picks up and it’s the same Mystery Man at the other end of the line as the one standing right before him, grinning dementedly. Understandably, Fred is quick to make his excuses and he and Renée return home. The next morning, yet another tape arrives unannounced, only this time showing him standing over his wife’s dismembered body like a man who very much did the crime.

After being sentenced to death for her murder, poor Fred is left cooped up in his poky cell, with no recollection of the atrocity he is being charged for and plagued by nightmarish visions of the Mystery Man, a burning desert cabin and a long secluded stretch of lost highway.

If you think Fred’s head is spinning, then imagine how the prison guards feel when they open his cell the very next morning and are greeted by fresh-faced auto-mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). It’s as though he simply ceased to exist and, with no justifiable reason to hold the young man, they are forced to release him from custody. Naturally, Pete is also a little perturbed about how he wound up incarcerated with absolutely no clue how he got there. But the best course of action appears to be chalking it down to experience and attempting to get on with his life.

This means returning to the garage where he works and getting his head down and it’s all going well until local hot-shot gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) turns up and requests that he fix his Cadillac. That nice Mr. Eddy clearly has a soft spot for Pete but not as soft as his drop dead gorgeous mistress, Alice.

She takes an instant shine to the young mechanic and the feeling is 100% mutual, so they act on these wild impulses and enter into a rather dicey affair. Should Mr. Eddy cotton on to their deception, then the repercussions for both will be catastrophic and, needless to say, it isn’t long before he begins to grow mighty suspicious like a mightily well-connected man of his stature would. Speaking of queer, is it just me or does Alice look strangely familiar to you?

Mystery, deception and outright befuddlement – these three are in constant cahoots for David Lynch’s Lost Highway and those unfamiliar with his surreal form of storytelling would do well not to sample this as their gateway drug. It’s one long 134 minute fever dream with a non-linear plot that has no intention of throwing its audience scraps. However, there is absolutely method amidst all this madness and repeat views may well help you decipher its complex puzzle. Like all of Lynch’s more fantastical work, one person’s version of events will vary spectacularly from the next, and the fact that it crawls beneath the skin so effortlessly means that you’ll likely have little choice but to try and come up with something, if only to salvage your last slither of sanity. So here’s my take on events.

Schizophrenia. We open with Fred and everything appears to make some vague form of narrative sense until his hinges finally slacken in his cell. At this point, his identity becomes compromised. Both Pete and the Mystery Man already exist in his mind but needed to be aligned to keep things stable. The long stretch of lost highway from both the opening and closing shots is our entrance to and exit from Fred’s head space. Everything we are seeing feels real because it’s real to Fred.

Whether any of it is happening in reality seems irrelevant. We’re here to share in his nightmare and each of his three personas ultimately leads us back to the very same spot. Pete is his teenage self, the part who failed to achieve ego identity during adolescence. As for the elusive Mystery Man, he represents the dark side of Fred’s psyche. The side that will suggest the unthinkable. All of this is just wild speculation of course and, for a definitive answer, I reckon I’d have to collar Lynch himself.

Some have criticized Lost Highway for ultimately leading nowhere and dismissed it as little more than a self-serving vanity project on his part, a whole lot of style but with precious little in the way of substance. I agree with the leading nowhere part to a degree, but the journey we undertake to reach nowhere is positively drenched in intrigue and he seldom slackens the reins on our consternation throughout, while simultaneously encouraging the kind of disengagement you’d experience when conscious that you’re dreaming. As for leading nowhere, well that’s kind of the point don’t you think? That long, dark stretch of lost highway still occasionally pops up in my head now as I lay down to sleep. Without even being conscious of it, I’ve been clocking up the miles against my will. Few filmmakers can achieve this as surreptitiously as Lynch. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a phone call to make. Please don’t pick up.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: I’ll never forget a party I attended once, where a six-year-old girl ignored her parents’ advice not to run in the lounge and tumbled head first onto the business end of a cocktail table to fashion a shiny new blowhole in her cranium. I’ve never seen as much blood produced from such a miniscule wound, although the hospital patched her up pretty good and there was mercifully no permanent damage. Not sure we can say the same about this poor guy.

For the Pelt-Nuzzlers: If you’re like me and find Patricia Arquette a sight for the sorest of eyes, then prepare for those peepers to cross over as she’s the gift that just keeps on giving here. 

Read Mulholland Drive Appraisal

Read Wild At Heart Appraisal

Read The Serpent & The Rainbow Appraisal

Read Split Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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