David Lynch’s time-warped neo-noir thriller screens in a new 4K restoration at UW Cinematheque on September 2.
“Dick Laurent is dead.” The first words spoken in Lost Highway emanate from an anonymous distorted male voice on the front-door intercom of an ultramodern house in the Hollywood Hills, where an avant-garde jazz saxophonist named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) lives with his aloof brunette wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). Disheveled and lost in thought, Fred walks over to the house’s only large window and looks down, but no one appears to be there.
This sets the mood for David Lynch’s first feature-length film since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), inspired by a phrase that appears in Barry Gifford’s novel Night People. (Gifford also wrote the book Wild At Heart, on which Lynch’s 1990 film of the same name is based.) Struck by the words “lost highway,” the director proposed co-writing a screenplay with Gifford unrelated to his novel.
Gifford describes Lost Highway as “a moving portrait.” The film is at once an abstract, fractured character study, a multilayered descent into one man’s personal hell, an apocalyptic vision of the criminal underworld, and a powerfully mesmerizing sensory experience. Lost Highway shifts Lynch’s penchant for oblique storytelling and free-form visual experimentation into overdrive.
UW Cinematheque will screen a new 4K DCP restoration of Lynch’s surrealist neo-noir horror thriller on Friday, September 2 at 7 p.m. Buckle up for a wild ride through the phantasmagorical psychic landscape of a tormented individual who is evidently undergoing an acute identity crisis.
The first section of the film feels like a waking nightmare as Lynch depicts the sterile surfaces of Fred and Renee’s suburban domestic existence. Lynch cultivates a pervasive sense of gloom in the stark interior of their home, emphasizing the palpable tension between them with prolonged silences, deep rumbling sounds, and cold, strangely clipped dialogue. Enveloped in deep reds and blacks with a disorienting layout and seemingly endless dark corridors, the house itself assumes a vaguely ominous, otherworldly quality. One night, Fred goes out to a jazz club with his saxophone in hand and Renee stays at home—ostensibly to read. Consumed by paranoia, jealousy, and fear of infidelity, he performs a frenzied, discordant solo onstage. Fred phones her from the club, but she does not answer. When he returns home later, he merely finds her asleep in bed.
The next morning, a mysterious videotape arrives in an unmarked manila envelope on their doorstep. Fred and Renee watch it together—a brief capture of their house’s exterior with an abrupt cut to static. That evening, Fred and Renee mechanically engage in a dispassionate, humiliating, and incomplete act of intimacy. As Fred recounts a dream in which Renee was calling for him, Lynch’s camera glides down a hallway to their bedroom past red curtains. It’s a visual motif that instantly recalls the Red Room of Twin Peaks, an extradimensional place that apparently lies beyond space and time on the outer edges of human consciousness and reality.
Yet another cassette appears on their doorstep, and again they watch it together. This time it shows footage of the couple sleeping in their bed, prompting Renee to call the police. A pair of plainclothes detectives visit them but find no evidence of anyone breaking into their house. When the cops ask if they own a video camera, Renee replies, “Fred hates them.” The detectives look at Fred inquiringly as he adds, “I like to remember things my own way…How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened.”
About 45 minutes into the film, Lynch suddenly shifts gears to present other vividly realized characters. They include naïve young auto mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who inexplicably becomes the protagonist of the film, as well as Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), a loud-mouthed, violent gangster who cannot tolerate tailgating, and his enigmatic platinum blonde girlfriend, Alice Wakefield (also Patricia Arquette).
Lost Highway provocatively incorporates several variations on classic film noir tropes. Alice immediately seduces Pete, placing both of their lives in mortal danger and entangling him in a sordid web of deception, lust, and illicit pornography. She ultimately manipulates him into helping her commit an easy robbery at the house of an underground porn director named Andy (Michael Massee).
As Lynch intricately weaves together these parallel narrative threads, Lost Highway unfolds in a deliriously dreamlike succession of grotesque yet painterly tableaux, richly evocative soundscapes, and volatile atmospheres. Lynch’s film daringly warps time, space, and identity, while gradually erasing the boundaries between the inner life of its subject and the cruel world outside his head.
With its complex, paradoxically looped narrative structure, full-throttle visual style, electrifying performances, and inspired juxtaposition of beauty and terror, Lost Highway is quintessential Lynch. The film paved the way for his similarly audacious and challenging later features Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006), both of which traffic in dual identities, nonlinearity, elliptical plots, and what the artist calls “the absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence.”
In terms of understanding the developing story, Lost Highway certainly feels like one of Lynch’s most difficult and impenetrable movies. The director’s reluctance to interpret his own films may make him seem like an obscurantist who just wants to confound audiences. However, in discussing the film with Chris Rodley in his interview book Lynch On Lynch, he elaborates on his singular approach to storytelling:
It needs to be a certain way, and it’s not to confound, it’s to feel the mystery. Mystery is good, confusion is bad, and there’s a big difference between the two. I don’t like talking about things too much because, unless you’re a poet, when you talk about it, a big thing becomes smaller. But the clues are all there for a correct interpretation, and I keep saying that, in a lot of ways, it’s a straight-ahead story. There are only a few things that are a hair off.