“I like to remember things my own way”
Every cinephile has a moment when “the movies” became more than entertainment. Mine was David Lynch‘s Lost Highway. It was my first foray into the auteur’s catalog—a viewing that occurred three or four years after its initial release courtesy of a rented VHS cassette tape. My experience with film as an art form had progressed beyond usual action or comedy reprieves from real life challenges, but no indie drama yet seen had quite the same unparalleled effect in its dementedly surreal aesthetic, uniquely stylistic narrative progression, or sense of dream-state versus waking reality. There was a pure, visceral darkness at the core of this work, an unsettling layer of artifice as resonate and relatable as it was unpredictably raw in its nightmarish vision of the human psyche.
Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford (source novelist of Lynch’s Wild at Heart) deliver a puzzle box altering the notion of linear events and existence itself—at least as we’ve come to define it in the physical world. Whether you believe all but a few minutes at the start is dream (jealousy and rage taking control of Bill Pullman‘s Fred Madison to lead him over the edge of sanity) or the whole a metaphorical manifestation of guilt and suffering (Fred literally transforming into Balthazar Getty‘s Pete Dayton in order to imperfectly cope with his crime through repression before watching as the cracks of its façade force him back to the surface), the journey will seep into your every pore as its animalistic fire consumes your every gasp for oxygen.
It proves a sort of antithesis to Citizen Kane, its “Dick Laurent is dead” a haunting bookend of dialogue that describes the chaos of Hell where “Rosebud” had provided a hope for salvation. Rather than spend time reminiscing with Kane’s old associates to understand the latter word’s meaning, however, Lost Highway takes us on a journey into the center of Fred’s psychosis. That cryptic line whispered into an intercom is a trigger of sorts, a coded password opening up a part of Madison that he hadn’t yet let take control. The jealousy he holds where it concerns his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is obvious; the anger it conjures bubbling over until the violent physicality of his latest saxophone performance transforms his capacity for intellectual cognition to emotional unrest.
Dream merges with reality until one becomes transposed above the other. A nightmare of “someone who looks like Renee but isn’t” screaming as a predator lunges holds more than simple foreshadowed meaning when the imagery might be reversed depending on your interpretation of the whole—the attack proving a rare moment of truth with Fred’s recollection of the experience being a byproduct of his inability to accept what he’s done. The same can be said about the voyeuristic videotapes showing up at the Madisons’ door. On the surface they ignite paranoia and disquieting anxiety, both leading Fred to fracture his psyche further until his malicious intent takes on physical form (Robert Blake‘s iconic Mystery Man). Reality, however, assumes those tapes as pornography: the smoking gun shattering Fred’s life.
To reference Lynch’s oeuvre, this film is the Black Lodge incarnate. Beyond the red curtain motif is the idea of transformation—one person becoming another without recollection. This isn’t the Mystery Man as BOB, though. He’s simply a chronicler capturing what happens so Fred can be reminded of his own evil deeds. The corruption rests inside Fred himself, its capacity to be unleashed within us all. Some have the strength to combat it and be better than baser instincts presume. But others fall pray to its power, the momentary satisfaction of releasing pent-up hate enough to leave sanity behind. This is a horrific “snap” devoid of all reason—where truth becomes so impossible we’d rather believe we were someone else completely than confront our devastating and irrevocable destruction.
So while we receive two disparate stories, they’re in fact one and the same. It’s no coincidence that Andy (Michael Massee) appears in both as “friend” to Arquette or a mistake when police detectives Al (John Roselius) and Ed (Louis Eppolito) arrive at crime scenes in both. Because just as Fred becomes victim to his love for Renee (brunette Arquette), so too does Pete for Alice Wakefield (blonde Arquette). The former tempers his devotion to his paramour with his music while the latter becomes lost in her sex despite a girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner‘s Sheila) back home. When one woman dies, the other is created like the men via metaphor. Unable to accept the fate wrought by his own hands, Fred metamorphosizes into Pete to manufacture a reprieve.
But as we soon realize, the “lost highway” ensnaring Fred is an infinite loop. There’s no escaping what’s happened. The Mystery Man always returns—a supernatural entity above the laws of physics or proof that we’re watching nightmare—to remind him what’s real and what isn’t. He’s a “friend” of Dick Laurent: the unknown specter of cruelty somehow hovering above every action onscreen. Could Laurent be a figment of Fred’s imagination too? A man in the shadows playing puppet master with strings affixed to Renee as played by Robert Loggia (himself known as Mr. Eddy to Pete’s young mechanic)? Go even further down this rabbit hole and the name might reveal the film’s true lead. Dick Laurent is dead and only Fred Madison and Pete Dayton remain.
The possibilities for interpretation are endless and Lynch has never shown interest in revealing his personal intent. Instead he amplifies the darkness to place us in a receptive frame of mind for its puzzle of violence, sex, and death. There’s the pulsing score from Angelo Badalamenti with help from Trent Reznor and haunting voices of despair in David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, and Rammstein. There’s the ghoulish high-speed identity transformations as shown via convulsion, the mesmerizing metronome of imagery as headlights illuminate one street dash after another, and Blake’s giggling white-face permeating your nightmares as only a manifestation of Lynch madness can. And like the recurring sight of an exploding cabin in reverse alludes, the film proves to be about failing to repair what’s already been long torn apart.
We’re watching a film about the remnants of jealousies and greed—the aftermath of our acting upon our worst selves for unsustainable gratification. It’s about how we blindly live our lives by lying to everyone (ourselves included) just to keep going. We create whatever artificial layer of existence needed to survive the horrors flowing underneath us, the underbelly of terror and evil always closer than we pretend because we trick ourselves into keeping it at arm’s length from birth. Fred Madison’s is a life wherein he cannot even trust himself. Memories become imperfect by choice, our communally selective recollections riddled with holes so that we don’t all suddenly start killing each other for petty vengeances. We accept madness because the pain of sanity is too much to bear.
This is our reality. We aren’t immune to heinous acts of torture or unspeakable atrocities merely because we live in a suburban utopia of smoke and mirrors buckling under the weight of idyllic fantasy. Man is sinful, flawed, and selfish. This goes for those doing wrong and those doing more wrong to balance the scales. At the end of the day, though, we also still have a soul—a conscience. That’s what we must strive to conquer—not the law. Whether we’re free to act upon our impulses or locked in a cage, the mark of what we’ve done never gets washed away. We continue running faster and faster as the thing that chases us grows smaller in the distance but refuses to disappear. You simply cannot escape yourself.