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LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

"I like to remember things my own way - the way I remember them - not necessarily the way they happened."
losthighwaya1.jpg (5732 bytes) Director: David Lynch

Starring: Patricia Arquette, Bill Pullman, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia

Screenplay: David Lynch and Barry Gifford

Synopsis: LA jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is unhappily married to Renee (Patricia Arquette), whom he suspects of infidelity, and worse. The couple begin receiving anonymous video tapes which are left outside their house. The first shows only the front of the house, but the second was shot inside, showing the couple asleep in their bedroom. The Madisons call the police, but they can do nothing.

At a party, Fred has a strange encounter with a man (Robert Blake) who claims that he is at Fred's house at that moment - and has Fred call him there to prove it. Shortly after this, Renee Madison is brutally murdered. Although he has no memory of the crime, Fred is convicted and sentenced to death. In jail, he begins to suffer severe head pains. One night, during an excruciating attack, Fred transforms into - or is replaced by - a different human being. When the guards check his cell the next morning, they find it occupied by Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young automechanic who has a head injury and no idea of how he came to be there.

The bewildered authorities are forced to let Pete go, and he returns to his home, his girlfriend, and his job at a local garage, where he maintains the many cars owned by a sinister man named Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia). When Mr Eddy brings in one of his cars for servicing, he is accompanied by a beautiful woman named Alice Wakefield, who bears a startling resemblance to the murdered Renee Madison....

Comments: David Lynch's Lost Highway is extraordinary both as a cinematic experience and as an act of professional courage. During the hiatus which followed the vindictive critical pillorying of Lynch's chilling Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), speculation was rife that this most idiosyncratic of modern film-makers may have been driven into relinquishing the twisted personal vision which had fuelled his film career. When his new project was finally announced, the casting of Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette seemed to confirm that Lynch had finally gone mainstream.

But the first five minutes of the completed film are sufficient to dispel any such ideas. Lost Highway is nothing less than a cinematic cry of damn the torpedoes. Far from compromising his vision, Lynch has produced a surreal, frightening, fragmented work closer in spirit to Eraserhead (1976) than to any of his later projects. This is a cold, disturbing film, filled with silences and darknesses more threatening than its moments of violence.

The sparseness of the screenplay and the film's deliberate pacing, particularly during the opening sequence, may make some viewers impatient, but in the emotional chasms between the characters lurks a genuine feeling of dread, while a mirror or a dark corridor suddenly becomes the most frightening thing in the world. In fact, the film as a whole is a salutary reminder that no-one can capture a nightmare on celluloid quite like David Lynch.

There are echoes of other films here, notably Vertigo (1958) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), but the one which is closest in spirit to Lost Highway - indeed, perhaps the only one which can be legitimately compared to it - is Polanski's Repulsion (1965). No other film I can think of comes close to rivalling Lost Highway in its ability to make the viewer feel as though they were trapped in someone else's mental breakdown. Ultimately, however, Repulsion distances itself from its beleaguered protagonist, and provides some perspective in the shape of "normal" characters. Lost Highway gives no such respite. Lynch's perverse sense of humour is given little rein here; the film is almost unrelentingly grim. We are not even granted the dubious comfort of one of Lynch's ambiguous happy endings. Rather, as we leave Fred Madison hurtling down his lost highway, there is a distinct feeling that there is nowhere for him to go but onto the next circle of hell.

So what is this film about? Frankly, your guess is as good as mine. It would be tempting to call Lost Highway an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a puzzle, but that would be grossly understating the case. In short, we're back in Lynchland, where the impossible becomes commonplace. Thus, we encounter a character who turns into another character; a character who is murdered, then reappears as someone else; a character who seems to have two simultaneous identities; and another character who may not exist at all.

All of this is grafted onto a plotline that pays homage to the conventions of film noir, with betrayed men and duplicitous women, evil deeds and double-crosses; but these factors are only the framework for what may be the most intense study of an individual's mental breakdown ever put on film. The line quoted above, spoken by Bill Pullman about fifteen minutes in, seems to be the only real hint offered for the unravelling of this mystery. Most if not all of what we see may well be subjective, the fractured vision of a desperately sick man conjuring new worlds when is unable to cope with the old, but finding no escape from his torment.

In saying this, I must stress that this is simply my opinion; definitive interpretation is impossible due to Lynch's refusal to signpost his movie. I suspect that in the end there will be as many theories as to what Lost Highway means as there are people who see it. This is a difficult, demanding film which requires multiple viewings to unearth the visual, verbal and aural clues embedded in its labyrinthine structure. Lynch himself has steadfastly refused to offer any explanation, stating that he hates "spoon-feeding" and likes his viewers to think for themselves (an attitude which probably explains his comparative unpopularity in his own country). In this respect, it must be said that few directors demand as much from their audience as David Lynch; fewer still give their audience as much credit.

Judging from their statements in various interviews, the cast members of Lost Highway have little more idea of what it's all about than its viewers. Interestingly, each of the actors has a different theory on the subject - which is different again from that of screenwriter Barry Gifford - making their well-documented enthusiasm for the material all the more remarkable. The three leading players give courageous performances in difficult roles. Special mention must go to Patricia Arquette, who is asked to embody two different faces of male sexual insecurity. (Arquette, who admits being talked into doing the film by husband Nicolas Cage, claims she did it to work out her personal hang-up about nudity [!!??]). Balthazar Getty is solid as the victimised Pete, while Bill Pullman, obviously relishing the chance to get down and dirty, is to be commended for taking this deliberate step away from a career path which was threatening to turn him into the Ralph Bellamy of the nineties. Best of all, though, is Robert Blake who, granted unusual artistic freedom, has responded by creating one of the most utterly creepy characterisations ever committed to film.

The supporting players are fabulous too, particularly Gary Busey and Lucy Butler as Pete Dayton's peculiar parents. Sadly, there is also the final screen appearance of Jack Nance, tragically killed only days before Lost Highway's premiere. On a technical level, the film is a brilliant integration of cinematography, editing, sound design and score. Long-time Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti is joined by Barry Adamson and Trent Reznor to provide a soundtrack which is so integral to the structure of the movie that it puts to shame the cynical collections of pop songs that pass for film scores these days. Lost Highway also has what may be the single most aptly chosen theme song in the history of motion pictures: David Bowie's "I'm Deranged".