Lost Highway (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Perhaps it's redundant to say that a David Lynch movie is weird (actually, "incomprehensible" might be a better word). Don't ask me to explain Lost Highway; I'm not sure I can. For that matter, don't ask Lynch, either. All he's willing to say is that it's "a 21st century noir horror film" and it's up to viewers to draw their own conclusions. Lost Highway is unusually bizarre even for this atypical director. Co-written by Barry Gifford, the film ventures deeper into the nearly psychotic supernatural than any feature Lynch has previous overseen. And, while not approaching the brilliant level attained by Blue Velvet, Lost Highway is an improvement over the film maker's most recent two outings, Wild at Heart (based on the novel by Gifford) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Compelling, creepy, pretentious, self-indulgent, frustrating -- all of these apply to Lost Highway. At times, this film seems like the effort of an exceptionally talented artist. On other occasions, it's more like the product of a hack. Lynch borrows heavily from his own past work without breaking much new ground. Lost Highway's unevenness is maddening. As for what's going on -- I'm not sure even Lynch knows what it all means. As far as I can tell, Lost Highway is a highly atmospheric horror/thriller that involves spontaneous, uncontrolled time travel, body snatching, and ghostly apparitions. Mostly, it's about the malleability of identity, and, as such, takes a few cues from Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Lost Highway opens by introducing us to Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), an affluent jazz musician with an upscale home and a gorgeous wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). But all is not well in this paradise. Fred and Renee are having trouble communicating and he's suspicious that she's having an affair. One morning, an unmarked videotape is left on the Madisons' doorstep. All it shows is a quick clip of the outside of the house. The next morning, there's another tape. This one is more sinister. Apparently shot from within the bedroom, it shows Fred and Renee peacefully asleep. Shortly thereafter, following a strange, dreamlike episode in which Fred wanders around in a dark nether-dimension, another tape arrives. This one depicts Fred murdering Renee.

Had the story remained fixed on this foundation, Lost Highway might have been a great film. Instead, it wanders off in another direction, so, while the beginning and end are strong, the middle hour, which seemingly has little to do with anything that went before it, is slow and meandering. The lead character for this segment, grungy auto mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) isn't as interesting as Fred. Plus, during this entire extended tangent, we're wondering how (or if) this is going to tie in with the more harrowing material that preceded it.

Questions of identity are central to Lost Highway. Are the male leads, played by different actors, actually the same character? Are the female leads, played by one actress, really different people? And how can one man be in two places at the same time, holding a phone conversation with himself? Of course, if you actually expect answers to any of these questions, you've made a mistake by looking for them in a Lynch film.

Patricia Arquette has developed into an actress with impressive range. She can play the female lead in a sweet romance (Infinity), a wacky comedy (Flirting with Disaster), or a bloody crime movie (True Romance). Here, her performance is modeled after the famous femme fatales of Hollywood's classic noir B-movies (albeit with a few "Lynchian" quirks). She plays two roles in Lost Highway (one blond and one brunette), and, in each of them, she's sexy, sultry, and shows a lot of skin.

Bill Pullman, who normally plays Mr. Nice Guy, is a solid choice for Lost Highway's most prominent role. Pullman's image works for the character, because we naturally want to like him even if we shouldn't. As Pete, the "second lead", Balthazar Getty (White Squall) is significantly weaker. There's nothing interesting about his performance, which gets lost in a sea of more impressive, less prominent turns. Two of the supporting actors are Robert Blake, who is suitably eerie as the Grim Reaper-like Mystery Man, and an over-the-top Robert Loggia, who portrays a tough gangster.

From a technical perspective, Lost Highway demands to be noticed. The juiced-up soundtrack keeps the audience in the movie (one time, a telephone ring was so loud and unexpected that I nearly jumped out of my seat). Some of the camerawork, with its distorted visuals and unconventional angles, seems showy and gratuitous, although there are times (such as the grainy, black-and-white videotape images) when it's effective.

When it comes to rating Lost Highway, the numerical scale seems inadequate. Some viewers will walk out of this film in disgust; others will praise it as a brilliant breath of fresh air. Such is always the polarization over Lynch's work. Personally, I kind of liked Lost Highway, but "liking" a David Lynch movie is much different from "liking" anything else. So, the bottom line is, if you're a Lynch fan or an aficionado of bizarre, offbeat cinema, give Lost Highway a shot. Everyone else will probably best be served by staying away.

Lost Highway (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1997-02-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1