David Lynch’s 1997 neo-noir psychological thriller Lost Highway’s reputation as a box office failure hasn’t stopped it from becoming a cult classic, much in the vein of Lynch’s other films. Lynch playfully touted Siskel and Ebert’s two thumbs down rating on the film’s posters as “two more great reasons to see.”
Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a Los Angeles saxophonist whose life turns into a living nightmare after hearing a strange message on his home’s intercom: “Dick Laurent is dead.” He and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) start receiving videotapes in the mail, each more ominous than the last.
The two attend a party where Fred meets The Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who first appeared to Fred in a dream. Another tape arrives, showing Fred with Renee’s brutally murdered body. No doubt confused, flash to Fred in prison, swearing to police that he didn’t kill Renee. The tape serves as evidence enough of the crime.
After complaining to authorities of sleeplessness and headaches, prison wards find that Fred has been replaced in his cell by Pete Dayton (Balthazar Ghetty), a young auto mechanic who has not committed a crime.
Pete begins having his own weird run-ins with strangers, like as a bystander to a road rage murder committed by local thug Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). He begins an affair with Mr. Eddy’s girlfriend and porn actress, Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette), and commits murder himself before transforming back into Fred Madison.
The film plays out like an extended fever dream, making the plot at times difficult to follow. Fred Madison appears to be in the midst of psychogenic fugue, but that’s difficult to discern until near the end. Ignore the fact that you’re not quite sure what’s going on, ride the wave of chaos and be rewarded with a psychological thriller that’s subtly genius and off the wall.
Lost Highway is, even in its most seemingly innocent scenes, unsettling and perfumed with underlying anxiety. You wait with bated breath for the moment in which it all comes together, and that anxiety belongs to both you and the characters.
The first 20 minutes are slow, but undeniably tense as Lynch favors sparse dialogue and relies on Arquette and Pullman’s body language to convey their awkward, faintly unbalanced relationship. It’s important to note that Lynch never over tells the story. He demands that viewers pay close attention and engage in the plot on their own level.
Lynch fans will revel in the presence of all his usual quirks. There’s plenty of leather and the customary red velvet curtains. Plus, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to see Robert Blake in a pin-up wig and ghostly Kabuki makeup (which he came up with himself). It’s also the final film performances for Blake, Richard Pryor and Jack Nance, as well as Marilyn Manson’s acting debut.
Lost Highway serves as a wonderful companion to Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, and in many ways is more surreal and emotional than some of Lynch’s other films. Film buffs familiar with Lynch won’t be disappointed, and newbies looking to get acquainted with his work will likely leave feeling a little bit enchanted by his storytelling prowess. Lost Highway is absolutely worth a watch in a theater setting where you can let the darkness envelop you and truly find yourself engulfed in its originality.
Watch the trailer: