Spooky Movies: Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway - Poster

Looking over the movies I’ve written about for Spooktober, one of the few commonalities I’ve noticed is that they owe a debt of influence to David Lynch. Mr. Jones, as I mentioned, borrows a lot from Lost Highway, while there are parts of The Midnight Swim that call back to Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. Now, Lynch is not a “horror” director in the strictest definition of the term, but his films and his paintings have always trafficked in the imagery of horror, and he’s been a potent influence on many over the years. What with it being the season of spooks and all, I feel it would be remiss if I didn’t talk about one of his movies.

I’m not sure I would call Lost Highway my favorite David Lynch movie, but it’s become the one I’ve watched the most. It got something of a critical drubbing on release, partly as a result of bad feelings toward Lynch regarding the outcome of Twin Peaks and the prequel movie Fire Walk With Me, but mostly from the difficulty of getting a grip on the text of Lost Highway itself. While all of Lynch’s movies are very symbolic and stylized, Lost Highway marked the beginning of Lynch’s heavy experimentation with the narrative of his films. It’s actually really hard to tell what actually happens in Lost Highway, which, considering the subject matter, is kind of the point.

Lost Highway begins in the morning, when jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) receives a message over his doorbell intercom informing him that “Dick Laurent is dead.” What follows for the next forty minutes is not so much a straight plot progression, but a series of events in the lives of Fred and his wife Renée (Patricia Arquette, brunette). While nothing “important” happens in that time, character is established, and mood is developed, a mood of seething, barely contained tension. Right off the bat it becomes clear that something is wrong with this couple. Renée is standoffish and distant, seemingly contemptuous of her husband. Fred seems to be permanently on edge. When he talks to his wife, his words teeter on the border between playfulness and accusation. At nights he wails on his saxophone at the club, his improvisations so loud and unfocused they sound more like screams. Suffice to say, their sex life is not great. Even their house seems off; most of it is shot such that you don’t have any clear idea of how the rooms connect, and the vast majority of it seems to be made up of yawning black voids.

In the course of events, the unhappy couple begin finding mysterious packages containing unlabeled videotapes on their front stairs. On these tapes and invisible cameraman watches their house, then begins to progress deeper inside in each new tape they find. Naturally, the police can do nothing. Fred and Renée try to clear their heads by going to a party hosted by Renée’s old friend Andy (Michael Massee, who, with his John Waters mustache, has a comfortable place on my top ten list of “Men Who Look Like Lizards”). Meanwhile, Fred has an encounter with a “Mystery Man” (Robert Blake in whiteface minus eyebrows), a demonic figure who claims to know Fred, claims to be in his house at the exact moment he is talking to Fred…then provides proof. When questioned by Fred, Andy calls the man a friend of Dick Laurent’s, whose name and current state provokes reactions of anxiety in both Fred and Andy. Fred and Renée make their way home, but the voids seem to have consumed the interior entirely, and the two wander through the blackness searching for each other.

The next morning, Fred finds another videotape on the front step. Watching it, he sees himself in his bedroom, caked in blood, kneeling over Renée’s dismembered corpse. He calls for her…

…and then he’s in a police interrogation room, and from there into a prison cell on death row.

What follows gets, well, pretty strange. For the next ten minutes Fred sits around in prison, afflicted by these seeming inexplicable migraines. Matters come to head one night, when after a very abstract sequence of events, Fred…isn’t Fred anymore. In his place, in his cell, in his very clothes, is a young mechanic named Pete Dayton (Balthasar Getty), who has no memory of how he got there.

(Incidentally, the scenes following Pete’s appearance are a masterpiece of concision. Most movies would load it down with a whole lot of talking about what just happened and how impossible, but here all Lynch gives us is four short scenes that tell us all we need to know: the guard discovering Pete on his rounds, the guard informing the captain, the captain discovering who Pete is, and the meeting with Pete’s parents which is done without any dialogue at all!)

From here, Pete settles back into his life, and all things considered it’s a pretty good one. He’s young, he’s got a solid job working at a garage, he’s got a bunch of friends, including his girlfriend Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner), who just adores him. The only gray cloud on the horizon is local gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), for whom Pete has become the mechanic of choice. (Rather stranger is the fact that the cops call Mr. Eddy “Dick Laurent,” a man who is dead, right?) Pete’s life soon gets more complicated when he encounters Mr. Eddy’s girl Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette, again), a platinum blonde vamp who draws Pete into an affair, resulting in Pete’s life transforming into a noir movie with dangerous gangsters, blonde sirens, and plans to escape forever “if we could just get some money.”

Now, since I saw Mulholland Drive before Lost Highway, I came into Lost Highway understanding a bit of what was going on. Fred Madison himself gives the game away halfway through the first part of the movie, when he explains to the police that he doesn’t like video cameras because “I want to remember things my own way…how I remember them, not necessarily how the way they happened.” For me, Lost Highway is a deeply subjective movie about a man who murdered his wife and is spending increasingly more mental effort trying to deny that fact. Because there are very few signposts, and none that are unambiguously objective, literally everything in the movie is up for grabs. Everything in the movie is what Fred sees…and he’s lying to you, and to himself, the whole time.

Now, some parts are easier to parse than others. Personally, I read the initial scenes with Fred and Renée as a basic fantasy, a simple denial that his wife is dead. Naturally, that doesn’t work, so Fred goes one step further and forges a new world and a series of personas to use. He gets to be Pete, a young innocent filled with naivety and vigor. He gets Sheila, a younger, idealized version of Renée who loves him, and all his aggression is lumped in the persona of Mr. Eddy. But as this fantasy world denies Fred’s feelings towards Renée, she comes back in the form of Alice Wakefield, a woman who does not represent Renée so much as Fred’s obsessive lust for her, and she slowly tears his fantasy world apart.

That brings up an interesting little point not many reviewers have noted: we never meet Renée. While we see a lot of implications in the movie that she slept with lowlifes and did a lot of porn, all this is in a story told from Fred’s perspective…and he’s a vengeful sexual obsessive who would believe something like that about his wife. The portrait the movie paints of Fred is of a man so deep in denial and repression that nothing he says can be trusted. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that everything we see of Renée is just Fred’s thoughts bouncing off the inside of his head, cycling around again. Even the very end of the movie, which some critics have cited as an explanation, feels to me like little more that more self-cannibalization, as Fred gathers himself back together before concocting another plan to forget what he did to his wife.

And we all know what the definition of insanity is, don’t we?

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2 Responses to Spooky Movies: Lost Highway (1997)

  1. Orion says:


    I was a big fan of your writings from Ferretbrain. The website disappeared a few weeks ago and I haven’t been able to find out anything about what happened or if it’s coming back. Can you tell me anything about the situation?


    • Alasdair says:

      Sadly, I don’t know any more about the situation that you do. Given how the site went down exactly like this last year, it might be a case of someone forgetting to pay a bill. I’ve got one of Kyra’s email addresses on file, so I’ll let her know, but I don’t know if that account is still in use.

      Worst comes to worst, I can at least get all my stuff posted on this blog, but that doesn’t help everyone else. I’ve even tried looking on the Internet Archive to see if the site was backed up, but they have nothing archived.

      Sorry I can’t be more help.


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