Film Reviews:

Lost Highway

(David Lynch, US, 1996)

David Lynch's films are always more about bizarre, frightening imagery than straight forward storytelling. Lost Highway pushes this tendency to its extreme, and may well be Lynch's weirdest movie ever. Always an all-American surrealist, for his latest film the director takes two hackneyed film noir plots, and mixes them together, until neither makes any logical sense. Sometimes frustrating, this approach is often revelatory, as if fracturing the structure of two dusty 40's noirs has allowed the evil symbolised by them to break free through their shattered cracks.

Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a saxophonist who lives with his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette.) Renee finds a videotape left on the front steps of their house: it shows video camera footage of their front door. The next day, a second tape appears. This one goes further, the camera entering the house, and hovering over the couple as they sleep. Unnerved, the Madisons call the police, who promise to help. Going to a party, Fred becomes suspicious that his wife has become involved with another man. While brooding, he meets the strange, white faced Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who seems to possess supernatural powers. Arriving home, Fred searches for the Mystery Man, convinced he has somehow got into the house. Later, while watching one of the grainy videotapes, Fred sees the picture change, to show Renee's brutal murder. Madison is sentenced to the electric chair, but while on death row, he transforms into another man, auto mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). Pete is released, and the film follows him into a completely different story. The mechanic makes the likely fatal mistake of becoming involved with Alice Wakefield (also Arquette, but now blonde instead of brunette) the glamorous girlfriend of the local mob boss Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). As this second story progresses, elements of the first story begin to appear.

Although Lost Highway's two stories eventually bleed into each other, with characters from the first story replacing those from the second, there is never anything approaching a logical explanation. This is no Pulp Fiction, that can be easily reassembled to make a straightforward story. Lost Highway is infinitely more fractured than that. Lynch seems to have little interest in the flat, over familiar characters and situations, which ultimately lead nowhere. The violent gangster Mr Eddy is little more than a stereotype. When he pistol whips a man's head to a bloody mess, there is no shock. This is exactly what is expected of such a character. Similarly, it is no surprise that the femme fatale callously uses her sexuality to lure an innocent man into crime. Such stock scenes are sometimes too long, but they allow Lynch to slide the film into a surreal dream world, without the change being immediately obvious. Instead, the very familiarity of the film lulls the brain into switching off, as it seems obvious what will happen next. When the story begins to go askew, it is like drifting slowly asleep while watching a detective movie, only to be seized by a cataclysmic nightmare.

The soundtrack greatly adds to Lost Highway's creation of a receptive, almost trance state. Whether it is the slurred, demonic yells of Marilyn Manson, or the clear, fragile voice of Liz Fraser, the music is invariably chosen with such skill that it combines with the images to create something simultaneously erotic, frightening, and somnambulant. Peter Deming's cinematography is also highly effective. Dark, oppressive shadows often dominate the screen so strongly that they have more presence than the characters; while colour is added through blue rippling reflections of a swimming pool, thrown onto a white stucco house, or by blazing red palm trees, lit up by the setting sun. The range of saturated colours and claustrophobic darkness is similar to the films of Dario Argento, and Lost Highway shares Argento's most common themes: a seemingly logical crime story that becomes subsumed by horror and violent deaths that are revealed as still tableaux. The Mystery Man is one of Lynch's scariest characters, his hideous smile and dark eyes eclipsing even the weirdest characters from Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet. His presence incarnates the unease created by the rest of the film in a human figure. Lost Highway is impossible to forget, and is one of the few truly terrifying films to have been made in the last decade. It's well worthwhile succumbing to its evil charms.

Adrian Horrocks