Note: This conversation will spoil Lost Highway.
Rob: Welcome back to Weird on Top, your biweekly David Lynch bonanza. I’m Rob DiCristino.
Alejandra: And I’m Alejandra Gonzalez.
Rob: This week, we’re looking at Lost Highway, Lynch’s 1997 neo-noir co-written with Wild at Heart novelist Barry Gifford. Lost Highway is...complicated. It stars Bill Pullman as Fred Madison, a night club saxophonist who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). One day, Fred receives a strange message on his intercom: “Dick Laurent is dead.” Fred doesn’t know Dick Laurent or why he died, and things get even stranger when he and Renee begin receiving grainy footage of their home on unmarked VHS tapes. This triggers a series of bizarre dreams, including one in which Fred sees his wife as The Mystery Man (the unfortunately-in-this-movie Robert Blake), a pale, semi-human being whose harassment culminates in a video of Fred killing and eating Renee. Fred is then sent to prison for her murder.
Lost Highway is ALSO about Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young auto mechanic who wakes up in Fred’s cell with no memory of how he got there. Having zero clue who he is or any logical reason to hold him, the prison releases Pete into the custody of his parents (Gary Busey and Lucy Butler) and girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner). He soon returns to work (for Arnie, awesomely and randomly played by Richard Pryor) and attracts the attention of local gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). Mr. Eddy admires Pete’s skill with a wrench, and Pete admires Mr. Eddy’s mistress, Alice Wakefield (also Arquette). Wrapped up in a dangerous affair and hoping to score enough cash to escape Mr. Eddy’s grasp, Pete and Alice hatch a scheme to rob local party boy Andy (Michael Massee) and skip town. It does not go well.
Ale, since your boy Trent Reznor produced Lost Highway’s soundtrack, I have no choice but to let you begin with your thoughts on the film.
So, Lost Highway — a cold, abysmal nightmare that has been unanimously deemed a rough draft to Lynch’s magnum opus, Mulholland Drive. Lost Highway gets a lot of mixed criticism, often being judged for being frigid and lacking humanity of any sort. All of the characters are pretty unlikeable, and I do agree that when being compared to Mulholland Drive, it lacks the melancholic, yearning kind of emptiness that the latter achieves and just feels pretty hollow. In the same vein, I think that’s what draws me to it so much. I think it captures the feeling of nothingness and resentment that comes with being so dissatisfied in life and in one’s relationships extremely well. I’ll expand shortly, but first I want to know how you feel about Lost Highway.
Rob: I think we’re pretty close on this one. I’ll just be honest here and say that Lost Highway is a tough sit. We talked about Eraserhead being a headache and something we appreciate more than we actually like, and (for me) Lost Highway probably fits more into that category than anything else in Lynch’s catalog. It’s angry and claustrophobic; it it has a ‘90s energy that hasn’t aged all that well. This makes sense, like you said: As the lore goes, Lynch was frustrated in his personal and professional relationships and anxious to make a statement after the critical dismissal of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (his last theatrical release). He’s at a pivot point in his career, and he’s searching for something. That comes across loud and clear. I mean, I like the movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s absolutely a journey into the soul of a man at an emotional crossroads. He’s on his back foot, and it shows.
That being said, Lost Highway sports some incredible performances, most notably from Patricia Arquette in her double role. She’s an absolutely captivating femme fatale, sexy and severe enough to sell the mystery/noir tone, but accessible and human enough to empathize with in the more chaotic moments. You can really tell how game she is to work with Lynch and how much ownership she’s willing to take over such a bizarre and challenging story. Pullman and Getty are solid, and there’s a weirdy-normal Gary Busey performance, to boot! It’s so satisfying to see big-name actors play bit parts just because they want to act for David Lynch.
Blue Velvet, down to the exact color of the walls. Am I reaching?
Rob: Not at all. It’s definitely a pretty consistent Lynch motif, but I didn’t even pick up on this similarity with Blue Velvet until you showed me. It’s pretty remarkable.
Alejandra: Which leads me to what I am most excited to talk about — one of the best film soundtracks of all time, and a hill I am willing to die on. Imagining Trent and Lynch working on this together fills me with all the warmth that this movie is supposed to lack. I love that Lost Highway went with something more industrial leaning with its music, and I’m pretty sure it was just a product of the decade but it works unbelievably well. I’ve always described bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson to be cold and metallic sounding (I mean that in the best way), so it perfectly compliments how this movie feels. Funny enough, my favorite song on the soundtrack isn’t even a Nine Inch Nails song, and is actually the Smashing Pumpkins song. What’s yours?
Rob: While I’m not as high on this style of music as you are, I definitely agree that it suits and energizes Lost Highway in a unique way. I’m a pretty big fan of Manson’s “I Put a Spell On You” cover.
Alejandra: Also, This soundtrack is so different from the jazzy and ambiently dreamy sounds of Lynch’s previous work and it makes perfect sense. Everything he made before this was a nightmare wrapped up in a dream’s clothing— the whimsical sights of an immaculate small town that were much darker under the surface. Lost Highway never does that, and it is a total icy nightmare from the get go.
Two other Mulholland Drive analogs are found in the characters and structure. Lynch often personifies Chaos or Fate with an idiosyncratic jester type (think The Man Behind Winky’s or The Man From Another Place), a character who guides the lead along their path to enlightenment or ruin. Here, we have one of his most effective examples: Robert Blake’s Mystery Man, a creature who seems to be alternately stalking and supporting Fred. The Mystery Man can be in two places at once, which (aside from being creepy as hell) seems to foreshadow the reveal of Fred being the one on the intercom saying “Dick Laurent is dead” to himself. There’s the structural curiosity. The term “Mobius strip” is thrown around a lot in discourse about Lost Highway, and it’s a fairly accurate description. Trouble is — and this is the thing I’ve already said I love most about Lynch’s work — the explanation is rarely the reward. Things don’t exactly coalesce into a logical structure at the end, so there’s still a ton open to interpretation.
Alejandra: Absolutely! I used to watch hours upon hours of videos trying to analyze Lynch’s work but it mainly frustrated me and tainted my experience watching his stuff. To me, Lost Highway is actually pretty straight forward when we strip it of...mostly everything. We talked about this with Blue Velvet! The movie is about a man so unfulfilled in his life and his relationship that it builds such an intense resentment which festers until he does something unspeakable. The second half of the film, where we are with Pete, is a dissociative fantasy of Fred’s and it reminds me even more of Blue Velvet in that way. The problems that Pete faces can be taken as Fred’s insecurities permeating his fantasies, as they are so deep rooted that they become inescapable.
Rob: With such complex and thoughtful storytelling, I’m left to wonder what it is about Lost Highway that I find so grating and unsatisfying. It’s a classic Lynch mind-fuck, for sure, but so are Fire Walk with Me and Mulholland Drive. That’s not what it is. I think it might be that — for all the dirty, dirty sex — there’s not a ton of love. It’s a movie about denial and paranoia made by someone who was clearly resentful and distrusting of his fellow humans at that point in his life. There’s a jarring coldness to the whole thing that makes me feel like I’m not wanted, that the movie is angry at me and I just have to sit and take it. And again, that’s not really a technical strike against Lost Highway. Lynch is working something out through his art, something very specific, and sometimes you have to be in the right headspace to connect with it.
Rob: I think that’s great! Some things are best left felt about rather than thought about. I’ll keep revisiting it, certainly, and maybe I’ll grow more attached to it as time goes on.
After a heavy first few weeks, we’re going to lighten things up next time with The Straight Story, Lynch’s Disney-produced, Oscar-nominated 1999 film. It stars Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, and The Great Harry Dean Stanton. It’s about a man and his tractor, and it’s a delight. Until next time, remember: This world is wild at heart…
Alejandra: And weird on top.