Lost Highway ★★★★

Part of Lynch by Inch: David Lynch, Ranked!

It might not seem like it when you're watching Eraserhead or Blue Velvet, but David Lynch is a man with strict limits. After Dune, Dino de Laurentiis offered him the chance to adapt Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, but he found Harris's story too grim and violent, without the elements of humour, grace and beauty that illuminate his darkest films. Lost Highway takes its title from another book Lynch found too abrasive to film - Barry Gifford's Night People, a kind of lesbian Bonnie and Clyde story. Ironically, the finished film, co-written with Gifford, is the nearest thing to a completely bleak, pessimistic work in his canon. It's a hard-boiled noir about spousal abuse, snuff films and the inescapability of guilt, where the nearest thing to a comic set-piece involves a tailgater being savagely beaten and the supernatural is personified not by the sweet, giggling Lady in the Radiator but by Robert Blake's vampire-like Mystery Man.

Why did Lynch make this? Well, obviously he trusted Gifford to lead him somewhere he might not have gone otherwise. It's also likely that after the slow death of Twin Peaks, the cancellation of Hotel Room and his cherished adaptation of Kafka's The Metamorphosis getting trapped in development hell, Lynch really was feeling quite downhearted. Despite all this, Lost Highway shows that Lynch was still in touch with the late '90s zeitgeist, with its Marilyn Manson cameo and Trent Reznor soundtrack cuts. That's not surprising, considering that a lot of what was considered cool at this point came directly from Lynch.

So we have scenes soundtracked by Barry Adamson's skewed, unsettling lounge music - the Mystery Man first appears, aptly, to Adamson's 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' - which harks back to the eerie jazz of Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks soundtrack. We also have Lynch's closest engagement with film noir, a very modish thing to be dabbling in at this point. (To illustrate: 1997 also saw the release of an adaptation of Jim Thompson's incestuous noir This World, Then the Fireworks, which acknowledged its Lynch influence by casting Billy Zane and Sheryl Lee)

The basic plot structure of Lost Highway - a man commits a terrible crime, gets away with it, but finds fate and a femme fatale conspiring to bring him down - is really the plot of ten thousand canonical noirs. What makes Lynch and Gifford's script different is they strip out the real-world mechanics by which this might happen. Fred Madison's escape from death row and collapse back into criminality is achieved not through legal manoeuvrings and financial desperation, but a constant stream of inexplicable, mystical events. This is a pretty good idea, considering the hard plot mechanics of a lot of noirs are either terribly boring, don't make any sense, or both. They get by on atmosphere and characters, and by setting the genre free from rationality Lynch and Gifford can make this the whole meal rather than a strong flavouring.

Watching Lost Highway I was reminded of Andre Bazin's argument that The Lady From Shanghai was Orson Welles's best film; since the plot doesn't work, you can watch it as an exercise in pure Wellesian style. There are moments in Lost Highway that use a cinematic grammar that does not exist anywhere other than David Lynch films. The complex structure of the traffic jam scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, where you can't tell if you're watching in the present or past tense, is reprised when Fred tells his wife Renee about a terrible dream he had. Narrating all through the nightmare, it then cuts to him waking up in exactly the same position he was in when he started telling the story. Is this still part of the flashback, or did he fall asleep during or after his telling of the story? The fact that he has a strange vision immediately afterwards of his wife as someone else - the subject of the nightmare - introduces a third possibility: that this is still part of the dream. But we don't then cut to him waking up, indicating that either this wasn't a dream - or the entire rest of the film is a dream.

There are lots of wonderful things like this - I love Lynch's aerial cameras, which can imply either CCTV surveillance or a kind of heavenly perspective that turns out to be a completely false hope. If it doesn't all stack up as well as some of his other films it's partly because the lack of humour leaves a hole, and partly because Balthazar Getty's performance as the teen rebel Fred turns into to give himself a second shot at life is alarmingly James Hurleyish. But Bill Pullman, as Fred, is such a great incarnation of Lynch Man you can't understand why the director hasn't worked with him again, and Patricia Arquette is iconic and fearless. Taking the role in part because she had hang-ups about nudity, she is forced to strip at gunpoint. That's one of the tamer bits.

There are some things here that hark back to older Lynch films - Robert Loggia as Mr. Eddy is like a hybrid of Frank Booth (which Loggia auditioned for) and Wild At Heart's Mr. Reindeer. But the most important connection is to the future, and the film he would start making in a couple of years' time, one which traced Lost Highway's themes and motifs of voyeurism, surveillance, helpless ingenues in sexually exploitative situations and constant switches of identity back to its source - Hollywood. That was some way off, though. First, he had a road trip to make.

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