Crime and punishment

Time for another David Lynch review! This time jumping back to 1997.

Lost Highway is a frustrating movie. Like Psycho, it spends its first act being one kind of movie before taking a sudden sharp turn into becoming something completely different. But unlike Psycho, the movie it transforms into is much worse than what you were previously watching.

Anyway, the movie opens with Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette), a well-to-do, childless married couple whose relationship is on the rocks. There’s a chilly cordiality to their dialogue, and it becomes quite obvious that Fred is harbouring some serious suspicions about Renee. All this takes a much more disturbing turn when someone begins leaving video tapes outside of their house. While the first one only shows a quick street-view sweep of their house, the second goes to the inside, revealing that they were being recorded while they slept.

This understandably creeps them out, although the police are unable to figure out how the breaking and entering happened. Things aren’t helped when, at a party, Fred meets a Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who claims (and then proves) that he is simultaneously at the party and inside Fred’s house, explaining that Fred had invited him in.

Eventually, a third video tape arrives, revealing that Fred has murdered his wife, and he winds up getting put on death row.

Not a lot actually happens during the first third, but Lynch does such a great job building up this unbearably tense, sinister atmosphere, abetted by some of his typically excellent sound design. And there’s something interesting happening underneath the surface too. Fred has this tell-all line where he says something like, “I like to remember things my own way, not necessarily the way they happened.” What initially appears to be the horror of home invasion turns out to be the horror of objectivity – the video tape records the unspoken evils which Fred has been attempting to hide from himself. The Mystery Man becomes an almost supernatural, demonic evil that Fred has unwittingly invited into is life. Chilling stuff.

But while on death row, Fred inexplicably transforms into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young auto mechanic. Since Pete is obviously a different person, he gets let out, and returns to his life. And this is where things turn sour for me.

It so happens that Pete is professionally acquainted with psychopathic gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia).Mr. Eddy’s femme fatale girlfriend, Alice (also Patricia Arquette), begins making advances on Pete, and the two begin a secret affair that drags Pete into a sordid world of crime.

Perhaps the best way to sum up this section is to say that it feels like a trashy ripoff of Pulp Fiction (and given that Pulp Fiction is one of the most overrated movies of all time…) It’s all mercilessly insincere, mean spirited film noir genre beats with a tedious amount of violence and sex. I mentioned when talking about Blue Velvet that one of the temptations a story about human depravity faces is becoming too enamored with the darkness. Lost Highway tips over that edge, with the shock value and titillation overwhelming the thematic material.

All the more frustrating, because scattered throughout the latter part of the film are individual moments reminding me of how powerful the opening of the movie was. There’s a shot, for instance, of the Mystery Man slowly pulling back a curtain, and it’s one of the most genuinely creepy things ever.

Arguably, the Pete section is just a fantasy conjured up by Fred (who returns for the denouement), in which the trashiness of it all is done on purpose to illustrate his character. But, as I like to say, “I only meant it ironically!” only goes so far; it’s still an unpleasant experience. Furthermore, this exact concept was revisited with much greater power in Mulholland Drive, in part because it approaches its material with a much more sincere, humanistic bent. You genuinely care about the characters in a way that you don’t here.

It doesn’t help that neither Pullman or Getty are particularly great leads. I mean, they’re ok, and I think Pullman’s lack of affect was deliberately chosen for effect. But they pale compared to other Lynch film leads like Naomi Watts, Laura Dern or Kyle MacLachlan.

So Lost Highway is a wash. Given how forgotten it often is, I was hoping that there would be a gem here. Can’t win em all.

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About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, pop culture and its discontents and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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