Monday, August 6, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.11: David Lynch's Lost Highway

Grade: 85 (A-)

Amazing what a decade can do for a film’s reputation, isn’t it? Lost Highway debuted in 1997 to mixed to negative reviews. Lynch’s first feature-length film since the disastrous Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, it did little to quell the suspicion that Lynch was painting himself into a corner with his surrealist obsessions. The film didn’t make a whole lot of sense, at the end of the day. But over the course of ten years, it built up a reputation as one of Lynch’s most underrated films, no doubt due to its unavailability on DVD and its reevaluation as a companion piece to his masterpiece Mulholland Drive. Years later, Lost Highway looks like a far more confident and successful work than anyone first gave it credit, and it stands as possibly the most frightening film Lynch ever made.

NOTE: there’s really, absolutely no way to discuss this film without discussing the major twist a third of the way though, so reader beware.

Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is an alienated jazz saxophonist who suspects his sexually unsatisfied wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is cheating on him. One day, Fred receives a strange message saying “Dick Laurent is dead”. Over the course of the next few days, Fred and Renee receive videotapes that show first their house, then the inside, and finally them sleeping in bed, but detectives cannot find out who is sending them the tapes. One night at a party, Fred encounters a strange Mystery Man (Robert Blake in his last film role to date), whose cryptic dialogue unnerves Fred. When Fred next finds a tape, it reveals hi killing Renee. He is arrested for her murder and sent to death row.

One day, prison guards look into Fred’s cell to find a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) in Fred’s place. With no memory of how he got there, Pete is released back to his life as an auto mechanic, where he gets involved with Alice (Arquette again), the girlfriend to his gangster acquaintance Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia), aka “Mr. Eddy”. Pete and Alice fear for their lives as Laurent learns what’s going on, and Pete’s world starts to come crashing down.

Lost Highway is Lynch’s return to the noir genre (albeit a particularly nutty example). Lynch fills his film to the gills with femme fatales (Renee/Alice), hapless schlubs destined to get screwed (Fred/Pete) and who aren’t as innocent as they’d believe, gangsters (Laurent), clueless policemen (“there’s really nothing we can do about the guy who broke into your house”), and the seediest side of Los Angeles. Billy Wilder has been an enormous influence on Lynch, what with his pitch black looks at how America chews people up and spits them out (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole, The Apartment). Lost Highway is one of Lynch’s bizarre versions of a Wilder film, complete with people who might have fit right into one of Wilder’s noirs. Some of the modern noir dialogue is a bit overcooked in its smuttiness (“this kid gets more pussy than a toilet seat” reaches maximum “ugh” levels), but for the most part this is strong genre work from Lynch.

If noir provides the much-needed backbone to Lynch’s film, then horror provides the flavor. The early going of the film is as claustrophobic as anything Lynch has done since Eraserhead, with Fred alienated from the world and secluded like Catharine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. His use of rituals and strange events in the mundane borrows from Maya Deren’s avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon in a fashion that makes Lost Highway unnerving even before the really weird stuff starts up. Lynch’s use of Hitchcockian suspense is as strong as ever, particularly in a breaking and entering scene late in the film, and his obsession with madness brings contemporary influence Werner Herzog to the fray in unsettling ways. That Lynch brings his own strong use of creepy sound design and dark lighting (seeing Bill Pullman enveloped by shadows is particularly nice) doesn’t hurt any.

It’s unfortunate, then, that many of the performances aren’t up to snuff: Pullman has the perfect look and disposition for a noir, but he mostly seems a bit confused as to what he’s supposed to be doing besides glowering. He’s still leaps and bounds ahead of Getty’s wooden turn- Pete’s supposed to be a bit dim, but would it have killed Lynch to find an actor with the ability to project some sort of emotion beyond constipation? Lynch also shoehorns in some distracting cameos from Richard Pryor and Jack Nance (in what would sadly be their final film roles). It mostly doesn’t matter, though. Lynch more than makes up for it with his direction, and there’s two particularly strong supporting performances. Robert Loggia’s explosive anger can’t help but recall Dennis Hopper’s superior character in Blue Velvet, but he makes up for it with his deadpan delivery of some of the comic relief (“tailgating is one thing I cannot tolerate”, shortly after beating a tailgater within an inch of his life).

More notable, though, is Robert Blake’s role as the Mystery Man. Lost Highway’s best and most talked about sequence is at a party where Pullman’s out-of-place protagonist runs into Blake. Lynch gives us an agonizing close-up on Blake’s pancake makeup covered face. “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”, Blake asks creepily. After Pullman denies several times his assertion that they met at his house, Blake insists that “he’s there right now”, and demands that Pullman call him. Sure enough, he’s there. How? Cue creepy, amped up laugh from both Blakes,. Blake’s real-life creepiness following the death of his wife certainly helps sell the part years later, but even someone without that knowledge would find his portrait of absolute evil discomforting. He’s creepy, polite, and he only comes when he’s called. It’s no wonder Blake felt that his character was the Devil himself.

Of course, no discussion of Lost Highway is complete without bringing up the bizarre twist after the film’s first act. Pretty much everyone was struck with a strong feeling of “huh?” as to why Lynch’s film suddenly turned so cryptic. But Lynch has always been interested in the surreal, the subconscious, and the subjectivity of perception. Two keys to unlocking the mysteries of Lost Highway: the first is Fred’s line in the film about his dislike of videotapes (“I like to remember things my own way, not necessarily how they happened”). The second? Lynch believes he was subconsciously influenced by the O.J. Simpson trial.

Self-deception is important to Lynch’s work. It allows Jeffrey Beaumont of Blue Velvet to think of himself as a normal person despite his twisted subconscious desires, Leland Palmer of Twin Peaks to hold himself up as a pillar of a community despite his dark secrets, and it gave Frederick Treves of The Elephant Man a chance to believe he was doing absolute good rather than exploiting a tragic figure. O.J. Simpson was a clearly guilty man (please don’t argue otherwise), but he argued so hard that he didn’t kill his wife that he almost seemed to believe it. That’s the central story of Lost Highway: a man believes himself innocent of murdering his wife in spite of overwhelming evidence against him.

Fred Madison isn’t as pathetic as the protagonist of Edward Ulmer’s Detour, but he’s otherwise one of the biggest losers in noir history. He’s secluded, he has no real friends, and he can’t sexually satisfy his chilly wife, as shown in one of the saddest sex scenes ever put on film. When he learns of her past life in pornography and her continued connection to Dick Laurent and his creepy, Prince-mustached associate Andy, he brutally murders her (the video surveillance footage of Fred next to a dismembered Renee is possibly the most frightening image in Lynch’s filmography). He can’t believe he did it. The first third of the film shows Fred’s final moments with Renee intercut with premonitions (or callbacks, rather) of his horrible crime. The mystery man? He’s the knowledge of Fred’s evil acts. The second story? It’s an escape to a new reality- Fred as a young stud with an active social life, not to mention an active sexual life. He can actually satisfy the far warmer femme fatale girlfriend. It’s further significant, by the way, that the new Arquette character is remade with platinum blonde hair where the more independent character was a brunette. Anyone else reminded of Vertigo?

But Fred can’t escape for long. The mystery man is always near, he’ll never really have his wife, and he can’t escape reality for long. It’s only so long before the fantasy crumbles. Lost Highway was later one-upped by Mulholland Dr., but it earns the distinction as the the most pessimistic film in Lynch’s filmography. Whether the wigged-out final frames of the film are a sign of Fred finally being executed (what some have theorized) or just a sign that he’s truly lost his mind, there’s no peace for Fred. He’ll have no escape to heaven a la John Merrick or Laura Palmer. There’s only a never-ending cycle of madness. “Dick Laurent is dead.” 

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