“Lost Highway” is intensely, aggressively dark in a way that is exceptional for David Lynch. Usually Lynch shows a happy, innocent exterior that covers up evil. Here, there is no cover. Everyone and everything seems sick. L.A. is not a dream factory, as it is in “Mulholland Drive” and “Blue Velvet.” The only movies getting made are porn. There is no Ray Orbison or Linda Scott on the soundtrack. Dark, electronic work by David Bowie, Trent Reznor and The Smashing Pumpkins contribute to the sense of this being the only Lynch film set firmly in the present, with no sense of nostalgia to provide some uplift.
Harder to parse than “Mulholland” but easier than “Inland,” it makes basic sense without losing its sense of mystery, no matter how many times you watch. It is clear is that jealousy, resentment, and lust are key themes. First Fred, played by Bill Pullman, is driven to murder his wife after suspecting she is having an affair. He is arrested, but freed when he seems to transform into Pete, played by Balthazar Getty. Pete is a mechanic and a petty criminal who begins an affair with the wife of a mob boss. Both Fred’s wife and the mob boss’s wife are played by Patricia Arquette, a common choice for Lynch. Late in the movie, the two men blend together, and without the specifics being clear, it seems that they are one man in some sense. Robert Loggia and Robert Blake are both horrifying.
In the end there is a strong implication that the plot will repeat endlessly, the characters stuck in a loop. This sort of ending has become a gimmick, but here it has an important purpose. It stands for the jadedness of the characters. Lynch is always harsh when dealing with Hollywood stragglers, but here he is merciless. Everyone is willing to degrade themselves for sex and money, no matter the cost. The naive everyman common to most Lynch films is missing. With nobody searching for lasting happiness, every character is content to go through the motions forever.
In his book “Catching the Big Fish,” Lynch talks about how Buddhism and meditation have influenced his work. He is very concerned with the negativity and cynicism which he feels hurt many in the arts. “Lost Highway” is in some sense his portrait of this culture, and it is extremely vivid.
Harshness and all, their are many images which are impossible to forget – Bill playing in a psychotically lit nightclub, Pete dancing to Eye with his girlfriend before he leaves her, the burning house by the lake. Somehow celebrity cameos from Richard Pryor and Gary Busey fit in. It is indisputably the equal of any other of Lynch’s movies.
Tony Schwab is a staff writer for Washington Square News.