“Lost Highway” is a mysterious, ultra-Lynchian exercise in Designer Noir. The cult filmmaker’s first feature in more than four years sees him traversing familiar roads involving weird crimes, bizarre sex, sometimes freakish characters, societal unease and fully warranted paranoia with characteristic stylistic panache and daring. Although uneven and too deliberately obscure in meaning to be entirely satisfying, result remains sufficiently intriguing and startling to bring many of Lynch’s old fans back on board for this careening ride, adding up to decent returns on the specialized circuit and possibly better figures in select overseas markets. Pic debuted in Paris this week in advance of its Sundance unveiling.
A director as reliant upon precise style and tone as Lynch more or less has to hit the bull’s eye to score at all; if his aim is even slightly off the mark, his effects tend to fall flat. Here, there is a notable disparity between the numerous knockout sequences, passages loaded with disquieting moods, sinister intent and sudden eruptions of violence, and scenes of borderline banality. On balance, the former outweigh the latter, and the film does intensify and deepen as it progresses, but there remains a nagging sense of a work not quite completely achieved.
Pic starts in high gear with a classic credits sequence of names blasting across the wide screen as the rolling camera hugs the center of the road at night. In a city very much resembling Los Angeles but never specified as such, tenor sax player Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), see their life destroyed through a deeply disturbing series of events.
Over a period of time that comes perilously close to being boring onscreen, they find ominous videotapes dropped at their door. The first merely shows their house. The second depicts the couple in bed. The third, coming some 40 minutes into the picture, reveals their bedroom as a murder scene. With brutal suddenness, Fred is convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
In his very old-fashioned-looking prison cell, Fred is afflicted by tormented visions. Then, in the film’s great jump into the unexplainable, a young man named Pete (Balthazar Getty) is suddenly occupying Fred’s cell, only to emerge and take up his work as a garage mechanic in the employ of a wheelchair-bound boss, Arnie (Richard Pryor).
Abandoning the initial plot to take off in a new direction, action picks up with Pete doing some jobs for a gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) and ill-advisedly taking up with the rich man’s girlfriend, Alice (Arquette, back now as a bleach blonde). A member of the porno underworld with an abundant supply of seedy friends, Alice leads Pete astray in classic femme fatale fashion with inducements to commit crime and deception until an eerie nocturnal confrontation at a cabin on a beach brings the film’s two story strands full circle, after a fashion.
The narrative strategies of Lynch and co-screenwriter Barry Gifford, who penned the novel “Wild at Heart” that Lynch adapted for his 1990 feature, combine with key casting decisions to create intentional mysteries for which there are no answers. When Pullman’s Fred transforms into Getty’s Pete, one is left to ponder whether these are two versions of the same man. And using Arquette in the two principal female roles automatically raises the questions of the fate of the first woman and the identities of both of them.
Beyond these factors, the most alarming element here is an insinuating man who resembles a malevolent clown (Robert Blake). First turning up at a party in the first half, this little creep announces to Fred that, appearances to the contrary, he is actually in Fred’s home at that very moment, and proves it with a phone call to the house that he, the creep, answers. Not surprisingly, the diminutive character materializes again late in the game, to purposely ambiguous , but still skin-crawling, effect.
None of this stuff can be explicated rationally, making this a dream-film that will leave its partisans strenuously attempting to puzzle out its mysteries and non-fans out in the cold. In the Lynch canon, it stands squarely in the middle, not up to the summits represented by “Blue Velvet” or the best of “Twin Peaks” but decidedly superior to “Fire Walk With Me” and “Dune.”
Dramatically, film verges on the lethargic at times, but stylistically there is no mistaking this for the work of any other director. Lynch’s visionary, impressionistic approach to the deep, murky and vile recesses of the psyche and imagination is again boldly on display, as is his talent for putting memorable images on the bigscreen in concert with extraordinary sounds. Lynch’s own audio design has been intricately devised, and the soundtrack, which combines the efforts of longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti and additional composer Barry Adamson with some dynamite contributions by David Bowie and Brian Eno, Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein, Trent Reznor, Smashing Pumpkins and others, should enjoy a prosperous life of its own on disc.
With the exception of the blustery Loggia, performances tend toward the low-key. Getty’s relatively uninflected turn as an unexceptional young man led into deep water by a sexpot (virtually an extension of his brief role in “Natural Born Killers”) comes off best, as Pullman and Arquette register in just OK fashion.
As usual in Lynch’s carefully crafted pictures, all technical contributions, notably the artful lensing of Peter Deming and production design by Patricia Norris, are aces.