Monday, March 7, 2011


It was fun to revisit this film at the end of a very busy weekend, which saw your proprietor in Los Angeles for a cleverly conceived, stealthily executed birthday party for a dear, dear friend. During the trip we headed up to Hollywood and stopped by the three houses owned by David Lynch, one of which served as a set for his mid-90s noir psychodrama Lost Highway. About 24 hours later we were back in San Francisco, entering the house, and the fractured mind of deeply troubled saxophonist Fred Madison, on the Castro's screen.

Having rewatched a number of Lynch's films recently, I found LOST HIGHWAY less compelling than some of the others. We might safely attribute the film's more overtly noir flourishes to the influence of writer Barry Gifford, from the more clearly delineated underworld within which Mr. Eddy lurks to the elusive machinations of Patricia Arquette's alluring femme fatale. But on the whole it's built as instinctively as any of Lynch's other films, and just as dually-obsessed. Just as Fred, in extremis, transforms into the bewildered young Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), so does Fred's wife Renee reappear as Alice, a moll for Mr. Eddy who proceeds to upend Pete's already tenuous existence.

The film is bookended with lovely but frantic shots of a highway's line disappearing under the headlights of a speeding car (and scored beautifully by David Bowie's "I'm Deranged", perhaps marking the film as a vent of pre-millennial angst). But the linearity this suggests is thwarted constantly. Left is right in this section of Lynch's universe, right down to the casting: counterculture icon Henry Rollins appears as a prison guard, and the similarly iconoclastic Gary Busey turns in a lovely miniature of a performance as Pete's quietly concerned and clearly loving father. The music is similarly fractured, from Lynch mainstay Angelo Badalamenti's orchestral malaise to Barry Adamson's hypercharged noir jazz to Trent Reznor's horrordrones. But the biggest sonic imprint is left by Rammstein, whose forthright German vocals and heavyheavy guitars prove a perfect coup de grace for ultimate chaos (Lynch put the songs in after discovering that the crew had been listening to them obsessively during the shoot.) As intuitively conceived and unexplained as they are, Lynch's films always feel smooth and reasoned, but even as the film seems to close the circuit, ending as it began, Fred twitches and shifts, ready to explode and derail. Hurtling us and all our questions into a black, unanswering abyss.

It's entirely possible that my remove from LOST HIGHWAY (and disinclination to put it up with Lynch's best work) is some kind of defense against its unrelenting darkness. But one wonders if Lynch himself was put off by what he unleashed here: after creating his darkest features back-to-back (TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME and this), he crafted the genial and G-rated (if still thoroughly Lynchian) THE STRAIGHT STORY for Disney.


  1. Nice post. I love this film more every time I see it. The last time was about five years ago. Your analysis rings true. For me, it signaled a new phase in Lynch's career, when he finally broke away from the need to ape Hollywood stereotypes and embraced perversity full on. I like my Lynch as perverse as possible.

    This would make a good double feature with Tropical Malady.

  2. I'd say that the turning point came with MULHOLLAND DR., where he was actively resisting the pressure ABC execs were putting on him, to the point where they killed the project and he finished it elsewhere. The making of THE STRAIGHT STORY after LOST HIGHWAY suggests to me that Lynch wasn't quite as subsumed in perversity as I think you're suggesting (although making a G-rated film distributed by Disney may have been the most perverse option available to Lynch at the time).