The first time I saw Lost Highway I was coming off a Twin Peaks high. Clearly, I had a dark niche somewhere in my soul that a diet of BBC sitcoms, 80s sci-fi fantasy and Clint Eastwood shoot ’em ups couldn’t fill. ‘Allo ‘Allo, Ghostbusters and High Plains Drifter only get a mind so far. The twisted Lynchian view of a soul forging its way through a fractured reality was my new spirit animal.
Lost Highway stood out on its release: Empire gave it simultaneously a one-star and a four-star review in the same era as they gave Forrest Gump and Attack of the Clones five. We love you, Steven! ‘Pinch’, ‘salt’ and ‘access media’ comes to mind.
Undeterred by such pandering to populism, I am happy to say I saw it on the big screen. Who else here can say the same? Finding somewhere, even in 1997, that showed such niche cinema was not an easy task. But see it I did. It remains a formative experience and the one all others have been compared to. Of course, the 90s was the golden age of indie cinema and smaller films got much wider releases. Lynch remains a vital force today but who else from amongst his peers remains so? Whither Hal Hartley and John Waters? All taken by crass commercialism and the mighty Marvel dollar.
For the neophytes in the audience, Lost Highway starts with an ominous ringing buzzer and the reported death of Dick Laurent. Saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is plagued by mysterious video tapes a home intruder leaves at his door. Patricia Arquette, in a dark wig, plays Alice (or is Rene?) his bored and possibly unfaithful wife. After an encounter with a mystery man (a pre-murder charge Robert Blake), Madison views another tape showing himself surrounded by the bloody remains of Alice’s (or is it Rene’s?) dismembered corpse. Jump cut to Fred on death row.
Then, this being Lynch, conventional narrative logic exits the room. Fred violently turns into the youthful Pete (Balthazar Getty). Pete is unable to explain his being there anymore than anyone else watching. Pete’s life is a troubled one; there was a ‘that night’ to which multiple characters allude. Pete is a mechanic (as is Eraserhead himself, Jack Nance and Richard Pryor, in his last screen appearance). He services local mafioso Dick Laurent’s car. Robert Loggia, hamming it up here, does his best gangster-psycho routine. Think a more Lynchian version of his role in the equally good Innocent Blood. His speech on road safety is truly magnificent.
Laurent has a devilishly attractive femme fatale girlfriend, played by Patricia Arquette in a blonde wig. Is she…? Are they the same…? Say hi to Hitchcock for me. She leads Pete into a dangerous affair. Marilyn Manson plays a porn star. It doesn’t end well. Does it end?
Describing movies as ‘an experience’ is a huge cliché, yet, as with all Lynch movies, these are paintings that move. You gaze on them and witness their delights. The cinematography and the sound design are sublime. The sex scene, illuminated by car light and scored to the Cocteau Twins’ version of The Song for the Siren, is stunning. It goes from erotic to essential to the plot in seconds flat. Arquette was never better: sexy and oddly terrifying.
Then there’s that exploding cabin and its Twin Peak’s interior.
I understand Empire’s reluctance; Lynch was never mass appeal. Lost Highway made $3.8 million on a budget of $15 million. Whilst the first season of Twin Peaks was huge, so was the hype surrounding it. Its mainstream audience dropped away quickly after the reveal of Laura Palmer’s murderer. By the time of Lost Highway, he was once more part of the cinematic avant-garde, beloved only by the film festival crowd and more discerning pre-Marvel, pre-Fast and the Furious film students.
The films that followed have their charms. The Straight Story (1999) subverted expectations by being less Lynchian fever dream, more sentimental in tone and linear in narrative. Mulholland Drive (2001) was once more a story of fractured identity and multiple realties. All the Twin Peaks and Lost Highway tropes are present. I admit even I thought Lynch had gone too far with that one. Lost Highway admits to some narrative sense; its events are circular. To this day, my one abiding memory of exiting the cinema after Mulholland Drive was turning to my buddy and asking What the hell was that all about? I have never had the courage to sit through Inland Empire (2006) and am proud to say I saw all of Twin Peaks: The Return.
Lost Highway seems the most complete and dare I say it, the most accessible of all of Lynch’s movies. It’s the one I find most rewatchable; it takes all of the tropes of Eraserhead and Twin Peaks and packages them into one. To the Lynch-curious, I say take Lost Highway as your starter.
Forget what the likes of Empire say: these are the works of one of cinema’s true visionaries. No, they aren’t popcorn movies and I don’t see streaming services fighting over their rights. Does that matter? Of course not.
Bring on Wisteria and the Wild at Heart TV series. I’m ready for more fresh journeys down that lost Lynchian highway. Anyone else brave enough to tag along?