Lost Highway (1996)

D: David Lynch
S: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty

David Lynch responds to Pulp Fiction with a determined attempt to regain his throne as cult king of American independent cinema. His revisiting of old Hollywood clichés treads the same ground as Tarantino, but with very different shoes. The result is all Lynch, reminding us that he's never really gone away: he's just been lurking on the dark side of the ironic postmodern Hollywood which he helped to create.

The story is a relatively simple amalgam of two basic film noir plots. In the first, a saxophone player (Bill Pullman) suspects his wife (Patricia Arquette) of having an affair and is later charged with her brutal murder (a plot ellipsis withholds the full facts of the case until the end of the movie). In the second, a young mechanic (Balthazar Getty) is lured by a gangster's moll (Patricia Arquette) into murdering her lover for money. Both are fairly standard scenarios, familiar to moviegoers from all walks of life and easy to latch onto.

But Lynch is not content merely to render them with a trendy postmodern overlay as Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction. Instead he delves into the dark metaphysical underpinnings and finds the link between them: a man taken for a dupe by a beautiful woman. This spiritual connection between the two characters forms the bridge between the stories, and Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford (of Wild at Heart fame) then add a touch of supernatural horror by making the spiritual connection a material one. It emerges (eventually) that Pullman has taken possession of Getty's body with the aid of a mysterious white-faced man (Robert Blake), and the process of his revenge on his unfaithful wife, her lover and her pimp is seen through the experiences of the younger man (reverting back to the original plot only in the concluding few minutes).

The most telling moment in the script comes early on when Pullman explains why he does not own a video camera. He says that he wants the world to be the way he remembers it, not the way it really was. This is the key to understanding the film. The second plot eventually becomes a sort of dislocated psychotic fantasy, the rationale of a disordered mind justifying murder. But, of course, in the great tradition of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou, (which Buñuel once referred to as 'a passionate call to murder', a phrase which can be equally applied to Lost Highway), the rational processes are not so much being rendered literally, as they are explored on a surreal, symbolic level. It's not meant to add up to a neat, pat Psycho type psychoanalytical explanation which allows the audience to feel comfortable. The film is specifically designed to create and explore a sense of mania, a phase shift in the subconscious which results in horrific, violent crimes.

The pace is deliberately slow, as Lynch carefully details beautifully photographed landscapes and interiors and the stylised costume design and make-up enveloping his cast. Its hypnotic protraction of everyday details then allows terrific leeway as Lynch later piles on the repulsive imagery and characteristic grotesqueries. It all seems to happen in the same dream-state which defines the inner life of its central character, and though it remains unsettling, it is never quite 'real' in the sense that the world seen on screen is not things the way they are, but the way Pullman remembers them.

The script itself is relatively uncomplicated despite the various stray characters and the central conceit (seen ten years before in Angel Heart). It is Lynch's direction which makes the film complex, deliberately confounding the plup fiction clichés by all but ignoring them. It doesn't so much tell a story as convey a series of moods and moments which describe the sprit of the events on screen. The result is likely to confuse and alienate the vast majority of film audiences, but if you are willing to lay aside narrative concerns in favour of this kind of impressionism, you may find it easier to watch.

Of course the pervasive misogyny and the graphic images of sex and violence will doubtless offend and outrage those prone to offence and outrage. But the film's main weapons of shock and horror are aural, with a variety of weird and disturbing sound effects and musical stylings by Angelo Badalamenti (plus some soundtrack-selling song tracks by the likes of David Bowie, Brian Eno and Nine Inch Nails). These do eventually become tiresome, but for at least an hour or so they add an eerie dimension to the on-screen events (which are often quite innocent on the surface).

The cast are uniformly in tune with the film's particular vibe. Pullman returns to off-beat cinema following his uncomfortable stint in the mainstream in Independence Day and While You Were Sleeping with a good line in quiet insanity, and Arquette plays her over the top femme fatale with the necessary sexual gusto. Getty is sympathetic as the young mechanic, providing an important anchor in a world of very unpleasant people and events. They are ably supported by a stellar cast including a menacing Robert Loggia, Gary Busey, Richard Pryor and the inevitable Jack Nance (with cameos by hip musicians Marilyn Manson and Henry Rollins).

It is likely that if you pay in to see Lost Highway, you have half an idea what to expect. You don't go to a film by the director of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet expecting The Elephant Man or Dune. Sometimes you get them, of course, but Lost Highway is a professedly non-mainstream film, financed largely in France and most definitely aimed at an art house audience. But it is not a trendy film and its weirdness is not a result of pretension. Lynch has genuine vision as a cineaste and his voice is a sharp, clear and original as it has ever been. This is a skilfully crafted and affecting film which easily puts the plethora of wise-cracking gangster films which have won plaudits as the produce of independent cinema in the past few years in their place. Welcome back, David. Please don't make any more TV shows.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.