By Gregg Rickman
David Lynch is a painter, and while most viewers of his new movie, Lost Highway, will puzzle over its literally looped plot, a look at the film as film can reveal a lot more than that exercise. Lynch is drawn, as ever, to photographing color and texture, these subjects often discovered merging into or emerging out of a velvety black darkness. Thus the red cigarette tip that introduces us to Lost Highway's protagonist, jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). It's midnight in his soul: He dwells in darkness in a morbid stupor with his redheaded wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). Fred's a walking dead man long before he's consigned to a prison of rust and scabby paint on metal and light fixtures that slide out of focus, like everything else in his life.
The world of garage mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), an alter self of Fred's who dominates the movie's second movement, is by contrast Southern California bright, a sunlight that's good to sit and recover in after unaccountably finding oneself, as Pete has, in Fred's prison cell. That sunlight reveals a multicolored world: the bluish gouge in Pete's forehead, a plastic wading pool, a little white dog, and eventually the bright-red sign over the garage where Pete works. As his portion of the movie continues, however, Pete finds himself sliding away from the sunlight, away from the garage, his biker parents, and his brunette girlfriend, and into a perpetual night, guided into it by the bright blondness of a new girlfriend. She too is played by Arquette, a clear sign we've moved into the realm of doubles and doppelgangers Lynch made his own in previous works.
Many viewers will wonder if Fred Madison is indeed responsible for the grotesque crime for which he is condemned. Lynch likes to keep his tales ambiguous, but to this viewer it seems likely that Fred is, in one psychic state or another, guilty. But critiques of Lynch's work for its oft-extreme violence seem peculiarly off the point; Lynch is patently more interested in the mental dislocation that allows such violence than the acts themselves. Unlike filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, who add violence to their films like cooks shaking pepper into soup, Lynch is more devilish, tucking wince-inducing peppercorns into an ominous piece of meat. In interviews Lynch calls Lost Highway a film about "psychogenic fugue," and indeed it seems of a piece with Lynch's exploration of extreme personality disorders in his earlier work -- specifically the dissociative states inspired by Twin Peaks' possessive spirit, Bob. Possession states are one way of denying responsibility for one's actions, and Lynch's characters have more reason than most to be amnesiac.
Even before he meets the candy-colored clown called the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who holds down the job of demonic spirit in this film, Fred Madison already seems as entranced as one of Bob's victims. The sustained scenes of mounting menace amid blond wood furniture and burnished black saxophones that make up Lost Highway's first 40 minutes -- an oppressive world made even more so by a dense and layered sound design -- unnervingly convey Fred's existential unease. As with others of Lynch's characters, particularly those in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Fred Madison eventually comes unstuck in time, and Pete, the kid he morphs into, bears the stigmata of Fred's passage in the huge bruise on his forehead. Given that Lynch has long refused to acknowledge the unity of body, mind, and spirit taken for granted by most of us as essential to mental health, it figures that Lynch again and again symbolizes that dethroned unity with images of battered, crushed, and decapitated heads. He's done it before, in films going back to Eraserhead, and he does so here.
A film of compelling interest down to its perhaps too-open ending, Lost Highway seems a little off only in some midfilm displays of comic ferocity by Robert Loggia; they seem like crowd-pleasers, and this is not a crowd-pleasing film. Otherwise, it's as uncompromising as anything Lynch has made. In handling and in theme Lynch has picked up exactly where he left off with the masterful Fire Walk With Me five years ago. That Lost Highway seems to be getting a fairly good critical reception, as opposed to the excoriation heaped on Fire Walk With Me, is a function less of critical enlightenment than the fact that Lynch has been absent from the screen for several years, and novelty-hungry reviewers aren't tired of him, as they were in 1992. (The rave reviews Blue Velvet, the first real Lynch film most critics had ever seen, got in 1986 can in part be attributed to the same factor.) To this viewer, Lost Highway's major shortcoming lies in its relatively unthreatening status as, in part, only an intellectual puzzle -- albeit a mighty perturbing one. You'll need to see it a couple of times to really figure it out. The best episodes of Twin Peaks, and Fire Walk With Me as well, by contrast, terrify with their excruciating depiction of psychosis as the result of childhood sexual abuse. The most affecting portion of Lost Highway is instead the depiction of a strained, threatened marriage in its first third -- superbly done, to be sure, but hardly so disturbing. Its disorienting narrative aside, Lost Highway will be enjoyed by many, the sex and violence of its last third venturing into the cartoonish realm of Wild at Heart, Lynch's first collaboration with Lost Highway co-scenarist Barry Gifford. (At one point, Arquette tells Getty of a violent sexual encounter; besides being the one scene that suggests Wild at Heart's endlessly digressive stories-within-stories, her enthusiasm for her tale guarantees that it will also be the one that feminists may most fairly object to.)