Highways connect cities, people, and places. Lost Highway, the mystery thriller from director David Lynch, explores the tenuous connections often made between people. The film compares Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a cuckolded jazz musician, and Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a confused mechanic whose affections catch the attention of a villainous mobster with serious anger management problems. This comparison comes through a surreal and somewhat confusing plot wherein one character literally replaces the other.
While the film never reveals how the men are connected such that one becomes the other, editor Mary Sweeney does a superb job in underscoring the contrast between scenes, particularly through the use of sound. For instance, after Renee (Patricia Arquette) has told Fred that she will not be at the club for his set, white noise consumes all other sound until being shattered by the squeal of Fred’s sax in the following scene. It startles the viewer, disorienting him or her.
In fact, the film’s sound may be its greatest strength. That Fred has a soundproof room certainly points to its importance. At the film’s tensest moments, the same white noise mentioned earlier washes over the scene, further heightening whatever complication is unfolding on-screen. The best example of this would be during Fred’s and Renee’s attempt to make lover where the rhythmic pace of Fred’s breathing vexes him until the whisper of his wife—something that should scintillate him further—splinters the moment completely.
The film’s lighting reflects its ominous tone; darkness practically swallows entire characters in some scenes, such as the opening sequence when Fred first learns that Dick Laurent is dead. The absence of light girds Fred’s doubt about his wife and Pete’s doubt about his life; it adds to the confusion, obfuscating Renee’s face during the dream sequence where the Mystery Man (Robert Blake, in his last film role before his career ended due to personal and legal circumstances) first appears to Fred.
For all its technical strength, the film lags in its story; unclear are the motives driving the characters and how exactly the Mystery Man fits into both Fred’s and Pete’s worlds. Bill Pullman gives a taut performance as the jazzman Fred Madison, and Robert Loggia‘s turn as the maniacal Mr. Eddy is truly chilling. The rest of the cast provide strong, somewhat restrained performances. The film’s third act and denouement rush by and leave the viewer unsatisfied with how Fred and Pete will atone for their actions. Leaving so much unsaid and unshown leaves the film open to interpretation but also makes the film feel somewhat incomplete. Although Lynch introduces some interesting ideas, particularly regarding silence and voyeurism, he does not explore them very much. To me, it felt like he saw the running time of the film swell to two hours and decided to conclude the film where it was.
Lost Highway is mostly enjoyable, but some viewers may not enjoy its serpentine story and disturbing images. It’s a complicated, layered film that invites (some may say demands) repeat viewings.