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Lost in darkness and confusion
A region 2 DVD review of LOST HIGHWAY by Lord Summerisle

"A 21st Century Noir Horror Film.
A graphic investigation into parallel identity crises.
A world where time is dangerously out of control.
A terrifying ride down the lost highway."


Above are four descriptions of Lost Highway (1997) written by David Lynch on the title page of the script for the film by Lynch and Barry Gifford. They are four sentences that sum up the mood of the film perfectly. They also go a little way into scratching the surface of the narrative and its meaning, neither of which are simple. As this film has been a popular piece to discuss, analyse and deconstruct from its release, it is extremely difficult to write anything about this film that has not already been said. So, to begin with at least, I will not attempt to...

Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) live in a minimalist apartment in an unspecified town (as is often the case with Lynch). Their conversation is as minimal as their surroundings and neither of them seem happy with the relationship. Fred is a thirty-something jazz musician and an introverted personality. After video tapes of their house keep turning up on the Madison's doorstep they call the police to investigate. Following a strange encounter at a party, Fred takes Renee home and discovers yet another tape. On it he sees himself killing his wife. He is found guilty of her murder and imprisoned, awaiting the death sentence. At this point he 'appears' to change into another person, Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty).

Pete lives with his parents, he is twenty four and has no recollection of how he ended up in prison. He goes back to work as a mechanic where Mr Eddie (Robert Loggia), a locally feared gangster, has him work on his cars. Pete gets involved with Alice Wakefield (also played by Arquette), who is Mr Eddie's girl. When Mr Eddie finds out about their affair Alice and Pete plan to run away together…

…Before this gets convoluted or boring enough to not do the film any justice I will say no more than this: eventually Fred resurfaces and the narrative finishes where it began, at the Madison's home.

If that synopsis seems a little dead, that is because I personally think there is no place for a synopsis when discussing Lost Highway. It is not something you can sum up in a hundred words. It trivialises it and makes it sound like a standard noir thriller, or if explained in detail can take the magic out of watching the thing unravel before you in its proper form. That is the thing with David Lynch films – they do what all great cinema should, they take you on a journey. But a journey in the world of Lynch is different to any other. There are things any informed Lynchian would expect, because as a true auteur he has his own distinct style and set of paradigms and themes that run through all his work. A high contrast, dark world. A sinister place. A rumbling and dread provoking score. Slow and strangely delivered dialogue. But beyond that is where the journey really lies, because it is a journey into the unknown. And the really uncanny thing with Lynch's stories is they are often unknown, yet oddly familiar. He taps into a part of the mind that very few artists of any medium can reach. And I believe this is done most effectively with Lost Highway.

As I have said, its tricky territory covering this film, so I will not bog the review down with too much heavy deconstruction, as this film means something a little different to everyone, yet it is impossible to discuss the movie, as with all Lynch work, without some close textual analysis.

What Lost Highway does, is what I consider good art should, and that is to ask questions of the audience without necessarily answering them. To begin with these questions are small and obvious. Who rang at the buzzer and said "Dick Laurent is dead"? Who is/was Dick Laurent? Who is leaving the tapes? A dog barks and Fred asks "Who the hell owns that dog?" The mysteries are personified by the Mystery Man, a character that links Fred with Pete and serves as a channel for many other seemingly arbitrary connections. His first appearance is one of the most striking scenes I have ever seen in cinema, and is one of the reasons I decided years ago that film was to be my life long mistress! It is at this moment in the film that you realise you are playing by a different set of rules. This is not a linear story. There are many moments one could pin point as the classic 'Alice down the rabbit hole' moment that Lynch is known for, some would argue the descent had begun before the beginning of the film, I would say when the Mystery Man first appears is the sure sign all is not well with Fred. The dark beauty of the scene's mise-en-scene and audio structure is a subject for a whole film studies lecture, so I will leave it as known that this is a pivotal scene. The following murder sequence, with Fred's literal consumption by darkness and a truly terrifying viewing of a final video tape that makes the origins of these items and their contents a little clearer, leaves the audience in freefall. You hit the ground with a hearty thump as Fred Madison is convicted of the killing of his wife and sentenced to death. Vertigo takes over once more when Fred transforms into Pete. Lynch, the maestro of surreal noir, conducts the ebbs and flows of interlocking reality with a nauseating rhythm. Just as the reality the murder hits, the whole thing is thrown into unknown territory with a metamorphosis.

The tone changes with the character. Once out of prison, we are confronted with an 'apple pie American' scene more fitting with Blue Velvet (1986), as Dayton reclines on a deck chair in the neat, green garden of his parents' picket fenced home. Badalamenti's score compliments this with an equally, misleadingly serene piece. It is not long, however, until the sinister atmosphere of the first act creeps in. There are beautiful moments where Fred's consciousness lapses into Pete, triggered by different elements; music, recollection and later Alice, Andy and the Mystery Man. When Alice turns up in a car with gangster Mr. Eddie, played by the same actress as Fred's Renee, a fresh question is thrown into the mix, together with discovering Mr. Eddie to be none other than Dick Laurent, one is forced to accept there are two very distinctly overlapping realities. The question that has to be answered some time down the line is, 'which one is the true reality?' Maybe, neither. Or even both. And here is where the individual takes over.

Lost Highway has been compared by some to a Cubist painting, and I find this a good analogy. As there is a definite presence of conventional form to a Picasso – i.e. one can make out a figure or a landscape, Lost Highway similarly shows a coherent story (two in fact).Yet both Picasso's Cubist work and Lynch's film are abstracted from reality by their unconventional use of form. I find this true of many of David Lynch's work.

Some find Lost Highway problematic because of its abstract use of narrative, although there is much more to glean from a Lynch plot than that of Dadaist or true Surrealist cinema, for example Luis Buñuel's work. Lynch merely uses a strange juxtaposition of unusual situations to bring very real and understandable issues into view to those who by more ordinary means would not receive such satisfaction. I strongly believe he is to cinema what Kafka is to literature, and it is known that he is a great influence on Lynch's work.

Of course with all this focus on David Lynch it is easy to loose sight of the other contributors of this film. Gifford, the co-writer, brought an edge to the film that makes it stand up firmer to a literary based critique, one could say a defining and distilling of Lynch's concepts. All the performances are perfectly skewed and intense, with particular note to Pullman, proving he can tackle indie work as well as Hollywood roles, and a greatly unhinged supporting part by Loggia as Mr Eddie, who was allegedly duped out of the role of Frank in Blue Velvet. The one real shock to me is how Balthazar Getty did not enjoy a more high profile career after his role as Pete. He clearly displays great talent and I feel it an injustice that since Lost Highway he has mainly performed television parts.

Lost Highway came at an important time for Lynch, as the industry was beginning to doubt his potential after the ill received Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). It cemented his reputation as king of the arthouse scene and opened the door for the family friendly though often underrated The Straight Story (1999) and the brother to Lost Highway, Mullholland Drive (2001). It stands alone as an exceptional piece of cinema, with its own rules and unique claustrophobia and has the mark of a true auteur film where comparisons can only really be made when referring to other works of the same director.

sound and vision

A direct port of the French MK2 release, there are few films that present as big a challenge for the DVD format as Lost Highway, with Peter Deming's cinematography pushing almost to the limit at times how dark you can make a picture and still register the image. In the cinema there were shots that boasted only the hint of a coherent image, and it's a credit to this transfer that we can still register the image in the less forgiving digital format. That said, we're still a little way short of perfect here – when the limits are pushed, grain is more evident, the contrast loses its edge and compression artefacts are sometimes visible, as they are in areas of one colour, something there is a lot of in the first half. Sharpness is generally good, though there is still a little leeway for improvement, but this is about as good as the film has yet looked on DVD. And I do mean YET. The picture is framed 2.35:1 and enhanced for widescreen TVs.

If there are still a few issues with the picture, there are none with the soundtrack, which as presented in DTS is terrific, really doing justice to Lynch's typically superb sound design. The sound quality and separation are first rate throughout, assaulting you from every direction during Fred's manic jazz performance, sending a jarring electronic scream around you on the momentary appearance of the Mystery Man's face on Renee's body and a thundering bass through your stomach on Fred's nightmare recollection of murder. The 5.1 track is also decent enough, but definitely takes second place to the DTS.

extra features

What really excited me about this edition was the possibility of some great features. Finally a chance to hear more about the making of the film and insight into its inspiration! Sadly, I was sorely disappointed. The Unpublished Interview with David Lynch 2005 sees the man briefly shoot the breeze about several facets of the films plot. A pointless menu lets you break up the short interview into even shorter, themed, sections. And to top off the pointlessness we can see Lynch waffle in three stunningly different angles! What he says is hardly worth the effort, the only half interesting thing mentioned is the psychogenic fugue idea that got critics all of a lather on its first mention nine years ago.

The way this second disc is put together angers me, as it belittles the wonderful film it accompanies. The set of Interviews on location (1996) with stars and director are extended from the interviews in the included Featurette, but what they cunningly do is put these interviews before the featurette on the menu, in order to make you think it's a totally separate deal. Genius!

The Making of is the loosest term possible for the montage of behind the scenes footage that passes for this feature. What we glean from this in the way Lynch directs a picture as about as much as one would if aimlessly wandering around the set in a daze. Who's Who is another wonderful example of how these monkeys tried to make something out of nothing for this second disc. You click on a name, and, wow, you get a few second clip of that character in the film, in absolutely no context! If this is some patronising attempt to make it clearer to the audience who these characters are then it surely doesn't belong with a film that has the greatest respect for its audience's intelligence!

The Teaser and Trailer are what one would expect, a showcase of the Lynchian mode summed up as quickly as the format allows.

Now the only thing that went some way to redeeming this catastrophe for me was the aforementioned Featurette. In its short running time it shows an insight into how Lynch works with interviews (that are duplicated elsewhere on the disc) and on set footage. It is basically putting other elements of the disc together into a coherent structure, and if you ask me, it is the only worth while addition which could have so easily been put on the first disc and not wasted peoples time and precious plastic!


A classic Lynch work and notable piece of cinema history tarnished by a 'special' edition DVD set that is nothing more than a piece of cynical marketing. If I was David Lynch I would have not allowed this edition as it stands as it mars the stature of the work it is supposed to compliment. Oh, for a Criterion-like, extras-packed Lynch DVD!

Lost Highway

USA / France 1997
129 mins
David Lynch
Bill Pullman
Patricia Arquette
Balthazar Getty
Robert Blake
Robert Loggia
Richard Pryor
Jack Nance

DVD details
region 2
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS surround
Making-of featurette

Cinema Club
release date
Out now
review posted
10 May 2006

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See all of Lord Summerisle's reviews