Lost Highway, one of my favorite David Lynch films, has just been released on DVD for the first time since its theatrical release 11 years ago. It was the last of his films that was left to be released on DVD. This effort is one of his weirder ones, but I love it because of how revelatory it is of Lynch, the artist.
With the exception of Lynch's debut film, Eraserhead, Lost Highway is probably most representative of Lynch's artistic sensibility, his influences, and his thematic concerns. That is not to say it is his most successful film. Like with any surrealist, a little Lynch goes a long way.
The film is about Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette). Fred is a jazz musician who is concerned that his wife may be cheating on him. As his jealousy grows, so does the surreal quality of their story. In his book, Catching the Big Fish, Lynch admits that Fred and Renee's story was inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial. He didn't fully realize it at the time, and I suspect that Lynch works these themes out on an almost subconscious level. It becomes all the more eerie when you factor in Robert Blake's casting. He subsequently was arrested for the murder of his wife. The story's Hollywood Hills setting also reinforces the Simpson trial inspiration, while secondarily bringing this film into neo-noir territory.
Clearly, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly was an influence on the look of the film. The opening credit crawl over the yellow highway divider lines is a quote from the same iconic opening shot sequence in Kiss Me Deadly, a 1955 Mike Hammer film noir. We also spend time at a garage where mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) works. This garage is virtually identical if not the same as Nick's garage in Aldrich's movie. And the exploding house in the desert at the climax of Highway is framed similarly to the exploding house in Deadly's denouement. But the movie veers off the gritty track laid by Kiss Me Deadly and travels a more surreal, Lynchian one instead.
Fred goes to a party with his wife where he meets the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), a man who only Fred seems to see. The Mystery Man commands Fred to call his house, telling Fred that he is there. Disbelieving, Fred dials his phone number, and sure enough, the man standing in front of him answers Fred's home phone. When Fred asks how the man was able to do that, the Mystery Man ominously answers, "You invited me in." At this point, you should be well aware that this story is not real. It is taking place in Fred's mind. Another clue that this is the case is Fred's line, "I like to remember things my own way… How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened."
When given free rein, Lynch's work tends to border on the baffling and excessive. What other director would have one actress playing two characters and two actors playing one character as Lynch does in Lost Highway? Luis Buñuel, for one… who cast two actresses to play one character in That Obscure Object of Desire. He's another director that Lynch admits he has long admired in Chris Rodley's book, Lynch on Lynch.
And like Buñuel, his work is much more successful when his odd stories are grounded by reality. For instance, John Merrick's ugliness in the midst of the British high society, in The Elephant Man; Jeffrey Beaumont's discovery of a severed human ear in the empty field on the way to his house, in Blue Velvet; a homecoming queen's murder in the supernatural woods of TV's Twin Peaks. There are moments like that in Lost Highway, such as when Fred and Renee receive a series of videotapes, left on their doorstep anonymously. The first seems harmless enough, just exterior shots of their home. The next one is more disturbing, tracking right into their home to the bedroom where Fred and Renee are sleeping. Moments like these make your skin crawl. And I mean that in a good way.
While I wish I could interpret its meaning for you, I think it wiser to let the film speak for itself. And if you have trouble figuring it out, I'll give you one hint: try to interpret it like you would symbols in a dream, not symbolism in a literary work. It will make sense a whole lot more if you accept that some of it won't make sense.