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“We’ve met before, haven’t we?”: David Lynch’s Lost Highway

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(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 7

7. Lost Highway, dir. David Lynch

I’m finding it difficult to come up with something interesting to say about this movie, arguably the most critically divisive film in the already divisive ouevre of David Lynch. The first time I saw it I spent its duration riveted, then felt that give way to borderline outrage after the credits rolled: What the hell just happened? Was it the work of a genius, or just lousy storytelling? And can we please get that scary fucking man with no eyebrows out of my head before I have to go to sleep?

I probably don’t have to draw you a map from there. I’m a horror guy, and this movie scared the bejesus out of me. Anything that frightening deserved another viewing. So (with a great deal of encouragement from The Missus), I gave it a second chance.

And a third. And a fourth. And God knows how many others throughout my entire college career. Lost Highway was not so much a film for me and my friends as it was a five-hour experience: two hours to watch, three hours to think and talk it over. We advanced all sorts of theories to explain the bizarre leaps in narrative logic, the nature of the various doppelgangers and doubles, and the origin of the Mystery Man (Robert Blake in his second-most disturbing performance ever). We marvelled at the gorgeous cinematography, which particularly in the first segment of the film gives everything an elegantly morbid, textural feel, like immersing the palm of your hand in a vat of black nailpolish; and at the brilliant use of sound, which coaxes as much menace and emotion from the sound of breathing as it does from a soundtrack that’s at turns ambient and roaring (one assembled by nine inch nails mastermind Trent Reznor). We compared the film to other Lynch efforts, the most germane being the surrealist mood piece Eraserhead and the supernatural horror of Twin Peaks and its theatrical prequel Fire Walk with Me. We’d stay up until the wee hours going over every line of dialogue, every move of the camera and change of lighting. And then we’d go to bed, and we’d only be a little scared that we’d turn around to see a stranger’s face. “It looked like you, but it wasn’t.”

Honestly, pretty much every other movie I’ve tackled during this month’s marathon, I feel like I could make a good case for–that if you saw it and didn’t like it, I might be able to bring things to mind that’d make you reconsider. This one, I’m not so sure. Experience suggests that even among fans of difficult cinema in general and/or Lynch in particular, this is a movie you either love or hate. (Though it’s tempting, I won’t say “you either get it or you don’t”–some people have definitely told me that they got it, alright, but it was still stupid.) For me, there’s just so much to love. The gallows humor, for instance–this is not something that usually appeals to me, but from Mr. Eddy’s lesson in highway safety to “Dent Head,” it’s there and it works. As I said earlier, the film is extraordinarily well made, and that alone makes it worth studying. Patricia Arquette is just stunning throughout the film, and gives the whole proceeding heat. (By the way, the steamy eroticism is not the only thing this movie has in common with another favorite horror flick of mine, Della’morte Dell’amore–I like to describe that movie as Lost Highway with zombies.)

And the horror is played flawlessly. Lynch, who proved himself the equal of Hitchcock at constructing tension on film in scenes like the closet sequence in Blue Velvet does it again here. He wrenches amazing tension and dread out of the accoutrements of modern living–phone calls and videotapes especially. In several deeply frightening scenes, no violence is involved, no monster or maniac pursues anyone–characters simply hear someone’s voice on the line, or watch something on their VCR. What they see and hear is self-evidently wrong, wrong enough to terrify character and audience alike. It culminates in a scene near the end, when the Mystery Man produces a video camera and tapes the our hero, who attempts to escape. As he struggels with the ignition of his car, we cut to the videocamera-eye-view, seeing the car draw closer and closer as we the Mystery Man approach faster and faster. We’re a part of this horror film now, even if we can’t make sense of it. Funny, but that’s pretty much how I felt ever since I first watched it.

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About Sean T. Collins

  • HH

    Definitely a frightening film but not up there with Mulholland Dr. at all… that’s not a horror film per se but it’s damn scary at times.

  • Lily

    Good review. I like that you didn’t just fall into the trap of dismissing the film’s incredible mise en scene simply because it has an unconventional plot. so many reviewers merely whinge about the fact that that they “didn’t know what the hell was happening” etc. but, just quietly, who gives a fuck? surely it’s a refreshing change to see, nay, EXPERIENCE a film where you are forced to actively engage and participate?! and it’s not like it’s some amateur production; Lynch is very deliberate in his choices- just look at his use of colour and texture (as you wonderfully pointed out!) in the cinematography, as well as the contrasting musical score…

    so it shirks convention in the realm of storyline. pfft! it’s about time audiences were plot-challenged!