LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

Twin femme fatale porn stars, a gory biological transmogifrication, and a multi-dimensional voyeuristic midget in face paint: Yes, David Lynch is being weird again. The director of such classic oddities as Blue Velvet, Dune, Eraserhead, Wild at Heart, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me has returned with a movie even further out there -- the hallucinatory film noir Lost Highway. Although Lynch used to maintain a modicum of sense in his work, now the director swerves madly all over the place, fusing images from his previous films into a chaotic pastiche of lust, nightmares, violence, and shadows. The result is...well, weird. At times, the film is as eerie, sexy, and thrilling as a midnight cruise down a desolate road with the headlights off. At others, it is as insipid, repetitive, and deadening as the broken yellow line passing under your car.

Few directors can beat Lynch at creating mood, and, in the film's opening, he makes the flat-roofed, stucco suburbs of Los Angeles seem as creepy and supernatural as the log cabins and fir forests of Twin Peaks. Here, we meet Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a tenor saxophonist, and his alluring yet strangely distant wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). The couple's chilly relationship grows more complicated when they discover that someone videotapes their more private moments, then leaves copies on their doorstep. Much weirdness ensues, culminating in Renee's murder and Fred's death sentence for a crime he doesn't quite remember.

And then it REALLY gets weird. While awaiting his execution, Fred transforms into Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young auto mechanic. The cops are as clueless as we are, and so they decide to set Peter free and monitor him. Soon, Peter accidentally gets involved in the machinations of bloodthirsty mogul Dick Morant (Robert Loggia), and his alluring yet strangely familiar moll, Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette, now blonde). From thence, Fred/Peter (and the audience) are faced with the daunting task of finding out why there are two Patricia Arquettes, and, more importantly, just what the hell is going on.

Lost Highway is, in true Lynchian spirit, undeniably and unavoidably hypnotic. Yet, compared to other Lynch pics, this film suffers from too little coherence and too much self-indulgence. While Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet made small-town reality seem twisted and nightmarish, Lost Highway foregoes reality completely, a decision that ultimately detracts from the movie. Lynch favors style over substance and mood over plot to such a degree that his gripping vision eventually loses hold, leaving the audience confused and perhaps a little bored. It seems he is trying to make a point about the double identity of us all -- the person we are and the person we want to be -- but, frankly, David Fincher did it better two years later in Fight Club.

Still more irritating is Lynch's excessive homage to himself. True, his visual iconography makes for one of the better directorial portfolios around, but do we really need to see the man rip himself off? Lynch stole many of the recurring images -- highway at night, bloody hands, sizzling ceiling lights, television static, close-ups of lips, red curtains -- from his other, better pictures. Indeed, it seems as if the entire Lynch canon were superimposed onto Lost Highway. The "Bill Pullman meets the Midget Ghost" segment recalls much of Fire Walk With Me; Getty's adventures with sex-crazed sickos share quite a bit with Blue Velvet; and the finale in the desert plays out like the car wreck scene of Wild at Heart.

Perhaps because he is snarfing so much of his own material, Lynch often oversteps his bounds. Robert Loggia's excessive beating of a tailgater seems gratuitously brutal, while many of the scenes of Arquette as porn queen scamper away from the erotic and crawl into the tasteless. If you've seen and enjoyed every other David Lynch film, then you might as well indulge in this unnerving delusion. But if you've passed up the main courses, don't try to skip to dessert -- rent one of Lynch's other flicks instead. Lost Highway is decently horrifying, but mediocre by Lynch standards.

[First Draft appeared in Harvard Independent, 1997.]

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