The Enduring Importance of ‘Lost Highway’: The Lynchian Nightmare Unrestrained

With that gum you like coming back in style, David Lynch is back on everyone’s minds. The upcoming relaunch of Twin Peaks has everyone talking about Lynch and his uncompromising “weirdness.” Weird is the oft-used shorthand for the Lynchian oeuvre, a kind of lazy workaround that we can all readily agree upon without having to worry so much about putting too much thought into whatever it is that Lynch is ultimately trying to accomplish.

Which isn’t to say that “weird” isn’t an operative word. As a director, Lynch thrives in weirdness. There isn’t really any disputing this as anything other than fact. What everyone misses in their assessment, however, is the hows and whys of Lynch’s weirdness, choosing instead to use “weird” as the be all end all of the conversation.

Getting behind the machinations of Lynch’s singular vision requires a bit of thought regarding what, exactly, it is that he’s doing. Lynch has built his entire voice on a bizarre juxtaposition of the real and unreal, where the strange exists in concert with the mundane along a winding path of absurdity that people tend to misunderstand as lacking logic. The logic is there in droves. It makes perfect sense when you accept that what Lynch is offering is a peek into logic of dreams. Specifically, of nightmares.

Lynch movies have always been nightmarish, but whereas most of the time when that word is used it denotes a feeling of terror and dread, here it should be taken literally. In the world of dreams, the people and places of your subconscious flow without any rhyme or reason—at least, not one that’s readily discernible. The hallway of your childhood home can lead to the door to your current office, where you find that your first girlfriend is your boss, and you don’t question it because, in the context if your psyche, it makes a kind of sense. It might seem “weird” when you wake up and tell it to someone, but there’s a clearly defined logic at play.

Lynch has made an impeccable use of this style of filmmaking through his entire career; though most (perhaps rightly) associate this with his magnum opus, Twin Peaks, it’s actually another of his works, Lost Highway, where this style is utilized to its most full and, well, fucking weird.

lost highway mystery man

Lost Highway celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, just ahead of the premiere of the Twin Peaks reboot, which debuts May 21 on Showtime. Rewatching now, Lost Highway almost feels like a necessary companion piece to Twin Peaks, if not outright sequel. There’s been some debate over the years as to whether or not the two exist in the same universe. I would argue the answer is yes, with a great big ol’ asterisk.

The universe in question is not a shared universe as we’ve come to know and understand it. I don’t think we can ever expect to see Robert Blake’s Mystery Man sharing deep thoughts with Bob or The Man From Another Place. Rather, the universe in which both stories exist is the universe of Lynch’s nightmares, sharing a thematic link that comprises a sort of trilogy (ending with Mulholland Drive). All three explore ideas about doppelgangers and violence in a noir style cemented in the absurd.

As bizarre as it is on first watch, Lost Highway is an easy nut to crack . It’s simply an exploration of jealousy, with a bit of psychosis thrown in for good measure. Essentially, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) murders his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) while in the midst of a jealousy fueled psychotic break and then, unable to deal with what he’s done, invents the persona of Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) in an attempt to distance himself from his atrocity.

What makes this seem like such a difficult and absurd tale is Lynch’s use of nightmares as a structure. Lost Highway is, essentially, a dreamscape—not a dream, per se, but it unfolds as a nightmare would. Settings and characters change abruptly—good luck trying to figure out the layout of Pullman’s house—as the real and unreal intertwine in twisted congress.

Accepting this, it’s easier to begin taking the events of Lost Highway at face value. Why does Fred inexplicably morph into the mild-mannered repairman Pete? It doesn’t really matter. Wondering that misses the point. So what, exactly, is the point?

lost highway fred

It’s probably important to know that Lynch began his artistic career as a painter. His tenure as an artist has run along two different paths which influence each other in subtle and not so subtle ways. As a painter, Lynch focuses his efforts on creating surreal images that challenge viewers to take trips into the dark recesses of their psyche, using oddly juxtaposed images to spark feeling in his audience. His work is both evocative and provocative; erotic and terrifying. Sometimes, all these things at once.

It’s almost uncomfortable to view his artistic works in a single place—surreal portraits of Americana existing side by side with noirish photography and childish scribblings—but, as an artist, Lynch isn’t interested in your comfort. To look at his works is to gain insight into his overall perspective, which is heavily focused on the dark and hidden corners of modern living. (You can see some of his works here; a few are NSFW.)

With this in mind, we can begin to crack the shell of Lost Highway—or, really, his entire cinematic catalog—even further. The films of David Lynch aren’t films as we traditionally think of them, they’re works of living art, designed and constructed by their creator to evoke, provoke, and terrify not as narrative but as experiences. This is the angle from which criticism of Lost Highway should be approached.

lost highway mystery man camcorder

This also accounts for the poor reception the film received upon its release. In 1997, Lynch was still riding high on the Twin Peaks wave, and people were starting to expect what they ought not to have expected from him as a director (same for those not immediately on board with Fire Walk with Me). People enthralled by Twin Peaks were so due to the perceived weirdness of the series without bothering to consider that the weirdness was the point, in and of itself, and didn’t require any further explanation.

Besides, explanation tends to ruin Lynch’s storytelling. Ratings for Twin Peaks plummeted after the Big Reveal in the middle of season two, and the rest of the series’ truncated run found them scrambling to keep the weirdness factor alive to keep audiences interested. It didn’t work, not immediately anyway. Though eventually the mythology of the Black Lodge and the lookalikes would propel Twin Peaks to the point of resurrection, without the central mystery as a compelling agent, people were, by and large, disinterested.

It wasn’t really a shock when Fire Walk with Me bombed at the box office; people expected closure and got a prequel that pushed the absolute limits of the surreal, like a Dali painting depicting murder in the heart of Little Town, USA. Lost Highway represented a doubling down of this aesthetic from Lynch, which removes the trappings of soap operas from the themes and forces audiences to journey along a dark, inner road of memory and psychosis.

lost highway eyes

Removing the soap operatic façade of Twin Peaks (people forget, much of that series played on common tropes and clichés of the form) allowed Lynch to play around in a similar universe unencumbered by expectation or standards. It became a Black Lodge story sans context, furthering the notion that the Black Lodge exists as a dark part of all of us, rather than a mysterious purgatory just outside our normal comprehension and perception. The Black Lodge is not a physical place but a psychological one; we can only comprehend it via the language of nightmares.

Whether or not Twin Peaks shares a universe with Lost Highway is ultimately irrelevant. What it shares is a thematic thread that finds Lynch exploring the ideas of inner darkness and turmoil, and the thread is wound so tightly that both works, at the very least, share the same air. Though Twin Peaks is the more culturally important work, Lost Highway is more grand.

It’s also the work that showcases Lynch’s most substantial growth as a filmmaker. Though his techniques (and even themes) are arguably explored best in Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway finds Lynch coming into his own as a surrealistic filmmaker with a nightmarish vision for humanity.

Fred is none of us, but he could be any of us. Anyone predisposed to the kind of jealous intensity of psychosis on Lost Highway’s main character could, given the right set of circumstances, succumb to the darkest of human impulses, even if they’re otherwise “good people.” For Fred, life is a nightmare from which he can’t awaken. He stumbles through existence alternating through jealousy over his inability to come to terms with his wife’s sexual history, his rage over her infidelity, and his latent psychosis that becomes exacerbated by his jealous rage.

lost highway jail

What we’re witnessing, then, though it’s never stated, is Fred’s self-imprisonment within the Black Lodge—a world of nightmares, hidden truths, and duplicates. If Bob is a demon which murders for pleasure, the Mystery Man is a demon with a higher purpose. His is a one of detached truth (represented by the camcorder he carries in the last act) that sees things for how they truly are, untainted by the spoils of perception—something Fred, by his own admission, avoids at all costs.

He’s the voice that whispers our misdeeds that we try to ignore, the truth that won’t go unsaid. When he casually informs Fred, “It’s not my custom to go where I am not wanted,” Lynch is telling us that Fred invited this all upon himself. Fred is in a nightmare of his design. The closest he gets to waking up is when Alice, the duplicate of his wife Renee, tells Pete, Fred’s subconscious perception of himself, “You’ll never have me.”

Literally, Fred can never have Renee because he murdered her. Figuratively, Fred never had her because he couldn’t ever overcome the jealousy of her sexual history. Admittedly, Lynch hides all of this in a façade of weirdness; the crux of Lost Highway is easy enough to grasp, but it’s not enough for Lynch merely to opine “jealousy can destroy you.” As an artist, he wants you to experience it for yourself.

lost highway renee alice

The narrative disorientation you feel watching it is not dissimilar from Fred’s disorientation as he spirals down the path to psychosis and murder. Jealousy obscures our thoughts and our perceptions, and no amount of truth can set us free. Lost Highway’s success as a work of art hinges on our inability to free ourselves from the confines of traditional narrative structure. The journey from A to B in this case is a lot shorter than it may first appear, but it’s the dizzying path Lynch leads us down that, ultimately, is the point.

This is probably important to keep in mind as we gear up for the new run of Twin Peaks on Showtime. The thematic thread that holds Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and later Mulholland Drive so closely together is surely still wound tightly through whatever it is that Lynch is about to do to us. It’s been a good while since we’ve had a proper Lynch experience as audiences, so it would do us well to remember what exactly we mean when we talk about Lynch. Answers are easy to come by, obscured though they might be, and they’re never as interesting as the process of finding them. That’s the real lesson of Lost Highway, which stands, two decades later, as the ultimate Lynchian monument to surrealistic storytelling.

Lost Highway had one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. Give it another listen below.

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