Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Lost Highway (1997) dir. David Lynch
Starring: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake
By Alan Bacchus
At any given time David Lynch has the ability to make the scariest movie of all time. He hasn’t because he’s purposely avoided making mainstream movies for virtually his entire career. Lost Highway displays the best of Lynch’s supreme talent in creeping us out with seemingly minimal effort. It’s one of his most beguiling films even by Lynch's standards – a twisting nightmare about the dual identities and dimensions of a man who’s framed for murdering his wife – I think.
Bill Pullman plays Fred Madison, a guy who lives in L.A. with his ravenous wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). It appears to be a relationship that is cold as ice, as the two rarely share more than a few even-tempered words with each other. A series of anonymous packages start appearing at their door containing video cassettes that have been mysteriously taped from within their house. When one of the videotapes shows Fred killing his wife he’s suddenly found to be a murderer and is sent to prison. While in jail Fred morphs into a younger man with a different identity – Pete Dayton (Balthasar Getty).
After Pete is released from prison the film switches gears to observe his doppleganger life. He encounters some of the same seedy L.A. underworld creepsters involved in setting Fred up for murder. Pete is seduced by a blonde version of Renee – Alice Wakefield – who is married to the mob boss heavy, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who also goes by the name Dick Laurent in the Fred Madison dimension. When the time is right Pete morphs back into Fred just in time and enlists the help of a creepy, eyebrowless mystery man (Robert Blake) to exact revenge on his enemies.
Out of all of Lynch's films, Lost Highway features some of his best cinematography. Peter Deming (Scream) is at the helm on this film, and the darkness and shadows play a large role in creating the suspense of the unknown. The audience is continually trying to figure out what is going on, and Deming enhances this feeling by limiting what’s visible on screen and purposely framing in the shadows. The film is so delicately underlit that it’s difficult for ordinary standard definition DVDs/televisions to hold the heavy contrast of black and white. It’s a shame that a Blu-ray version is not yet available.
Patricia Arquette deserves some kind of award for her performance as Renee/Alice. She undresses for Mr. Lynch in no less than five scenes, not including the black and white porno film her character appears in late in the film. Though she’s always ravishing and incredibly sexy, I couldn’t help but feel a little dirty for watching and enjoying Arquette get naked so many times. If the film wasn't directed by Lynch and was perceived as experimental art cinema, would we call it exploitation?
Of course you can argue that the film is about exploitation. But who exactly is being exploited? Fred appears to have been set up for the murder of his wife, but by whom? Is it Alice, Renee’s doppleganger sister? Or is it Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent? Or is it Renee/Alice who is exploited by Laurent into being his porn-star sex slave. I’d argue it was manipulation as opposed to exploitation. Either way, does it justify Arquette’s depiction on film? Since the last DVD release from 2008 is devoid of all special features, we don’t get to know Ms. Arquette's reflections on the film. They will likely remain a mystery.
I’ve had many debates comparing this film to Mulholland Drive. The themes of dual identities and the subconscious ability to switch between them in times of trauma or need inevitably marry the two films together. I personally prefer Mulholland Drive, which moves the audience between extreme emotional highs and lows and makes a clear statement about the dreamworld vs. reality of Hollywood. If there’s a fault to Lost Highway it's that it never succeeds in making a clear point. But as an exercise in style, it’s a masterpiece of psychological horror and sustained suspense. Enjoy.