This 1997 neo-noir film is directed by David Lynch, somewhat notorious for films whose meaning is not readily apparent. I can think of three possible interpretations for this bizarre narrative. Or it might be something else entirely. There will be spoilers.
The story starts with a character who has a strained relationship with his wife. At the start of the film the man hears his door intercom go off, and a voice says ‘Dick Laurent is dead.’ After some odd goings on involving a creepy mystery man, he is arrested for her murder, even though he has no memory of this event. While awaiting execution he somehow changes into another character, who is released from jail and goes about his own life, entirely different from the original character. He meets a woman who looks like the dead wife, who is the girlfriend of a mobster (Dick Laurent), and with whom he starts to have an affair. At the end he changes back to the original character, kills the mobster (with the help of the creepy man), and, after stopping at his own home, pressing his buzzer, and announcing ‘Dick Laurent is dead’, flees the police.
It’s a visually striking film, as Lynch’s films so often are. The director uses lighting to create a mood of confusion and paranoia, with normal scenes suddenly morphing into surrealism with jagged, flickering lights, to obscure what is going on. The supposed video footage is so grainy it can barely be seen, only hinting at scenes rather than clearly depicting them. The narrative takes a surreal turn quite early, but the protagonist, while confused, doesn’t really seem to question this or look for alternative explanations. Other characters also seem to accept apparently impossible situations on face value, such as releasing the person they find in the protagonist’s cell without any apparent investigation into how he got there.
The cast were mostly good. Bill Pullman, as the main character Fred, is excellent. His confusion at the beginning of the movie, and his acceptance and dissociation at the end, make the character very believable in spite of the surreal goings on. Robert Blake plays the ‘mystery man’, and he is suitably weird and creepy throughout. (I found a similarity to a creepy character in an older film called ‘Carnival of Souls’.) Robert Loggia is excellent as the violent and somewhat unhinged Dick Laurent. I found Patricia Arquette a bit lacklustre in her dual role of Renee and Alice. She seemed a bit wooden in her portrayal. That may have been intentional, but it was a distraction as far as I was concerned.
So, what does it all mean? I have three theories.
Theory number one – Fred is psychotic. He states near the start of the film that he doesn’t like video because he prefers to remember things his own way instead of how they happened. So, the mystery man isn’t real. He’s a projection of Fred’s psyche, of his jealousy and suspicion of his wife, who appears to be having an affair with Dick Laurent and another character. This is why he accepts the impossible events. He kills both Renee and Dick, and he is sentenced to death for this. The illogical sequence of events, including the fantastical change of character and release from prison, is Fred’s fantasy, though even this fantasy becomes poisoned by the reappearance of his wife and Laurent, and accordingly his jealousy personified as the mystery man. He becomes himself again to murder Laurent (this of course happened earlier but he is reliving it now), and the morphing of his character at the end of the film signals irretrievable psychosis.
Theory number two – Fred is the victim of a demon. The mystery man is a demon, possibly summoned by Fred’s anger at his wife’s infidelity. This is how he can speak to Fred on the phone while simultaneously standing in front of him. Fred doesn’t know how his wife died because the demon did it, (probably while possessing Fred). The demon changes Fred into someone else, allowing him to be released from prison so he can pursue Dick Laurent. The demon is also Alice, appearing as a facsimile of Renee in order to fuel Fred’s lust and jealousy (even if he doesn’t actually remember he’s Fred at this point, and believes he is a mechanic called Pete). The demon puts the knife in Fred’s hand, and the demon fires the gun. Fred’s words at the door of his house are said by the demon, crossing back through time to start the whole sequence of events. Fred is then left running from the police.
Theory number three – it doesn’t mean anything and Lynch is messing with the audience.
As a long time fantasy fan I have a soft spot for my second theory. I will confess, however, that theory one is more likely.
So, “Lost Highway” isn’t a straightforward film, but if you enjoy films that fuel endless speculation, this one’s for you.
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