Two-Lane Blackout

David Lynch's Lost Highway begins in overdrive, the yellow lines of a very dark road zooming past the frame, the viewer being hurled at full throttle toward...where? If this first shot hints at the Lynchian world that awaits us--the way Eraserhead's opening image of a brain-like planet signifies inner space, and Blue Velvet's swaying curtain suggests a plush, gaudy theatricality--then Lost Highway is a movie that traffics in pure sensation, perhaps to no end. Those who prefer knowing where they're headed can consider this a warning: Here, the road leads nowhere in particular; what you pay for is the ride.

To say that Lost Highway might be this decade's Vertigo is to compliment Lynch on his indelibly paranoid dreamscape, and also to reveal his primary source. Like Hitchcock's downward spiral, this is a portrait of male sexual obsession in which the obsessed suffers a mysterious blackout after his lover's death, and is then reawakened with the help of another lover who looks a lot like the first. Obsessed himself with the Hitchcock classic, Lynch tips his hat by presenting his heroine's "reincarnation" in sexy slo-mo--she exiting a vintage Cadillac as if from the hero's dream, her platinum-blonde hair bouncing to the beat of a Lou Reed tune. Because this second femme fatale is played, like the first, by Patricia Arquette, we have to wonder if she's back from the dead or just wearing a wig. Or maybe these two are sisters, or maybe they share the same black soul. Per usual with Lynch, Woman signifies a scary enigma; our approval is contingent on reading this as a movie about gynophobia rather than a manifestation of it.

Not surprisingly, Lynch walks a fine line in Lost Highway. His homme futile is Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), an L.A. saxophonist who's plagued by suspicions that his wife is sleeping around. (One piece of evidence: She's uninterested in attending his late-night jazz gig.) From the beginning, as the auteur's flair for household surrealism likens this marriage to a Freudian nightmare, Renee (Arquette) seems purely a figment of her husband's imagination; one night in bed, he imagines her wearing the face of a strange man. Fred's fear (of penetration?) is multiplied when the Madisons begin receiving a series of anonymous videotapes shot in and around their house, the camera in each consecutive "episode" moving closer to their bed. The director of these home movies might be a pasty-faced "Mystery Man" with no eyebrows (Robert Blake), who meets Fred at a swank party in the Hollywood Hills, and informs him that he's occupying the Madisons' house even as they speak--and that he never goes anywhere without being invited.

Thus implying that the husband has unconsciously wished for an altered state, Lost Highway proceeds to deliver him a doozy. Without giving it away, let's just say that Lynch, adhering to the basic structure of Vertigo while obscuring it considerably, begins the film's second half by picking up the story of a horny young auto mechanic named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty, perfectly aping Pullman's lethargic mannerisms). This new tale is stuffed with dual personalities and inverted signifiers: As Arquette returns in the form of a sexed-up gangster's moll named Alice, the protagonist has switched from a cuckolded husband into the adulterous Pete, who cavorts with Alice behind the back of Mr. Eddie (Robert Loggia), a.k.a. "Dick Laurent." The Madisons' VCR reappears as a 16mm projector that screens pornographic home movies in a mansion owned by Andy (Michael Massee), formerly Fred's rival. The hero is again a victim of sexual paranoia, only this time it's justified, as Alice unveils a shady scheme for which Pete falls so easily as to suggest that he's never seen a film noir.

Just as Fred appears to regress into the safety of another personality, so Lost Highway detours from its original course in order to chart various trademark Lynchisms. Albeit more confidently than in Wild at Heart, the director revamps some of his more familiar traits, seemingly in trade for surefire arthouse distribution: hence the perverse cameos (by Richard Pryor, Henry Rollins, and Mink Stole), the bizarre non sequiturs, the sudden eruptions of ultraviolence, the vast quantities of sex, the intense volume of the soundtrack (orchestrated in part by Trent Reznor), and the high-pitched tone of practically every scene. For the most part, this hyperbolic style results in a film that's immensely enjoyable to watch, but which turns ugly in the last half-hour, as Lynch feels the need to literalize the female trouble that used to reside in his male characters' psyches. Naturally, Arquette bears the brunt of this in a role that eventually reduces her to a sexual pawn, reciting bitchy-spooky-stupid dialogue like, "You'll never have me."

All of this contributes to the funhouse/freakshow aesthetic that, for better or worse, defines the '90s cinema according to David Lynch. Having postmodernized TV with Twin Peaks, the director here elevates movie surrealism to quasi-blockbuster proportions--with mixed results. On the one hand, as Lynch has lost none of his ability to alter the viewer's consciousness, it's thrilling to see his hallucinatory style operating on such a grand scale--not to mention his outrageously bold maneuver of withholding a resolution to the mystery at hand. But here's another unsolved mystery: Are the laws of commercial cinema so rigid that Lynch couldn't lose his vulgarity and still gross big?

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