There's a very specific anxiety in David Lynch's Lost Highway that turns some people off which isn't present in Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire. It's pensive male anxiety, and for some cultural reason it's easier for audiences to accept female hysteria than the insecurities of men. One could argue that Eraserhead was also about male anxiety, since that character was dealing with a contemptuous, hostile wife and a forced parenthood to a mewling alien baby, but that took place in a black-and-white industrial zone that could have been post-apocalyptic or buried in the heart of a Pittsburgh steel town. It was more of an underground film than Lost Highway, which, for all its surrealism and dream logic, takes place in contemporary Los Angeles.
First glimpsed anxiously waiting in his darkened, minimalist apartment, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is lit by the dim red glow of his cigarette. The close-up lingers on his grim, fatigued visage, and the imprecisely unsettling, vaguely primordial sound that we've come to associate as "Lynchian" drifts underneath. He hears a voice on the intercom announce, "Dick Laurent is dead," and when he looks out the window, no one is there. It's like a hazy bad dream, but can't be labeled male dread per se. Yet we can already tell Madison is hollow and uncomfortable, showing the first signs of encroaching age, with a charged aloofness that feels like the burnt-out embers of now-exhausted charisma.
The next scene does not let up on the bottomless tension. Fred hesitates before leaving the house for his nighttime gig of playing tenor sax at a local jazz club. In a two-shot that seems like it lasts forever, he lingers next to his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette), a beautiful and distracted beauty with gothic dark hair and polished black fingernails. When she tells him she'd rather stay home and read, their slow-motion line deliveries and awkward smiles suggest bottomless tension. "Read…? Read what?" Fred responds, and as in the plays of Edward Albee, their light banter and smiles indicate unresolved hostilities and impending danger. "It's nice to know I can still make you laugh," he whispers, and when next we see him he's assaulting the stage with his frenetic, howling saxophone. It's be-bop rhythm gone savage.
When Fred calls home, no one is there to pick up the phone, but when he returns, she's innocently laying in bed. Their love scene is best described as downbeat, with Fred looking away from her as his body contorts in sweaty terror and she abstractly runs her hands along his back. Lynch films the scene in rich, sensual darkness, with close-ups of the contours of bodies, fingers curling in anticipation or frustration, and faces like emotional maps. While it's too electric to be described as arid, the scene plays as if they were underwater or sleepwalking. The balance feels off somehow, and when she gently touches him afterward, this consolatory gesture reeks of pity. Up until this point, Lynch has used spare dialogue and the contrast of warm tones and deep shadows to convey a hotbed of deeply repressed feelings.
Then Lynch veers into the scene that remains the centerpiece of Lost Highway, where the husband and wife attend one of those ghastly nighttime parties where all the beautiful people, engaged in non-conversations and synchronized dances, are gathered around a neon-lit swimming pool. While Renee coyly attracts the attention of other men, Fred orders two drinks for them at the bar and ends up downing them himself. A man in black (Robert Blake) approaches, with pale white skin and a curt, debonair manner, and claims to have met Fred before…at his house…doesn't he remember? All of the sound of the party drops out, and close-ups of Fred and the stranger maximize the tension as Fred, growing ever anxious, claims not to remember. "As a matter of fact," the stranger says, "I'm there right now." And indeed, when Fred calls home a brick-sized cellular phone (which places Lost Highway in the mid-1990s as surely as the Nine Inch Nails/Marilyn Manson soundtrack, sadly losing the timelessness of most of Lynch's work), the stranger picks up and laughs at him from the other end.
I dwell so exhaustively on the opening 45 minutes of Lost Highway because it contains some of Lynch's most haunting, prosaic work. While Lynch's sensibility cannot help but dip into surrealism with his obsessive sound design that makes every interior living room scene feel like it's hermetically sealed deep within the bowels of a factory, in these early scenes he doesn't lean on his customary images of fire, flowing red curtains, and rotting decay. Even the appearance of two Mutt and Jeff detectives, one stretched out and lanky, the other squat and portly, and both spouting out self-conscious pulp dialogue, doesn't feel like a total indulgence, since they draw out Fred's ambivalence about reality: "I like to remember things my own way. How I remember them; not necessarily the way they happened."
Distortion and reshaping of memory into something more fantastic than the unhappy circumstances of real life—that's what most critics read into the narrative shift in Mulholland Drive, but its precursor was Fred's leap into an alternate reality, even a completely different personality, in Lost Highway. When Fred and Renee return home from the party, there is a strange light flickering inside the house, and shortly afterward, under bizarre circumstances, Renee is discovered beaten into a gore-soaked pulp with a half-naked Fred covered in her blood, weeping and holding her corpse in his arms. While the narrative is fractured here, the police (and the viewer) assume that Fred killed her, and in his now catatonic state he's in no position to deny it. Until now, Lost Highway is lean and tense, and it starts to go slack during a prison sequence that feels like a Warner Bros. B movie from the back lot got illogically wedged into one of Antonioni's chronicles of slow-burning anxiety. All of a sudden, Lynch is self-consciously tossing in creepy old men with hangdog faces as prison doctors and wardens, and Henry Rollins appears as a death row guard.
Just as we fear Lynch will get into the scattershot weirdness of season-two Twin Peaks, the story takes a giant turn, and Fred disappears from the narrative altogether. Discovered in the prison cell is a young hipster named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who is an auto mechanic with no criminal record. He's handsome, disaffected, wears a black leather jacket, drives a motorcycle, lives at home with his aging biker parents (Gary Busey and Lucy Butler), has an attractive girlfriend that adores him (Natasha Gregson Wagner), and seems to be all-around sexier than Fred. When he broods, it's like James Dean suffering beautifully. Everything would be picture perfect, were it not for the fact that Pete has a nagging lapse in his memory. Something happened to him on one portentous night, but when he asks his parents about it they become paralyzed with terror and refuse to even speak of it or acknowledge it.
In these domestic scenes, the second half of Lost Highway captures some of the intensity of the first. When the parents tighten up with unspoken horror during the conversation about "what happened that night," it equals, if not surpasses, the feeling that some intangible nightmare is taking over the comforts of a pleasant, familial home, and the coziness of the couch and the warm fireplace is cursed by invisible, oppressive forces. But that's not the road Lynch is interested in traversing, and Pete's story is more of a traditional gangster noir where this young mechanic falls in love at first sight with a blond femme fatale named Alice (Arquette, who may be playing Renee's sister or an alternate version of the same character). We know he adores her because when she appears at the garage, the close-ups are in ultra-slow motion and Lou Reed achingly sings "This Magic Moment" on the soundtrack.
Trouble is, Alice is the moll for a gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). He's so ferocious, when he catches a tailgater on Mulholland Drive, he runs the guy off the road, pistol-whips him into bloody submission, and gives him a ranting lecture on automobile safety. Pete and Alice recklessly begin a torrid affair, sneaking off to hotel rooms or the backseat of Mr. Eddy's prize Cadillac. The sex scenes are idyllic, often shot in heavenly white light, but short-lived. Mr. Eddy soon discovers who is two-timing him, and Pete is dragged into a web of robbery, murder, and B-movie intrigue in order to save himself and Alice from the gangster's clutches.
Some have read the deliberately movie-like elements of Pete's story, which seem lifted from various pulp fictions from over the years, as Fred re-imagines himself as a cooler guy in a more dynamic, adventurous situation, replacing Renee with the more voluptuous, eager Alice. That's a fair assessment, but many of the elements feel clunky and cliché. The character of Mr. Eddy is almost a parody of Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, and Loggia goes for broke with a spitfire performance, but this raging animal is all bark and no real bite. This is because he's so clearly a fictional construct, an imagining of what a tough-guy gangster is supposed to be like in a noir story, and as such you can't take him seriously. Likewise, the detectives who follow Pete around (and take on a larger role than the dim-bulb cops in Fred's story) are also reminders that we're watching a movie. Quentin Tarantino does this sort of winking all the time, but Lynch shouldn't. His work is always stronger when it feels like he's tapping into the subterranean aspects of real life, and the oddness of his movies is striking because they get much closer at the primal, hungry impulses of real people than most films. When he's aping other films, it's never as compelling, or as emotionally true.
There's more depth in Pete's story when it avoids the gangster elements altogether. A scene without dialogue where Pete sits in his backyard gazing forlornly at the neighbor's backyard, with an empty toddler's pool and a lonely ball floating on the surface, is a poignant moment about Pete and his distracted state of mind, or maybe a longing for the simplicity of childhood. It's something the viewer can relate to and empathize with. But when Pete is sneaking through the house of a sleazy pimp, waiting to bash him over the head with a champagne bottle so he and Alice can steal his money and escape together, we're in the realm of fantasy. Lynch's surrealism is not to be confused with this sort of idle storytelling, and Lost Highway doesn't resonate as emotionally true again until the narrative starts fracturing once more and Pete is (don't ask how) wandering down a hallway, his nose bleeding profusely so his chin is dripping with crimson, and every door he opens blasts him with blinding white light and images of Alice/Renee mock him with statements like, "You'll never have me!"
There are perplexing or misguided elements that run throughout this second half, including distracting cameo appearances (a muscular dystrophy-stricken Richard Pryor as the auto shop owner; Marilyn Manson as the victim in a snuff film), vague portentous statements about mystical executioners from the Far East, an over-reliance on trance metal by Trent Reznor and Rammstein, and an irresponsible attitude toward violence (when a key character gets killed off, Lynch can't resist having him say a few one-liners while bleeding to death). But even as Lost Highway runs itself off the rails, Lynch still conjures up powerful images and memorable oddities. A cabin in the middle of the desert seems to be exploding in flames, but whenever Lynch cuts away to it, he has the film run backward. Fred reappears as a lethal avenger dressed in black, and Pullman's committed, haunted performance lends gravity to even the most inane situations. The Möbius-strip conclusion feels like a lyrical flourish until Lynch delves into freakish Francis Bacon-like imagery involving a head that won't stop frenetically shaking and contorting.
And no matter what, Lynch always drives the story back toward unrelenting male terror, sometimes in ways uncomfortable on multiple levels. Arquette is fearless in displaying her shapely body in front of leering men, and it's sometimes difficult to tell whether it is Fred/Pete objectifying her or Lynch. This might feel ugly or tasteless in another filmmaker's hands, and while it's definitely a product of the male gaze here (Balthazar Getty takes his clothes off but is never objectified in quite the same way), it's a little more complex because the central male characters are paralyzed and gasping in terror whenever they have to deal with the mysteries of women. "What's happening to me?" is Pete's desperate plea, and ultimately he and Fred are given no answer but a merry-go-round of confusion.
Lost Highway is not an artistic failure; in many ways, it's Lynch at his most daring, emotional, and personal. It has not achieved the same attention his other films have, though it makes a fitting companion piece to, and inversion of, Mulholland Drive in countless ways. When words failed at describing the harrowing, somnambulistic, maladroit tone, someone (perhaps Lynch himself) coined the phrase "psychogenic fugue." But when his work genuinely connects, even at its most base and bizarre, Lynch is one of the most pointedly realistic filmmakers in cinema, far more than most of his more naturalistic contemporaries. To understand the emotional realism in Lynch's work is, in fact, to understand the emotional realism of poetry.