Fred Madison, the protagonist of director David Lynch’s 1997 bizarro-world film noir Lost Highway, doesn’t like video cameras. “I like to remember things my own way,” he tells a police detective who’s investigating a mysterious break-in at the home shared by jazz saxophonist Fred and his wife, Renee.
“What do you mean by that?” the detective asks.
“How I remembered them,” Fred, played by Bill Pullman, dismissively replies. “Not necessarily the way they happened.”
It seems an offhand remark in the moment, but don’t be so certain. It’s not long before Fred, suspicious that Renee (an oft-naked Patricia Arquette) has been cheating on him, has committed a bloody deed he’d rather forget. He is convicted and jailed, but prison guards discover one morning that Fred has vanished from his cell and been replaced by another person entirely: a young mechanic named Pete, played by Balthazar Getty. Pete is released and promptly drawn into a dangerous dalliance with a gangster’s moll, also played by Arquette.
Well, maybe that’s what happens. Or maybe it’s this: Unable to comprehend his own vile actions, Fred imagines an alternate reality in which he is literally allowed to become someone else and simply walk out of jail unencumbered even by guilt. But Fred’s own homicidal id (chillingly embodied by a pre-murder-arrest Robert Blake) follows him into his fantasy life to ensure that he does not escape justice.
At least, I think that’s what happens; Lynch, who co-wrote the screenplay with novelist Barry Gifford, characteristically spells nothing out. As a result, reaction to Lost Highway upon its release ranged largely from befuddlement to outright hostility. “There is no sense to be made of it,” groused Roger Ebert in his two-star review. But having digested Lynch’s far more abstract Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire over the ensuing decade, not to mention a great many other increasingly nonlinear cinema narratives, Highway (with all due respect to Ebert) now makes a great deal of sense indeed. At its core, it asks a fairly simple question: If I do something I didn’t think myself capable of doing, am I really the person I thought I was?
From a distance, Mulholland plays like an inverted riff on the much simpler Highway: the former’s Betty/Diane is shocked out of fantasy by a violent act, while the latter’s Fred/Pete is shocked into fantasy for much the same reasons. But where Mulholland regularly digresses into arguably random abstraction (and gains in impact from the attendant sense of unpredictability and uncertainty), Highway remains relatively focused. Even a seeming detour like the extended red-faced tirade from gangster Mr. Eddy (a scene-stealing Robert Loggia) about the rudeness of tailgating serves to show Pete just what a dangerous hothead he’s dealing with. The road signs along Lost Highway can get confusing, but its side roads all lead back to the main thoroughfare.
More maddening than Lost Highway’s mobius-strip plot is its DVD history. Available in Europe for some time as a bonus-packed two-disc edition featuring recent interviews with the principals, other making-of material, and DTS sound, this marks Highway’s first proper U.S. release. Sadly, what we get for our patience is a bare-bones disc that features the movie and... that’s it. Not so much as a trailer. Lynch fans have become accustomed to inconsistency in the DVD releases of his films, whether due to financial calculations on the part of the various studios involved or the man’s own inscrutable decision-making process, but American devotees deserve a little better than this for our patience.
There nonetheless remains Lost Highway itself, which continues to invite reinterpretation and reconsideration. It has been adapted as an opera, and Austrian director Michael Haneke spun an entire movie, 2005’s critically lauded Cache, from one of its subplots. Discussions and debates about the film abound on the Internet, with entire websites devoted to puzzling out its every nuance. But like the rest of Lynch’s best work, Lost Highway defies every attempt to distill it into one intrinsic meaning. Just as Fred Madison prizes his own fallible and fractured memory over the static precision of a video recording, Lost Highway prefers feeling to fact.