Having known me, you’d say I was a David Lynch devotee. I’ve devoted a huge portion of my study and thought to the auteur and his universe, as my Inland Empire review may have hinted at, and I stand behind everything the man has committed to film, paper and bathroom stall scribbling. But I’ve always had difficulties enjoying Lost Highway. Whether it’s because the motifs and material have been handled better before and since, or the differences in form and style that estrange the film from his corpus, but the 1997 effort lacks the uncanny charms of classics like Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive.
Despite this feeling of mine, the film’s execution is typically flawless, its themes of (again) sex, death and illusion are well handled, and each shot and sequence offers memorable glimpses into a classically embodied Lynchian universe. Contrasted to his previous effort, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which was guillotined and gutted by critics for its awkward pacing, bizarre sentimentality and supposed misogyny, Lost Highway ought to be the better film. But I don’t think it is. Perhaps an examination and contrasting of the two films will help justify this.
Compared to Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway has been a better critically received film, but then this wasn’t a hard thing to accomplish. FWWM is Lynch’s conclusion/prequel to the acclaimed TV series Twin Peaks, which centred largely on the death of beloved Laura Palmer (Cheryl Lee) and its subsequent investigation by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan). This driving mystery was solved in the series’ second season and, its raison d’être gone, the show was cancelled shortly thereafter. FWWM returns to the circumstances of Laura Palmer’s death, her last seven days, and the warped relationships between Laura, her father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) and the malevolent entity known as BOB (Frank Silva).
Lynch’s treatment of what is essentially known information to fans of the TV series could have, in lesser hands, been little more than a retread. But we know better. This expressionistic telemovie is buoyed by Cheryl Lee’s intense characterisation of Laura – oscillating between tortured child, promiscuous femme fatale and certifiable psychotic, Lee’s performance is a standout even among Lynch’s considerable body of work. Laura Palmer, true to her words, freefalls until she bursts into flames, and then falls further. But Lee is able to invest this descent into hell with fierce, almost unconceivably fierce, defiance, and stands with Laura Dern and Naomi Watts as one of Lynch’s unforgettable heroines.
The same cannot be said for the protagonists of Lost Highway. This is, in part, a product of the script – co-written with Barry Gifford (whose novel Lynch adapted in 1990’s Wild at Heart), Lost Highway’s dialogue and characterisations are deliberately pared-down, keeping in step with the film’s noir atmosphere. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) are a couple with troubles – not only wracked by overt infidelity on Renee’s part, but increasingly unnerved by anonymous videotapes left on their doorstep. When one of these videos reveals Fred howling over Renee’s dismembered corpse, we cut to Fred on death row, awaiting the chair. Hilarity ensues – Fred, unable to cope with his crime, metamorphoses into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty, of TV’s Brothers and Sisters, and little else). Pete, being not Fred, is released to his life as a mechanic, where he meets the girlfriend of Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia), whose name is Alice (Patricia Arquette once more).
Things get complicated, but Lost Highway’s setup is relatively simple compared to Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, and its execution is emotionally drained when compared to Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart. Bill Pullman/ Balthazar Getty make for one of Lynch’s only forgettable protagonists, through stale delivery of minimalist dialogue. Fred Madison’s arc is obscenely signposted early on in the film, with this line: “I like to remember things my own way, not… necessarily how they happened.” Amateur. Patricia Arquette suffers too – though undeniably femme fatale-ish, one gets the feeling that David Lynch has (uncharacteristically) placed his actress in a series of exploitative filmic situations, with little investment resulting beyond that of the protagonists. Robert Loggia mugs his way through a hammy, Tarantino-derivative set piece on Mulholland Drive, and only becomes remotely threatening when paired briefly with the ghoulish Mystery Man (Robert Blake, but more on him later). As far as this sub-villain is concerned, car chases, LA roads and Dennis Hopper have all been done far better elsewhere. Notably, none of these main actors have been called upon to appear in any further Lynch films.
At every point, Fire Walk with Me is the stronger “David Lynch” film, especially when considered alongside the director’s later, arguably more sophisticated works, while Lost Highway remains anomalous. Lynch maestro Angelo Badalmenti brings an incredible orchestral/jazz score to FWWM, featuring the sublime work of singer Julee Cruise. But where FWWM is timeless, Lost Highway is just dated. The film is punctuated throughout with contemporary singles by Rammstein, Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson and the like. No comment on the merit of those particular artists, BUT their appearances in the film often sour what could’ve been classic scenes. These aren’t the brilliant, defamiliarising music choices Lynch has gifted us with, such as Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ and ‘Crying (Llorondo)’. They just kind of suck.
And perhaps most importantly, Lost Highway just doesn’t bring the crazy. Aside from Fred Madison’s transformations and some isolated stylised scenes, the only true weirdness comes from Robert Blake’s Mystery Man. Like a pale-faced assassin he intones to Madison, “You invited me in. It’s not my custom to go where I’m not wanted.” His presence brings this dull affair to life in brief spurts. A demonic force on par with BOB, the Mystery Man must compete, though, with the most recognisably Lynchian folklore – Twin Peak’s Red Room, home to the backwards-talking, dancing midget (Michael J Anderson). Not a fair contest.
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But more significantly, Fire Walk with Me is infused throughout with the Lynchian uncanny. Each scene and characterisation is shot in an archetypal, almost cartoony fashion, and the film is thus able to weather instances of the lamest dialogue since “Why is there so much trouble in this world?” (Blue Velvet). Special mention, too, to the film’s prologue, in which Dale Cooper doppelganger Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) navigates the anti-Twin Peaks town of Deer Meadows, in a glorious summary-by-contrast of the beloved TV series. Lost Highway’s best treatment of the meta-cinematic is probably that lame Fred Madison line from earlier.
To sum up, though, Lost Highway is not a bad film – it’s just definitely the weakest David Lynch film (disregarding Dune, of course). Its superb elements simply do not cohere in an organic fashion – they’re let down by subpar performances of overly-minimalist dialogue and unwise concessions to then-popular culture. Filmmakers need to stop wearing “Marilyn Manson is a fan” as a badge of honour (Jodorowsky, listen). Meanwhile, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is an idiosyncratic, visually gorgeous piece of film, which succeeds in evoking genuine atmosphere and emotion, and in crafting an expressionistic character study of one of the richest characters in TV history. I know which one I’m watching right now.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): 91%
Lost Highway (1997): 76%