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Lost Highway

Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997)

This movie at first seems defined by negative space. Both visually, in the sparseness of the protagonist’s home, and narratively, in the deliberate, isolating treatment of its characters and the elemental way it cycles through film noir tropes. This is an approach that results occasionally in great atmosphere, but rarely has an effect that sustains beyond individual sections. I think one reason is that the story, which is enigmatic in ways that are to be expected of David Lynch’s work, rarely translates to actual dream logic. Without getting too muddled in specifics or giving away anything too juicy, it starts with a jazz musician (Bill Pullman) who receives mysterious videotapes and gets locked away for supposedly killing his wife (Patricia Arquette). The movie then pulls a surrealist switcheroo and shifts the action to a teenage ex-con (Balthazar Getty) who gets involved with a gangster (Robert Loggia) and his mistress (also Patricia Arquette). Could both of Arquette’s characters be the same person? Could Pullman and Getty be the same person? And who is the strange creepy man (Robert Blake) and is he really in two places at once?

Lynch pulls a similar narrative switch later in Mulholland Drive, but it works much better there as he seems much more invested in that other film in both stories, and Naomi Watts’ performances sufficiently ground them. Too much of this film plays at a distance, which becomes off putting as it gets less sparse and deploys genre cliches more readily. And simply put, the different stories here are not evenly matched in their lead performances. While the film fails to convince us that Pullman is “cool” (despite an energetic saxophone freakout early in the film), he’s a much stronger actor than Balthazar Getty, who I don’t find breathes much life into his minimally written character. (I wonder if the film would work better for me if our narrative viewpoint was aligned to Patricia Arquette instead of Pullman and Getty.) Late developments also allow the film to be read too easily as an expression of male jealousy, and it comes off as pat in ways that Lynch normally avoids when tapping into darker human impulses.

Still, there are things to enjoy. Lynch’s talent for building mood and disturbing the rhythms of individual scenes with disturbing imagery is readily evident, even if I don’t find the soundtrack choices here as cinematic. (I found the use of Rammstein to reek of a very ‘90s sense of edginess, but alternative music is not really my cup of tea.) The Robert Blake character unsettles and needles his way into our subconscious in ways the rest of the movie doesn’t. Robert Loggia’s portrayal of his mob boss as a cartoon character (who in his first scene roughs up another motorist for inconsiderate driving and offers the hero a porno tape as a tip) keeps the midsection of the film from becoming too one-note, and the cameos are frequently inspired. And the movie deserves some respect for trying to answer the age-old question: would Patricia Arquette still be hot if she had the face of Robert Blake?