The Guardian once described David Lynch as the most important film-maker of a generation, and the film Lost Highway is quite possibly the most underrated work of Lynch’s impressive surrealist filmography. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a protagonist caked in mystery, and during the opening sequence, Madison is framed in a close up next to the intercom, when a voice is heard saying “Dick Laurent is dead”—an enigma that holds significance to the events that unfold throughout this epic rollercoaster of confusion and of disturbing visuals.
Essentially, this film is about memory and how we choose to remember things. Fred struggles to piece together the memories of the events that left his wife Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette) murdered. Before her death, the two of them awaken to receive parcels, daily, of someone filming the inside of the house as they sleep, until one day the footage shows Madison with the body of his wife—hacked to pieces—surrounding him. Fred is found guilty of her murder and is imprisoned. Not long into the film, Fred says that he hates video cameras because he likes to remember things his own way, a statement that really defines the film itself. The idea of memory on its own is not real, but the outline of the memory is real and that is a true ‘Lynchian’ quality throughout.
Halfway through the film, Fred seemingly transforms into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), and the police have no choice but to release him because he is not Fred. Lynch’s use of visuals here emulates those from previous works such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, and these visuals reflect a purposely confusing and uncomfortable set of circumstances. Lynch deliberately divagates from the audience’s ideals of a conventional narrative. The sequences on screen seem somewhat plausible (in a Lynchian world) and are then vamped up to a new height of… bizarreness. It is worth mentioning the performance from Getty is quite exceptional, since he plays a character who is almost reflexive to the audience; this is because he has no understanding of how his character is involved in these set of surreal circumstances.
The most enjoyable aspect, if you are a David Lynch fan, is the character known in the credits as The Mystery Man. This character embodies all of David Lynch’s surrealist qualities, and his involvement makes the film as effective as it is towards Lynch’s themes of dream and memory. The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) brings out a generic look of something from a gothic horror film, and it is these visuals that the audience can identify as denoting trouble. He says to Fred before Fred transforms into Pete, “we met before, at your house, don’t you remember?” He invokes an evil that Fred has let come into his life, an evil deed that he has committed—the murder of his wife Renee. He constantly films Frank, something he doesn’t want and that he doesn’t want to remember.This film requires the audience to look into their psyche as well as the characters’, and if you’re willing to do that, you will encounter a very important piece of cinema.