In a series of reviews and blog posts filed under the heading "Auteur Theory," I have made it a project to revisit the career of cult director David Lynch, rewatch his entire feature filmography in sequential order, and chart the progression of this iconoclastic artist through both his highs and lows.
"Auteur Theory" Article Index
"I like to remember things my own way… how I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened."
The 1990s were a turbulent time for David Lynch. As the decade began, his hit TV show, award-winning movie and dabblings in other media rapidly elevated the director to the status of pop culture icon. "David Lynch" became not just a name but a brand, and the term "Lynchian" sprang forward as a description for just about anything avant-garde, artistically challenging or weird. Sadly, this was a case of too much too soon. Within just a couple of short years, all of his success imploded. 'Twin Peaks' was canceled in its second season, the prequel movie 'Fire Walk With Me' proved to be a critical and box office flop, and Lynch's three other attempted television series (the travelogue Reality show 'American Chronicles', the sitcom 'On the Air' and the HBO anthology 'Hotel Room') all landed dead-on-arrival. By the 1997 premiere of his next feature, 'Lost Highway', Lynch had been relegated back to the fringes of the art film world. Honestly, he probably would have been more comfortable there all along.
Although author Barry Gifford had not been directly involved with the writing or production of Lynch's adaptation of his novella 'Wild at Heart', he liked the movie so much that he struck up a relationship with the filmmaker. They first collaborated on the 'Hotel Room' series and, when that failed, set to work on a new movie screenplay that would explore some of the same themes. Once Lynch encountered the phrase "lost highway" in Gifford's book 'Night People', those two words alone were enough to start his wheels spinning.
Lynch describes 'Lost Highway' as a "psychogenic fugue." The film initially tells the story of saxophone player Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who may or may not have murdered his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) one night (he doesn't remember properly) after receiving a series of mysterious videotapes that show him committing the crime in advance. He's convicted (the police have him on tape, after all) and sent to Death Row, where he may or may not morph into young auto mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who had gone missing around the same time due to an inexplicable event. (He doesn't remember properly, either.)
Presuming that Madison has escaped, the authorities release Pete to settle back into his old life, whereupon he finds pieces of Fred's life intruding along the way. One of those pieces is a woman named Alice (Patricia Arquette again), a gangster's moll who belongs to Pete's most generous and most dangerous client, the ill-tempered Mr. Eddie (Robert Loggia). Femme fatale Alice seduces poor sap Pete and lures him into a shady home robbery plan that will allow them to run off together, but of course also puts them in the ill graces of Mr. Eddie.
Oh yes, it might be worth mentioning that both Fred and Pete are haunted by a mysterious devil man in paleface makeup (Robert Blake) who can apparently be two places at once.
'Lost Highway' is as moody and surreal as anything that Lynch has directed, but without the forced weirdness that was so detrimental to 'Wild at Heart'. While the story may seem almost impenetrably convoluted on first viewing, it's in fact one of the most tightly structured narratives that the director has ever worked with. It has almost no extraneous scenes or any of the bizarre non sequiturs that Lynch usually loves. Everything in the film is there for a purpose and builds to a common goal. For as densely layered as its symbolism may be, everything you might need to interpret the movie is found within it if you look hard enough.
That's not to say that the film eschews ambiguity, of course. It's loaded with themes of fractured identity, doppelgangers and false perception of reality. No one is exactly whom they seem to be, nor does anything really happen the way it appears to. Are Fred and Pete the same person? Does Pete exist at all, or is he just the fantasy of an insane man waiting for death? Is the Mystery Man a supernatural figure driving Fred crazy, or is he in fact a physical manifestation of those aspects of his personality that Fred has been trying to suppress? These are among the many questions left open for debate.
As expected from the director, the film also has many outstanding images and set-pieces, including a cabin that explodes in reverse, Fred's violent saxophone solo, Pete's first glimpse of Alice set to Lou Reed's cover of "This Magic Moment," and a love scene in car headlights. Patricia Arquette, in peak physical shape and not afraid to show it off, is a visual highlight as well.
In many ways, 'Lost Highway' is in one of David Lynch's most complex, dazzling, alienating, frustrating and perhaps even brilliant films to date. What it lacks, unfortunately, are the relatable, endearing characters that populate his best works, or any sort of emotional catharsis. This is a chilly, intellectual piece. For that reason, as well as audience skepticism engendered by 'Twin Peaks' burnout, it was greeted with mixed critical reaction and poor box office. However, it's a movie that invites and rewards repeat viewings, where new layers of meaning can be uncovered each time.
The North American distribution rights to 'Lost Highway' currently reside with Universal Studios Home Entertainment, which released the film on DVD in 2008 but has made no indication of any domestic Blu-ray plans. Overseas, the title was first issued on Blu-ray in France by studio MK2 in 2010. The Japanese copy under review here appears to have been licensed from MK2 by Comstock Group and Paramount Home Entertainment.
The Japanese Blu-ray is region-free and will function in any standard American Blu-ray player. (Japan is a Blu-ray Region A territory like the United States in any case.) However, the DVD in the package that contains most of the bonus features is locked to Region 2 and can only be played in a DVD or Blu-ray player with region code modification (if you're in the United States). On the plus side, the content on that DVD is at least all in NTSC format.
The 2-disc set comes packaged in a black Blu-ray keepcase within a very handsome glossy slipcover. The disc has chapter stops but no Scene Selections menu. (I mention this only because David Lynch has routinely expressed his hatred of chapter stops and has tried to banish them from video editions of some of his other films.) All menus on both discs are in the English language and are easy to navigate, but the movie disc launches straight into playback without stopping at its top menu first.
'Lost Highway' has what you might term "difficult" photography. David Lynch and his cinematographer Peter Deming shot the film in many low-light situations, often deliberately underexposed in an attempt to see how little light they really needed to produce a usable image on the camera negative. (At the time, other filmmakers such as David Fincher made similar experiments.) If you were fortunate enough to see a good print with quality 35mm projection, this yielded a very striking effect on cinema screens. Unfortunately, it doesn't translate to home video easily.
The Japanese Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer appears to be sourced from the MK2 master. The opening credits are annoyingly windowboxed with black bars on all four sides of the frame, after which the rest of the movie is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The picture is a little soft on the whole, with only fair fine object detail, but that's likely another consequence of the original photography. (Shooting in low light with anamorphic lenses isn't really conducive to sharp images.) Dark scenes can also be very grainy, which is again not unexpected. However, that grain comes across pretty badly here, with a texture that looks more like electronic video noise. Many dimly-lit scenes swarm with ugly noise, especially the first close-up shot of Bill Pullman after the opening credits. I believe that this could have been handled better without necessarily wiping it away with Digital Noise Reduction.
The opening credit text blooms and smears faintly, but I can't say for certain whether that's a transfer flaw or an inherent part of the original effect. (Whatever it is, the issue is greatly exacerbated on the UK Blu-ray edition.) More smeariness and ghosting is evident in close-up shots during early scenes (witness Bill Pullman's fingers and cigarette). Likewise, this could possibly be a fault of the anamorphic lenses, not the transfer. In any case, the problem goes away shortly.
The high-def picture has a slight green push that washes out black levels and colors. Contrasts seem a little too bright and flat on the whole. Flesh tones are very pallid. In comparison, Universal's American DVD edition is darker and has warmer colors that are more accurate to my memories of the theatrical presentation. With that said, this Blu-ray is by no means awful. Daylight scenes (which are admittedly few and far between) often look great, and the picture quality seems to get better as the movie goes. Nonetheless, it's an imperfect transfer and I believe it has much room for improvement, even given the nature of the movie's photography.
The Japanese Blu-ray's soundtrack is encoded in PCM 5.1 format. Although I've mentioned in previous reviews that David Lynch currently eschews surround sound in his movies, 'Lost Highway' predates that change in philosophy. As it was released to theaters in 1997, the film had a very aggressive 5.1 mix with active use of the surround channels for discrete effects, music and ambience. Thankfully, that's exactly what we get here, with no after-the-fact revisions. This is the original mix, and it sounds terrific.
In many scenes, this is a very quiet soundtrack, with a lot of whispered dialogue and subtle atmospheric effects. Perhaps more than most movies, it will benefit from a silent listening environment. The noise of a fan or air conditioner in your room could easily disrupt the effectiveness of the sound design.
Yet it's also a track with extremely wide dynamic range. Many scenes bluntly transition from near silence to blaring noise in a snap. Sound effects are often piercing. A ringing telephone reverberates throughout the soundstage. The music – both Angelo Badalamenti's score and licensed songs from the likes of David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein – are reproduced with sterling fidelity and throbbing bass. And of course, like most David Lynch films, the mix also features all manner of weird, subliminal noises percolating beneath the surface. This may be one of Lynch's most accomplished soundtracks yet.
This Blu-ray has only a minimal supplement package. The trailer is found on Disc 1 with the movie. The second disc is a Region 2 port of a DVD that Lynch had previously sold on his web site.
Often overlooked, 'Lost Highway' is one of David Lynch's most cryptic and challenging films, yet also one of his most rewarding. Despite its high price, problematic video and lack of substantive bonus features, this Japanese Blu-ray release is, at least for the time being, a worthwhile investment for Lynch fans in Region A territories. The French Blu-ray release is a little cheaper and has slightly better supplements, but is locked to Region B. As I'll describe in a follow-up review, the UK Blu-ray is pretty much a disaster and should be avoided entirely.