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.
Portions of this article that represent comparable content first appeared in my review of the Japanese Blu-ray edition of this film.
"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. Over in the UK, on the other hand, Universal and a label called IndiVision released the title both individually and as part of a David Lynch box set that also includes new editions of 'Eraserhead', 'Dune', 'Blue Velvet', 'Wild at Heart' and 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me'. Unfortunately, the handsome packaging of the box set is its greatest asset. Most of the Blu-rays in the box are compromised in one way or another, including this one.
The UK disc is locked to Region B playback and will require a compatible Blu-ray player to operate. The disc will not function in a standard American Blu-ray player without a region code modification. Further, the film's video is encoded at a 50 Hz frame rate and the bonus features are encoded in PAL standard-def video, both of which will be incompatible with many American Blu-ray players and HDTVs.
The disc has both chapter stops and a 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.
For most of these articles that I've written as part of my David Lynch marathon, I've chosen to review the UK import copies of his films (when available) first, before imports from other countries. For 'Lost Highway', I felt that it was better to tackle the superior Japanese disc edition first, in order to give myself space to discuss the inherently difficult nature of the film's photography, as well as the issues with the high-def transfer (which stems back to a master originally prepared by MK2 for the French Blu-ray release in 2010). Rather than reiterate all of that information, I'll just refer you back to that previous review.
This UK disc has likewise been licensed from an MK2 source. It has the same windowboxed opening credits and the same green push. On top of that, it has also been encoded in 1080i resolution at a 50 Hz frame rate, instead of the worldwide standard 1080p resolution at 24 frames-per-second. This suggests that the UK disc was erroneously derived from a European broadcast TV master, rather than the proper Blu-ray master. In addition to being interlaced, the video runs 4% too fast, much like a PAL DVD would. To be honest, the interlacing issue is more bothersome in principle than in practice, and the frame rate error has more impact on the disc's sound quality than its video. (More about that shortly.) Regardless, it's a pretty serious screw-up, considering that both the French and Japanese Blu-rays were properly authored in 1080p/24 format.
While I don't have the French edition for comparison, I found that the UK disc is slightly brighter and grainier than the Japanese copy, which was already too washed out and noisy. Scenes that looked bad on the Japanese disc look even worse here, likely due to poorer compression. The blooming and smearing in the opening credits are also much more pronounced on this copy, which clearly displays ghost reflections around each letter. I still don't know for certain whether that's a transfer flaw or an artifact of the original effect, but the fact that it looks worse here suggests that the disc is doing something wrong, and there seems to be little excuse for that.
Just like the UK editions of 'Wild at Heart' and 'Fire Walk With Me' included in the same David Lynch box set, the audio on this copy of 'Lost Highway' is encoded only in PCM stereo format. Unlike those other two movies, that's a much more serious problem here. As I discussed in my review of the Japanese disc, 'Lost Highway' was originally produced before David Lynch developed his aversion to surround sound. Its 5.1 sound mix features quite aggressive surround activity for discrete effects, music and ambience. All of that collapses to the front soundstage on the UK copy. The lack of a dedicated LFE channel also causes the dynamic range to be slightly compressed.
As if that weren't bad enough, the 50 Hz frame rate issue means that the movie has been sped up 4%, similar to a PAL DVD. The tempo of the music is too fast, and the actors' voices are pitched too high. Some viewers will be more sensitive to this than others. I happen to be very sensitive to it, and I find it unacceptable on a format where the correct 24 fps rate is normally the standard.
In its original 5.1 configuration at the proper playback speed, 'Lost Highway' features one of David Lynch's most accomplished soundtracks. This sped-up stereo downmix is a travesty.
After the success of 'Mulholland Drive', David Lynch retreated from feature filmmaking for several years to focus on the creation of short, experimental content for his personal web site. Most of this was, unfortunately, quite terrible. As demonstration, all of the bonus features on this Blu-ray were originally collected on a DVD called 'Dynamic:1 – The Best of DavidLynch.com'. To my knowledge, there has never been a 'Dynamic:2'. If this is truly the best of DavidLynch.com, trust me that you never want to suffer through the worst of DavidLynch.com.
Often overlooked, 'Lost Highway' is one of David Lynch's most cryptic and challenging films, yet also one of his most rewarding. Sadly, much like some of the other titles in Universal's David Lynch box set, this UK edition of the movie is inferior in both video and audio quality to import copies from other countries (namely, France and Japan). Even the bonus features are a load of crap that, if you're really a desperate completist, you can still get on DVD anyway. (Buy it used.) I can't recommend this disc. The Japanese release is worth the extra expense to import.