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By Stephanie Zacharek
Moviegoers who believe that David "Who killed Laura Palmer?" Lynch is the greatest genius to hit the big screen since Dali and Bunuel slit that poor donkey's eyeball in Un Chien Andalou are going to get a serious kick out of Lost Highway--and probably spend a couple of hours afterward with like-minded souls, gravely hashing out the film's deeper, darker insights into the human condition.
Those who don't necessarily equate enigma with art will probably see Highway as another tedious Lynchian fraud, stuffed from beginning to end with cheap tricks.
Is there some middle ground here? Is it possible that our man Dave is at once a good, honest blue-collar surrealist and a vain hipster laying a two-hour con job on his devoted audience?
Let's say maybe, shall we?
Let's not say too much about Lost Highway's tangle of narrative--a more dedicated mess than that of Eraserhead or Blue Velvet--except for the following: Lynch likens it to a Msbius strip, and halfway through the film, the movie's main character, a suspicious L.A. jazz musician named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who's put on death row for killing his steamy brunette wife, Rene (Patricia Arquette), even though he can't remember if he did it, apparently changes into a young auto mechanic called Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). I say "apparently" for obvious reasons: Our Mr. Lynch long ago turned ambiguity and obscurity into personal sacraments, and there's no use trying to clear up the murk at this point.
In any event, Arquette also resurfaces, as a bleached-blond femme fatale named Alice Wakefield, who may or may not once have been Rene Madison. Alice undertakes an affair with Pete, who may or may not once have been Fred, even though she's already sleeping with a menacing gangster called Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who may or may not also be someone named Dick Laurent.
Riding along so far on the highway to who knows where?
Anyway, Lynch's first film in five years can be an awful lot of fun--as long as you don't take its timeworn philosophical queries too seriously. For one thing, in combining assorted elements of film noir, low-budget horror flicks and a psychiatrists' convention, Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford throw caution, reason and linear thought to the wind in favor of dark, violent poetry. This is a reasonably liberating experience. The picture's also crammed with raw sex--never a bad idea--most of it involving the dramatically constructed Ms. Arquette. And it's got a pounding soundtrack that just won't quit (another Lynchian trademark), courtesy of everyone from Lou Reed to Nine Inch Nails to David Bowie to Antonio Carlos Jobim. Even as we speak, the Lost Highway CDs are stacked high in the displays over at Media Play and Tower Records.
Along with murderous pursuits in the night, assorted couplings in crummy motel rooms and some familiar, Kafkaesque ruminations on the nature of identity, Lynch supplies another of his cackling, chalk-faced gnomes. By now, everyone on the planet has seen the Twin Peaks reruns eight times, so the sudden appearance of dwarfs or spirits in a Lynch project is nothing new. This time, it's the old Baretta star Robert Blake, done up like death. There's never a hint of explanation about the guy, of course--even the credits simply call him "Mystery Man"--so he can be absolutely anything you want him to be: power of conscience, alter ego, repressed personal demon, devil incarnate, what have you. Whenever he pops up, take your choice. David Lynch is nothing if not an equal-opportunity fantasist, a real democrat when it comes to spooking the faithful.
Suffice it to say that the Mystery Man dominates the one scene members of the Lynch mob will probably be talking about all month: At a party, the MM mysteriously accosts poor Fred, orders him to call home, then answers the phone himself. Hey. Cool. Man in two places at once.
As always with the painterly Lynch, Lost Highway is a visually exciting film full of Grand Guignol lighting effects, grotesque shifts of mood, bad dreams and weird camera angles. Back in the days when almost everyone thought Lynch was looking for the horror movie running just below the ordinary surface of American life, we got used to his hip stylistics. In Highway, Fred Madison even provides a verbal justification for them. Objecting to video cameras--which play a pivotal role in the film's jangled plot--Fred declares: "I like to remember things my own way--not necessarily the way they happened." Good thing, too. Because at the end of Lost Highway, you'll have no idea what happened unless you supply it yourself.
That's the point, don't you know. Everyone's narrative is supposed to be his or her own here--even if that means no narrative at all. More manifesto than movie, Lost Highway means to lose us in its labyrinth in the hope that we'll rediscover ourselves. Like the surrealists of the 1920s, Lynch means to challenge our ideas about reality, the weight of dreams, the accepted definitions of the self. Fine. All fine. But this is not exactly groundbreaking stuff, and for many, Highway will pose a far greater challenge to common patience and to the redline on the old bullshit detector than to our basic notions about the world. After all, a lot of people never cared who killed Laura Palmer, and they won't give a damn about the difference between Fred and Pete. In fact, they'll probably wonder why David Lynch doesn't go out and find himself a different job.
Screenplay by David Lynch and Barry Gifford. Directed by David Lynch. With Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Robert Blake, Balthazar Getty and Robert Loggia.
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