If ever there’s one film that defies an easy explanation, it’s David Lynch‘s Lost Highway. One of the most confounding films in Lynch’s frequently confusing body of work, it is neither as popular as Twin Peaks nor as critically acclaimed as Mulholland Drive. And yet its mysterious appeal has made Lost Highway a cult phenomenon with numerous theories as to what it all means.
Why are saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) receiving VHS tapes of the inside of their home, including footage of them asleep in bed? Is Fred actually guilty of the murder and dismemberment of his wife which lands him in jail? Why did Fred disappear, only to be replaced in his cell by young, handsome Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty)? Does Renee have an identical sister named Alice, and why is she dating a violent mobster and amateur pornographer named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia)?
While Lost Highway is complicated in its structure and determined not to give easy clues, the real key to the film lies in Fred’s identity and his perspective on his reality.
At one point, after Fred and Renee called the police about the tapes they’re receiving, Fred offers up a curious thought to the police regarding why he doesn’t like video recordings. “I like to remember things my own way,” he says, before continuing,”How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”
This is our biggest clue that the events we see in the movie are not how they really happened, but rather the way that Fred wishes to see them. And because of his expressed dislike of the tapes, we can take that to mean that the VHS recordings we see in the film are captured moments of reality that Fred doesn’t want to deal with.
Right before he is arrested for the murder of his wife, he sees a tape showing her dismembered body. This is a concrete reality, unable to be escaped. While he sits in a cell, unable to do anything but think about what he has done, this is where he escapes into the fantasy of his mind: it is not him in jail, but some young man named Pete.
The story follows Pete now, but in truth, we are still seeing Fred, because his inability to face his own violent nature has caused him to fabricate a new reality for himself as Pete.
And along the way, he does the same for his wife. Renee, the woman he killed, was seemingly innocent but for a possible extramarital dalliance. But Fred can’t allow himself to believe that he killed her simply because he is an enraged and jealous monster and not because she deserved it in some way. That explains his creation of Alice, the dead ringer for his wife.
Alice fits the role of a femme fatale in a noir film, a dangerous woman who is cheating on her gangster husband, who suggests a plan to rob a friend and leave town. Alice is the opposite of Renee, a scheming woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon. This is the kind of woman Fred can convincingly believe deserves to die, unlike his wife.
In essence, he has created a new, innocent identity for himself while simultaneously creating a devious, two-timing criminal identity for his wife. He has absolved himself of her murder at the same time that he found a way to blame her for it.
But Fred’s delusion is just that: a delusion that shatters when held up to reality. He reverts from Pete back to his original appearance as Fred, and The Mystery Man who was recording him as he slept now reappears, filming Fred with a video camera.
Fred tries to escape, only to be faced with another recording that forces the truth on him: he sees his wife in a pornographic film. Jealousy and rage wells up inside him, and he can’t escape the truth that he was an impotent husband whose wife sought intimacy elsewhere, and he killed her for it.
The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) is his subconscious, forcing the truth to the surface of his consciousness through the recordings. Fred tried and failed to escape his true nature, so he tries one last time to save himself, leaving himself a cryptic message about the death of the man who slept with his wife. He hopes that his past self will understand the message and escape his fate.
But it all happens anyway. Fred discovers his wife cheats on him, then kills her. He is unable to cope with it, and escapes into a fantasy world. The Mystery Man, Fred’s subconscious, tries to wake him with visions of reality, and Fred’s delusion is shattered. The vicious cycle continues, and Fred disappears down the Lost Highway, perhaps symbolic of the endless cycle of violence and delusion Fred visits on himself and others.
Lost Highway is the complex and elliptical story of a bad man who thinks he’s the good guy, and the way in which he will move heaven and Earth, rewrite history and his own identity, to make the world reflect his views. It’s a powerful story, rendered hauntingly by one of America’s preeminent visual storytellers.
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