Friday, 21 March 2014

David Lynch's Lost Highway Explained... Sort Of

If you have been following my blog, you'll probably know three things about me. 1. I can't stand the works of Jean-Luc Godard. 2. I love science fiction. 3. I'm a fan of David Lynch.

It's hard to pinpoint David Lynch's true masterpiece. He's got so many great films, from the heartbreaking tale of The Elephant Man to the tense enigma surrounding Mulholland Dr.. Lynch has got a lot of great stuff under his belt, but for this task we're going to look at something more specific, one that has always stood out for me but might not be as easily recognized by others: Lost Highway.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this movie (a good example of a surrealist movie I actually like), Lost Highway is a 1997 thriller directed by David Lynch. It stars Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, and Robert Blake, also featuring a great song by David Bowie and lots of shots of roads.

 If you don't recognize the star of Lost Highway, this should refresh your memory.

The plot is harder to explain, but Lost Highway employs a distinct episodic structure, with the narrative being split into three parts. The first two segments deal with separate characters in stories which are seemingly unrelated (there actually are connections, but you have to pay attention as they're easy to miss the first time round), while the third one involves an especially puzzling blend of both narratives.

So this started as a basic interpretation of the film I came up with after my second viewing, and which I hope to build on in this article. The first act of the movie follows Fred Madison, a saxophone player who is having difficulty relating to his wife, Renee. My theory is that Fred might have had some dark experiences in his past, possibly being a reformed criminal or even a former serial killer who has since tried to go clean.

The two of them go to a party where, in one of my favorite scenes, Fred encounters a strange creepy guy known only as the "Mystery Man". From the moment he first appears it is clear that there is something not quite right. He claims to know Fred and freaks both him and the audience out when he is able to pick up and answer the phone at Fred's house while still standing in front of him.

The mystery man in this case represents some kind of dark urges in the back of Fred's mind. If my theory of Fred being an ex-killer is to be believed, this is some sort of compulsion he tried to suppress long ago. Fred tries to resist but he can only go so far until he breaks. Finally, the urges take over, and he kills his wife.

By this point, Fred is caught and arrested. At this point he starts to realize what he did, but being a prisoner on death row, there isn't much he can do. The only way he can cope with his guilt is to retreat into his mind. The result is that he takes on a whole new persona

This brings us to the second part of the movie, when a guard approaches Fred's cell and encounters Pete. Fred has attempted to reinvent himself as Pete, and subsequently manages to free himself psychologically.

At first it seems Pete has a pretty good life going on. He has a loving family and a stable job with people who appreciate him. Everything is going great until Patricia Arquette returns, this time in a blonde wig under the name of Alice. This in turn ties back to the whole idea of this world being a delusion created by Fred. In addition to trying to be a better person, he also tries to bring back his wife to make up for what he did.

We quickly find out that Alice is engaged to a notorious mobster who also happens to have a certain amount of influence over Pete. It doesn't take long for us to realize that, as is common in Lynch's settings (such as Lumberton in Blue Velvet or the titular community of Twin Peaks) Pete's seemingly ideal life has some much darker aspects. The thing is that Fred's delusions can only last for so long, and gradually they start to collapse around him.

Slowly but surely, bits and pieces of Fred's reality start to enter his fantasy. We see the Mystery Man coming out again, gradually taking control of Fred's mind by talking to Pete over the phone. In this case, the Mystery Man is arguably the truth: the subconscious part of Fred's brain that knows full well what he did. In particular it is worth noting that the conversation between the Mystery Man and Pete over the phone very closely parallels his conversation with Fred in the party scene.

Once the Mystery Man returns, things get chaotic, as Pete is seduced by Alice and the two end up planning a murder. The two of them run off, but Fred's reality is catching up to him. He and Alice manage to get out of town and begin having sex, which leads us to the crucial turning point that sets up the third and final act of the movie.

Pete begins to repeatedly say to Alice "I want you". After saying it several times, Alice stops him and says "You'll never have me." From that point on she disappears. Suddenly Pete also disappears, and is replaced by Bill Pullman.

I use the name of the actor, rather than the character, specifically because we might not actually be seeing Fred Madison, or at least, not the same Fred we saw in the first act. In fact, if you pay attention, he is never actually addressed by name. The Mystery Man even asks him to identify himself, but Bill Pullman fails to answer.

Quite simply, the delusional world Fred created in the second act has completely fallen apart in the third. This leads to a partial awakening as Fred is forced to face the reality, but he still can't quite seem to accept it. The result is a strange identity crisis (in other words, the character we're seeing here is both Fred and Pete merged together). The Mystery Man is constantly on his trail, as Fred can never truly escape his subconscious, but he is still unwilling to face it.

This brings us to the final scene of the movie, where Bill Pullman tries to navigate this strange world in which he struggles to cling to what little remains of his fantasy but the real world rapidly spills into it. He is unable to cope, so his only solution is to start over, by creating a whole new world for himself, and presumably a new identity.

This is a reasonably straight forward interpretation of the film, and it does explain a lot, though I won't pretend it's perfect. There are still moments I can't definitively explain (the infamous "time-loop" for instance, when Bill Pullman appears to leave himself the message he got at the beginning) but I think it's a pretty good starting point in trying to find the deeper layers of the film.


  1. I like your interpretation and have always considered it viable. I have an alternative interpretation which I think has its own logic which I will be glad to share. Pete Drayton is a young guy who works at a garage and services the car of one Mr. Eddy. One day Pete meets Mr. Eddy's girl, Alice. Whether Alice loves Pete or whether she's just using him to get away from Mr. Eddy is not clear, but Alice and Pete rob one of Mr. Eddy's goons who gets killed in the process. Pete and Alice get away but Mr. Eddy comes after them and Pete ends up having to kill him, too. They leave town and assume the identities of Fred and Alice in California. Fred becomes more and more haunted by his past and the murders he's committed and ends up killing Alice out of his tortured sense of remorse. This sort of unwinds the narrative in a more chronological way but it works.

    1. I've heard that sort of thing before and it is an interesting approach. I suppose that might explain the opening line of "Dick Laurent is Dead" (some sort of reminder of Fred's past).

    2. It might be possible to reconcile both theories in a way. I've suggested that Fred had some sort of dark past, which could theoretically be linked to his murder of Dick Laurent's partner. In that sense, Pete and Alice would be younger versions of Fred and Renee.

      What I'd suggest here is that the second half isn't strictly a flashback, but rather Fred remembering his old life and psychologically trying to return to a time he considered ideal. What follows is a mix both of his psychology and gradually recalling the darker aspects of that old life.