Demystifying Lost Highway

Analytical Essay by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Lost Highway

"Lost Highway" is David Lynch's return to film-making following the poor reception of "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me", back in 1992. Ambiguous in meaning and frustrating in its pacing, LH is vintage David Lynch, drawing upon the themes, plot devices, and imagery that is common to all his films. Critics have lambasted LH for its lack of a cohesive narrative and nonsensical, and often contradictory jumble of images. Is LH one story or two? Are there three main characters, or are there six? Is there a 'point' to the movie (or even a story arc for that matter), or is it merely just a stream-of-consciousness dream-like trance state which only David Lynch understands? Lynch has always steadfastly refused to elaborate on the meanings of his films, and LH is no exception, leaving the interpretation to his audience.

Dick Laurent is dead.

LH begins with Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), an emotionally-withdrawn jazz musician, receiving a buzz from his front door informing him that someone named Dick Laurent is dead. He goes to the front door, but finds no one there. Over the next few days, he then begins to receive videotapes in the mail, and on each tape are images from within his own house, with each successive tape venturing further into it. Fred's relationship with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), is passionless, their love-making merely a mechanical process, and strained, with suspicions of Renee's possible infidelity weighing heavily on Fred's mind.

We've met before, haven't we?
I don't think so. Where was it that you think we met?
At your house. Don't you remember?
No, no I don't. Are you sure?
Yes, of course. As a matter of fact, I'm there right now.

During a party at the house belonging to Andy, a friend of Renee, Fred meets the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), who insists that they have met before, at Fred's house. Not long after, Fred receives another videotape at his front door, and the recorded images reach their stunning conclusion-- the bloodied image of Renee. Fred is then arrested and charged in his wife's murder.

However, as he waits on death row, Fred is literally transformed overnight into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young garage mechanic. Mystified by the sudden appearance of Pete and disappearance of Fred, the police release Pete, but continue to tail him to learn of the fate of Fred.

Pete returns home, where he has been missing from for several days. Upon his return to work, he meets Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), a very powerful and sadistic gangster, whom the police refer to as 'Dick Laurent'. Pete also meets Mr. Eddy's moll, Alice (Patricia Arquette), who looks a lot like Renee. Together, they begin an illicit affair, and it is not long before Alice convinces Pete to help her escape from Mr. Eddy. In order to finance their escape, Alice suggests that they rob Andy, the man that introduced Alice to Mr. Eddy.

Unfortunately, Alice abandons Pete at the end, and Fred re-appears, only to kill Mr. Eddy, who is in pursuit of Pete and Alice. Fred then stops by his house, bringing the narrative full-circle, by buzzing the intercom with the cryptic message "Dick Laurent is dead." The film then ends with Fred at the wheel, driving down a dark highway, with the police in pursuit.

So what's it all about? The key to interpreting LH is found in the following brief exchange at the beginning of the film:

Do you own a video camera?
No, Fred hates them.
I like to remember things my own way.
What do you mean by that?
How I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened.

The events portrayed in the bulk of LH are as Fred 'remembers, in his own way', not necessarily how they actually happened. The narrative is a stream-of-consciousness interpretation of reality, almost like a dream, with sudden changes in setting, scenes drifting aimlessly into other scenes, and jarring breaks in continuity. Instead of being a plot-driven film, LH is experience-driven, where David Lynch attempts to have the audience share in the richness of experience of one of his dreams.

In essence, LH is about Fred attempting to rationalize to himself the acts of violence that he has committed against Renee, his wife, and Dick Laurent, his wife's lover. By piecing together the various clues provided by Lynch, the following sequence of events in 'the real world' can be constructed:

  • Some time prior to the events in LH, Renee is befriended by Andy, as illustrated by these lines of dialogue, uttered first by Renee, and then later on by Alice:
So how'd you meet that asshole Andy anyways?
It was a long time ago. We met at a place called Mulks. We became friends. He told me about a job.
What job?
I don't remember.
  • Renee is introduced to Dick Laurent and a pathological relationship begins (illustrated by Mr. Eddy's domineering personality, the gunpoint striptease that Alice endures when she first meets Mr. Eddy, and Renee's participation in the snuff-film party at the film's end). Like Alice, Renee yearns to break free of Dick Laurent's control, but is unable to.
  • Renee then meets Fred, and a relationship begins (much like the meeting and attraction between Pete and Alice), but Fred is unaware of her ties to Dick Laurent, another acquaintance of Fred. Fred eventually marries Renee.
  • Fred has suspicions by about Renee's infidelity, which is illustrated in the scenes from the club where he calls home but Renee does not answer the phone, and his catching a glimpse of Renee leaving the club with Andy.
  • Fred follows Renee to the Lost Highway Motel, where in room 26, he finds Renee with Dick Laurent.
  • After Renee leaves, Fred kills Dick Laurent.
  • Angered by Renee's betrayal, Fred kills Renee and is arrested for murder.
  • While in a cell on death row, Fred begins to rationalize the acts of murder to himself, and yearns for a chance at redemption in the form of the dream about Pete, Alice, and Mr. Eddy. He tries to envision himself as an innocent, denying his own past, as illustrated in the scene where a fellow garage employee (Jack Nance) is listening to the same jazz music that Fred plays on the saxophone, and Pete turns it off:
What'd you change that for? I liked that.
Well I don't.
  • Fred finds that no amount of interpretation or revisitation can change what he has done, what Renee did, nor bring Renee back. When Pete and Alice go out to the desert to pawn off items stolen from Andy's house, Fred reappears after Alice walks away, saying:
You'll never have me.
  • Fred finally accepts the murders that he has committed when he drives up to his house and buzzes the intercom with the enigmatic message "Dick Laurent is dead"-- the same message in the opening scene of the film.

This explication of LH then can be used to make inferences as to the meanings of several symbols and events scattered throughout the film, such as the videotapes. Reality in LH is represented by what has been recorded by the video camera-- it is the truth. Fred, in denial of the true outcome of his own actions, 'hates video cameras' and prefers to remember things his own way. When he receives the tapes, he cannot recognize them, even though he is most likely the one that made them. At the end of the film, when Fred reasserts himself over Pete, the Mystery Man chases after Fred with a video camera, forcing Fred to confront reality. This metaphor can then be used to infer the 'true nature' of Renee: in the final act of LH, we see her image recorded in several pornographic movies made by Andy and Mr. Eddy. Is this the true Renee that Fred comes to accept, as opposed to the quiet and sedate Renee seen in the first act? The role of cameras in LH's plot is also an extension of a common theme found in many of Lynch's previous works-- voyeurism as a means of revealing fundamental truths: Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) learns about the dark underside of his small town by hiding in the closet of a neighbor in "Blue Velvet", and Audrey Horne (Sherrilyn Fenn) learns about the misdeeds of his father by lurking through the forgotten passages of the Great Northern Hotel in "Twin Peaks".

Andy, who is the guy on the stairs? Guy in black?
I don't know his name. He's a friend of Dick Laurent, I think.
Dick Laurent?
Yeah, I believe so.
But Dick Laurent is dead, isn't he?
He is? I didn't think you knew Dick. How do you know he's dead?
I don't. I don't know him.

If the videotapes represent reality, then the cryptic Mystery Man would probably personify Fred's jealousy. Fred first meets the Mystery Man at Andy's party, and the following lines are uttered during the exchange:

How did you get in my house?
You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I am not wanted.

Fred has met the Mystery Man before because he has allowed the feelings of jealousy to fester in his conscience, in effect 'inviting him in'. The Mystery Man is called 'a friend of Dick Laurent' by Andy because Fred's feelings of jealousy are associated with Dick Laurent through his involvement with Renee. The Mystery Man reappears again after Pete becomes involved with Alice, arousing the feelings of jealousy within him. At the end of the film, Pete and Alice drive out to the desert to pawn off some stolen merchandise to finance their escape from Mr. Eddy. However, their trip takes them to a cabin occupied by the Mystery Man. The Mystery Man reappears, Alice leaves Pete, Fred reasserts himself, and as mentioned earlier, is pursued with a video camera. It is evident that Fred has been unable to exorcise the pangs of jealousy from his conscience, which has resulted in his realization of the root cause of his violence. Further evidence of jealousy as the root of Fred's violence is seen during the murder of Mr. Eddy, when the Mystery Man hands a knife and a gun to Fred, which are used to kill Mr. Eddy.

However, there are some conflicting interpretations to the Mystery Man as being a part of Fred's persona. In "Twin Peaks", the supernatural character of Bob at first seemed to be a mere embodiment of 'the evil that men do', a method of explaining how Leland Palmer could sexually abuse and murder his own daughter, Laura. However, as the series progressed and the movie prequel made its rounds in the theaters, it was made very clear that Bob was a living entity, and not some mere fabrication of Leland's psyche. If Lynch's intentions for the Mystery Man were the same as that for Bob, then Fred's acts of violence would be the result of being possessed by the Mystery Man. This interpretation is alluded to by the old Lynch mainstays of flickering lights, which have been used in his previous films to mark the presence of evil spirits, and electricity and/or bright lights, which act as a conduit for the transmission of the evil spirits (if you recall, the Fred/Pete transitions are marked by the sudden increase in the intensity of nearby electrical lighting).

And there you were, lying in bed. It wasn't you... it looked like you...

Multiple-personality disorder seems to be a favorite of Lynch (for example, in "Twin Peaks", Laura Palmer the homecoming queen and Wheels on Meals volunteer is counterpointed by Laura Palmer the hooker and drug abuser, and the evil doppelganger of Dale Cooper chases the good Dale Cooper through the Black Lodge), and in LH, the alter egos of the main characters reinforce Fred's perception of them. Fred sees himself as a young, robust, and innocent man-- Pete Dayton. Fred sees Renee as a vivacious young woman who is in love with him and in need of saving-- Alice (when Patricia Arquette was interviewed by "Sight and Sound", she said "My first concept was that they were two different people. But then David said, 'No, no, no. They're the same person'... I play two different interpretations of the same woman"). Dick Laurent is remembered by Fred as the epitome of depravity, a porn-peddling control-freak with a penchant for violence-- Mr. Eddy. And Andy is remembered as... Andy.

It was a long time ago. We met at a place called Mulks. We became friends. He told me about a job.
In pornos?
No, just a job. I didn't know what.

Love it or loathe it, "Lost Highway" is what I would call an 'intellectual puzzle', with its many layers of subtlety and meaning told in an unconventional manner, begging for discussion and interpretation. Lynch's films have always presented a challenge, an uncompromising look at his view of the world, and if you are in search of an experience in 'dangerous film-making', "Lost Highway" is a sure bet.

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