by Elizabeth Cantwell
If you’ve ever watched a David Lynch movie, you know the category of “plot summary” usually receives an “N/A” on those mental checklists you fill out after the credits stop rolling.Lost Highway is no exception to Lynch’s disregard for linear and/or comprehensible story lines. And yet it solicits more curiosity than frustration. It reaches out to the viewer and says:try to understand. This landscape is not unknown to you. This terror is something you hold close.
After frantically drawing out a very incomplete plot map, and reading a lot about the film on the ever-so-trustworthy Internet, I think I have a grasp on its mechanics. But only the most slippery of grasps. Because it’s such a strange viewing experience, the idea of “spoilers” doesn’t totally apply, but if you think you might not want to know anything about the apparent plot … maybe don’t keep reading.
Basically (by which I mean not basically at all), the film follows Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a tenor saxophone player who lives in a lovely and creepy-as-shit house in the Los Feliz hills and has a really creepy-as-shit marriage with Renee (Patricia Arquette). During one of the (many!) unsettling sex scenes in the film, I actually said out loud, “If this were how I experienced sex, I would never want to have sex.”1
In any case, Fred and Renee live a quiet life in this creepy house and they have lots of unfulfilling and kind of upsetting sex and one day they start finding videotapes on their front doorstep. The first videotape is just some really grainy footage of the front of their own house that closes in on their front door in a terrifying way and then drops off into static. “It’s probably from the real estate agent,” Renee says. Yeah, okay, Renee. I’m sure that’s what it is. IF YOUR REAL ESTATE AGENT IS A SECRET DEMON.2
From there things only get worse. One of the tapes ends in a traumatic and horrifying crime—and Fred himself is in the middle of it. Did he commit this crime? He doesn’t remember. What happened? That’s sort of the question we’re trying to answer for the rest of the film, as Fred gets sentenced to death row; suffers a killer headache; and seemingly morphs into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a car mechanic who becomes romantically involved with an oversexed woman named Alice (Patricia Arquette again).3
Alice’s fingernails change color in almost every scene.
You know how sometimes you are just sitting around—maybe watching TV, maybe snacking on something bland, maybe staring numbly at your own hands—when a very real desire comes over you, echoing throughout some chamber of the brain—“I really wish I were someone else right now”? The basic premise of Lost Highway seems to be: what if your desire for another life were so strong that just imagining this transformation could make it happen? What if you had gotten yourself into a situation that was so messed up that you went into a fugue state—that you were able to conjure up a whole new body for yourself, a whole new life?
But because you have gotten yourself into such a bad situation, because you were essentially going insane, this new life—this new body—might not serve you any better than the last one. This new body might actually run into all the same problems.
We like body swap movies because they allow us to dream about escaping the boundaries our very constraining flesh imposes on us. When we’re kids, we like to dream about becoming an adult for a day (but still keeping our fun kid minds). When we’re teenagers we like to dream about becoming someone more popular, more attractive, less awkward. When we’re adults? It gets weirder, maybe. We like to dream about becoming someone who made the choices we didn’t make. Someone who opted for a different (more fulfilling?) job, a newer car, a healthier diet, a prettier wife. Someone who lived more dangerously, who nearly wrecked the newer car, who supplemented the healthier diet with risky substance ingestion, who fucked the prettier wife in front of a video camera.
Lost Highway is born of these more disturbing wish-fulfillment fantasies. The psychological landscape it captures is worthy of a horror movie (in fact, Lost Highway has often found a place on those ubiquitous “Scariest Movies Of All Time” lists). The most frightening thing about it is not the conceit, not the I-had-a-psychological-break-so-I-invented-another-body-in-my-mind-to-inhabit—it’s the realization that there are huge holes in this mental body swap. And seeping in through the holes are really creepy, unnerving events that should never happen in real life. These surreal events hold a key to Lost Highway, showing the attentive viewer that this strange second story line (after Fred transforms into Pete) is not happening in real life. Rather, it’s all unfolding inside Fred’s brain, which in turn is too weak and disturbed and distracted to keep its fantasy pure. The fantasy is corrupted in a really horrifying way.
One of the most upsetting scenes occurs near the beginning of the film. Renee has dragged Fred to a scene party in some mansion near the Observatory. Fred is hating it, Renee is drunk. There are a bunch of people milling around who look exactly like the kind of people you’d never have any interest in knowing. Downing shots at the bar, Fred turns to see a person we will know only as the Mystery Man—a white-faced, eyebrowless, androgynous being dressed all in black 4. The Mystery Man approaches Fred: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
In this context, the stale pick-up line turns into a nightmarish scenario.
The movie is full of dark wells like this—moments when the realism of a scene shivers and ruptures and lets in something completely un-realist but also chillingly recognizable. Recognizable because, if you want to know the truth, the fabric of our lives5 is full of little ruptures. Usually they are subtle enough that we can feel okay about overlooking them or laughing them off. Sometimes they are not. Once my husband Chris and I were at Disneyland and, as we were walking to our car in the giant parking structure, I saw another couple walking the other direction. They were wearing the same color shirts as we were, roughly the same styles of jeans, had our same hair colors, and looked to be about our height/weight. Jokingly, I turned to Chris and said, “Look, it’s us!” The couple continued to walk away and we never saw their faces. Chris laughed and then later said something like “That was weird, those two people really did look like us,” and I agreed, and the whole thing just made me feel a little bit nauseous and very glad they hadn’t actually turned around.6
There are things that happen to us that we can’t explain, things that bubble up from some other reality or some other dimension and erupt out of our nice, mowed backyards and through our safely locked doors. David Lynch knows this and Lost Highway shows this and nothing is resolved in a neat or acceptable manner.
Fred says at one point in the film that he hates video cameras. “I like to remember things my own way,” he explains. This sounds nice for a second. But what is the cost of remembering things your own way? How much of a leap is it from having a memory that romanticizes that night on the beach to having a memory that completely represses not just an event but an entire side of your own personality? You can out-drive a hundred policemen but you can never outrun your own mind.
Lost Highway plays on our secret fears that we, too, have repressed memories—that we, too, have perhaps done things in our pasts that our brains have whitewashed for the sake of our own sanity. This is how interrogations and false confessions work—after being battered with the question “But did you do it?” for a certain number of hours, even the sanest human being begins to doubt her own mental reliability, her own version of events.
How many people is “I”? How many times have we met the Mystery Man before and not remembered? How many miles have we driven to try to escape our realities?
How many bodies have we inhabited?
2“Just walk away, Renee,” for real.
3Arquette is the victim here of Lynch’s well-documented doppelgänger obsession. She does her best with the two characters, and I actually really buy her performance as Alice, but I don’t know why on earth Fred would EVER have married her super untrustworthy and super suspicious Renee.
4Robert Blake plays the Mystery Man and is basically as terrifying as possible, and the later context of Robert Blake’s actual life—the whole “Oh, he probably shot his wife after dinner that one time”—only makes this role that much more disturbing. Especially since Lynch has talked about the O.J. Simpson murder case as a subconscious inspiration for Lost Highway, and there are unsettling parallels between Robert Blake’s alleged crime and O.J.’s alleged crime (down to the criminal acquittal and the civil conviction), and … anyway, the whole thing is weird and makes for bad dreams.
6Most Disneyland experiences feel pretty upsetting and surreal, actually.
Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let The Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.