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25 years of 'Lost Highway': David Lynch's existential nightmare


“We’ve met before, haven’t we.” – The Mystery Man (Lost Highway)

Existing in the dreamworld and on the precipice of something far more ethereal, the universe of David Lynch operates in a landscape of confusion, wonder and often terror as the dream slips and turns into a nightmare. Obsessed with such a concept, Lynch rarely departs from this mode of storytelling, creating the likes of Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire with the world of dreams and fantasy very much in the forefront of his mind. 

There are no such dreams quite as dark and disturbing as the director’s 1997 film Lost Highway, a haunting hallucination of horror and desire that explores the debauchery of the underbelly of Los Angeles. In the ambience of the city, chaos reigns, floating like a smog of tarred smoke that engulfs its residents, not unlike the suburban dreamworld that lies dormant below the surface of Lynch’s award-winning Blue Velvet.

In this city, anonymous videotapes are passed to a musician (Bill Pullman) and his wife (Patricia Arquette), stalked by a dark presence that manifests itself from the twilight of the smut and desire of Los Angeles. Becoming obsessive and rightly concerned as to the ever-more personal videos, Pullman’s Fred Madison and his wife, Renee, seek to find answers, of which there are very few aside from the appearance of a small, pale mysterious man who navigates their lives as if a spectre. 

A phantom of malice, the Mystery Man (Robert Blake) watches over the Madison couple as if an omniscient figure of the unconscious, approaching Fred upon his first scene only to tell him that he is really ‘at his house’. Calling his home phone number, the mystery man replies in a terrifying tone, bringing a paranormal nightmare to life with surreal ease as Lynch creates a figure who seems to lie betwixt between reality and illusion. 

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Establishing the tone for the ongoing film, Lynch shrouds Lost Highway in a dark, enigmatic mist as he explores the life and sanity of Fred Madison as he descends further into psychosis in his own attempts to rationalise his increasingly disturbing actions. Unable to contain the weight of his own psychosis, the character seems to break space and time in order to fix his own mistakes as Lynch diverges from the main story to follow the life of Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) a young car mechanic, a fictionalised version of the main character. 

Diverting from the expected path of storytelling, Lynch swerves the film into a love story of sorts where the young mechanic lusts over the figure of Patricia Arquette’s Renee, who now exists seemingly in an alternate reality. Projecting the emotional perspective of the young man when he first lays eyes on her, Lou Reed’s ‘Magic Moment’ breaks the dark spell of enchantment and Lynch satirises Hollywood cliché with sharp style.

As we’ve come to expect from the complex, eccentric mind of David Lynch, the story of Lost Highway soon becomes preoccupied with the volatile and erratic dreamworld, taking the viewer on a haunting joyride of the dark corners of the protagonists fear and desires. A deeply personal film in many respects, Lynch’s 1997 classic deals with the obsession with one’s own journey of the hero, fantasising about the mistakes of the past and hopes of the future. Questioning the mortality of existence within the limits of life’s ‘one chance’, the director creates his most existential and unsettling film.

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