Lost Highway

4 03 2012

I’ve been a fan of Lost Highway, by David Lynch for many years. I remember seeing it in the cinema when it first came out and being mesmerised by what I had just seen, although not fully understanding it.

Since then I have watched the film many more times, and last month’s David Lynch retrospective at the BFI recently inspired me to revisit it again.

I’d like to think that I have a pretty good grasp of what the film is about, now, and I get frustrated by all the reviews saying that it is ‘meaningless’ or ‘pure surrealism’, so I thought I’d share my interpretation here. Before I start, I should point out that you should not read ahead if you haven’t seen the film yet – I discuss the full plot of the film here, and my review contains many spoilers.

Right, now that’s out of the way…

In summary, I think it is a film about infidelity and unrequited love, and how they can lead to literal madness. I think it’s a wonderful study of mental anguish, and of dissociation, and personality disorders.

When watching the film, it’s also important to remember that David Lynch is primarily an artist, not a film-maker. He often mixes fantasy and reality, and uses a lot of surreal imagery in his films. Many of his films are wonderful studies of consciousness, dreams, identity, and mindfulness (in fact Lynch runs his own center for transcendental meditation), as well as the primary emotions, including desire, shame, fear, and anger.

Here’s my summary of Lost Highway:

Lost Highway film poster

[At the start of the film a buzzer goes off. A man answers it, and he hears a voice say “Dick Laurent is dead”. Then we hear police sirens in the distance, and the scene fades out.]

We meet our two main characters: Fred Madison and his wife, Renee. They live in a minimalistic, modern house in the Hollywood Hills. Fred is a professional musician and Renee (as we later discover) used to be an actress in the sex industry. Right from the outset, we see that there is a lot of tension in their relationship. They barely speak to each other, and most of the scenes are silent and awkward. One night Fred is preparing to go and play a gig, and Renee says that she’s not going to attend. Fred seems suspicious and asks what she’ll do instead, and the following dialogue occurs:

Renee: “You don’t mind that I’m not coming tonight?”
Fred: “What are you going to do?”
Renee: “Stay home, read.”
Fred: “Read? Read what, Renee?”
Renee laughs.
Fred: “It’s nice to know I can still make you laugh.”
Renee: “I like to laugh, Fred.”
Fred: “That’s why I married you.”

The tension is palpable, and the distrust between them is obvious. Fred is clearly suspicious of Renee. After he comes off stage, Fred calls the house, but nobody answers. We see the phones ringing throughout the house, but nobody is there to pick them up. When Fred gets home later that night, he finds Renee asleep in bed, and seems relieved; momentarily, at least.

It becomes clear that Fred suspects that Renee is cheating on him, and that this is literally driving him crazy. His fear of losing her is so great that it begins to cause him to ‘dissociate’; to split off different aspects of his identity as a means of coping with the trauma, as is common in cases of dissociative identity disorder (DID). During these dissociative episodes he imagines that he is ‘outside of himself’ and is completely unaware of his own actions; almost as if he has blacked out. It is only afterwards that he can remember what happened, by imagining that someone else had videotaped him during that time. Lynch brings these videotapes into the movie as if it they were real objects, but they are metaphorical, and they represent those dissociated parts of Fred’s consciousness; the parts that contain his deepest fears, and which are starting to enter into his daily life as he can no longer push them aside any more.

One night Fred and Renee have sex. It is a frenzied scene, and we see the conflicting emotions in Fred’s eyes as he orgasms, and the emptiness in Renee’s. Fred comes quickly, and as Renee attempts to reassure him, he recounts a dream where he couldn’t find her in the house – he says he saw someone that looked like her, lying in bed, but it wasn’t her. At that moment, the image of a spooky white face suddenly flashes across Renee’s face. This terrifying image represents Fred’s inner demon. The dream suggests that, for Fred, Renee is slowly beginning to represent his inner demon; the source of his deepest fear and rage.

The videotapes start to appear more and more regularly, as Fred is no longer able to prevent these dissociated parts of his consciousness from coming to the surface and entering his daily life. Renee is spooked by them, and they call the police.

Two detectives visit the house, and the following conversation occurs:

Detective: “Do you own a video camera?”
Renee: “Fred hates them.”
Fred: “I like to remember things my own way.”
Detective: “What do you mean by that?”
Fred: “How I remember them… Not necessarily the way they happened.”

This explains why videotapes are such a dangerous metaphor for Fred’s darkest thoughts (and video cameras will later appear as incredibly threatening objects); and why he is struggling so hard to create a coherent narrative for himself. He wants to construct a story that makes sense to him; but which may not necessarily be true.

In one scene we see Fred remembering the night he was on stage at a gig. We see him noticing Renee at the back of the room, and then he sees her leaving through the exit, with a sleazy looking man. He suspects that they might be having an affair.

A couple of scenes later, we see Fred and Renee at a showbiz party at someone else’s house. The camera pans back and suddenly we see the sleazy looking man from the club scene. We learn that his name is Andy, and that he is a ‘friend’ of Renee’s. Renee is drunk and very flirtatious with Andy. They are all over each other. Renee asks Fred to go and get them some drinks. This seems to be the snapping point, which pushes Fred over the edge. He cannot stand it any more. He goes to the bar, and drinks two drinks himself, and then suddenly his inner demon (the spooky white face we saw earlier) appears at the door; his nemesis. The demon approaches, and they talk. This is the first time Fred’s inner demon has ever entered into his waking life. The demon knowingly says “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” and when Fred asks where, he says “At your house” (in a sense, he is saying “I am inside you”). The demon proves his existence via a trick on Fred’s phone, and then leaves.

Fred is understandably distressed by this encounter, and asks Andy who the demon was. Andy says he is a “friend of Dick Laurent’”, which reminds Fred of the very first scene in the film. He looks confused, and the following dialogue takes place:

Fred: “But Dick Laurent is dead, isn’t he?”
Andy, looking angry and threatened: “He is? I didn’t think you knew Dick. How do you know he’s dead?” (The use of the name ‘Dick’ here, and the reminder that ‘Dick is dead’ may also be a reference to Fred’s sexual performance, and his shame from the other night).

Fred is confused and upset and angry, and pulls Renee away from the party. On the way home, he asks her how she met Andy. She says “We met at a place called Moke’s. We became friends. He told me about a job.”. When Fred asks what job it was, Renee simply says she can’t remember; but by this point it’s already too late. Fred is filled with jealousy and rage, and he is convinced that Renee is cheating on him. He can no longer dissociate, or keep it under control. As they approach the house, we see shadows moving indoors. Fred enters the house, and asks Renee to wait outside. He goes into the house and we see him moving amongst the shadows; starting to merge with his dissociative alter-ego.

Renee enters the house, and we later see her calling for him in the darkness. This is the last time we will see her. Later that night (as we will discover through footage from Fred’s ‘videotape memories’) Fred murders her in their bed.

Once out of his dissociative state, Fred has no memory of this afterwards; in fact when the police accuse him of being a murderer, he begs for them to “Tell me I didn’t kill her”. He is sentenced to jail, and execution in the electric chair. In his cell, Fred struggles to make sense of what has happened. He can’t sleep, and suffers from constant headaches. He has short glimpses of memory where he sees what he did to Renee, but still cannot resolve everything in his mind. He needs closure somehow; he needs another chance to make his relationship work, or to understand what went wrong. He has to figure out what happened, and why. He has to know who caused it, and he has to get revenge on those people that corrupted Renee and helped her cheat on him. There is only one way he can do this: by creating an ‘alternate reality’ for himself and entering into a fugue state.

So this is exactly what he does, and from here on everything we see is taking place within Fred’s consciousness, as he attempts to battle his inner demons and make sense of what has happened. Fred imagines himself to be a young man named Pete, and from this point on, we see the movie from this alter-ego’s perspective.

Pete is a young, attractive ladies’ man, who works as a mechanic, and dates a girl named Sheila. Pete ‘appears’ in Fred’s cell, and is set free; with detectives following his movements from a distance. Pete decides to go to work, and here we meet a terrifying character named ‘Mr Eddy’. ‘Mr Eddy’ takes Pete for a ride to fix his car, but whilst they’re out driving someone overtakes them, and ‘Mr Eddy’ rams his car off the road, beats him up, and threatens to kill him. Clearly, ‘Mr Eddy’ is not somebody you should mess with. As they get back to the workshop, the detectives spot them, and identify ‘Mr Eddy’ as Dick Laurent; the man we heard about earlier. Clearly, this man represents the corrupt, dangerous, nasty side of life.

Mr Eddy

The next day, ‘Mr Eddy’ returns with a different car, but this time there’s a woman in it: it’s Renee. Except she has blonde hair, and her name is now ‘Alice’. This is Fred’s way of bringing her back to life; to incorporate her into his fantasy world as some kind of identical twin.

Alice

Pete instantly falls in lust with her, and she seems to feels the same way. Time slows down, and they glance at each other as music plays. Later that night she returns, and asks Pete to accompany her to dinner. Pete hesitates, as he recognises the danger of getting involved with ‘Mr Eddy’s’ girl, but he cannot resist. They go to a motel and have sex. They swap numbers, and start a sexual relationship. They regularly meet in motels and sleep together, and seem to be developing feelings for each other.

Notably, as Pete starts to develop feelings for Alice, reminders of reality start to creep into the fantasy word Fred has constructed in his mind: Pete starts to have headaches, and to become confused about ‘what happened to him’, and there is an occasion where we hear Fred’s sax solo on the radio at the workshop, and Pete quickly has to change it.

One day, Alice tells Pete that they are in danger, and that ‘Mr Eddy’ knows about them. Pete asks what they should do, and she comes up with a plan. She says that she knows a man who “pays girls to party with him” and has a lot of cash. They could kill him and steal the money and run away together. Fred asks Alice how she met this man, and she explains that he works with ‘Mr Eddy’. She reluctantly confesses that she made adult films for them in the past, and explains that their very first meeting was “at a place called Moke’s”. Suddenly it becomes clear that she is talking about Andy. Finally, through Pete, Fred is able to understand the full story of what happened. Pete agrees to Alice’s plan; to kill Andy and run away with her.

But when Pete gets home that night, Sheila is there. She is distraught, and says she knows he is cheating on her. She urges Pete’s parents to tell him something, but they refuse. Finally, she bids him farewell, and says she will never see him again. It’s clear Pete’s time is running short and that his fantasy can’t last forever. Fred needs resolution.

Pete goes into the house and his parents pass him the phone. It’s ‘Mr Eddy’, and he is with Fred’s inner demon; working in cahoots. At this point, the demon still represents Fred’s nemesis, and the source of his darkest fears and deepest anger. Pete talks to the demon, and has the same conversation that Fred has with him at the party. Finally the demon tells him a story:

Demon: “In the East, the far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they’re sent to a place where they can’t escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them and fire a bullet into the back of their head.”

This is of course a thinly-veiled threat against Fred; who already has been sentenced to death, but still awaits the execution itself.

The next day, Pete goes to the address Alice told him about, and murders Andy, as planned. However, what he didn’t expect was to actually have to witness seeing Alice in her adult films. They’re projected onto a wall in the living room, and he cannot avoid them. This is too much for Fred’s psyche to handle, and Pete starts to convulse and bleed. Fred’s fragile alternate reality is falling apart, and suddenly we see a picture, of both Alice and Renee, standing with Andy and ‘Mr Eddy’. Pete asks Alice if they are both her, and she points only at Alice and says “That’s me”; temporarily keeping the narrative of the alternate reality alive. Pete goes upstairs to clean himself up, and when he comes back down there is a short exchange with Alice where she points the gun at him and we once again question whether or not she can be trusted. Finally she hands it to him and suggestively tells him to stick it in his pants.

Alice tells Pete that they must drive out to the desert, to a cabin, so they do. The cabin represents the very heart of Fred’s consciousness.

When they get there, there’s nobody there yet, so they have to wait. Alice seduces Pete, saying: “You still want me, don’t you, Pete”.
“More than ever,” Pete replies, “I want you, I want you.”
Time slows down and they have sex one last time and roll around in the sand. As they finish, Alice towers above Pete, and leans down to whisper into his ear: “You’ll never have me.” Then she gets up and leaves.

Fred’s alternate reality has fallen apart. Even in this fantasy, he couldn’t convince himself that his wife loved him.

There is no need for the alter-ego any more, so Pete has turned back into Fred, and this is who we see stand up, in the middle of the desert. Pete is gone.

Fred walks to the cabin and his inner demon is there, waiting with a video camera; the window into his soul. Fred asks where Alice went and the demon makes it brutally clear: “Alice who? Her name is Renee. If she told you her name is Alice, she’s lying.”

Demon with video camera

Everything is lost. All that is left is for Fred to be executed; but he can still commit one final act of revenge, by joining forces with his inner demon and killing ‘Mr Eddy’. So this is what he decides to do.

He finds ‘Mr Eddy’ in bed with his wife, at the Lost Highway Motel (the ‘Lost Highway’ of the desert represents the journey down deep into his consciousness). He kidnaps ‘Mr Eddy’ and bundles him into the car boot. He drives him out to the desert, and then opens the boot. Suddenly ‘Mr Eddy’ leaps out, and for a moment it seems like Fred will lose the battle, but suddenly someone hands him a knife, and he cuts ‘Mr Eddy’s throat. The camera pans out, and we see that his accomplice is now his inner demon. They have joined forces, and Fred has embraced his innermost fears and rage. ‘Mr Eddy’ dies; one final token act of revenge, and closure for Fred.

We cut to a scene back at Andy’s house, and the detectives are cleaning up the mess. They notice the picture we saw earlier, but this time only Renee is in it. “That’s Fred Madison’s wife with Dick Laurent.” The fantasy world has collapsed.

Finally, all that is left for Fred to do is to run. But he has one last idea; perhaps if he can somehow go back in time, and reassure himself that the evil Dick Laurent has already been dealt with, then maybe he can find happiness with his wife after all? So this is what he does – he flees from the police, and goes right back to the start of the movie; setting a Möbius strip into motion, like a black hole in time.

In the fantasy world, Fred is suddenly submerged by flashing blue lights, and his body starts to shake violently. He screams out. In reality, he is in the electric chair, being electrocuted. These are his final moments.

And that’s the end of the film.

Film stills

Of course, I’m aware that I could be wrong, and that it could all mean something completely different, or even a million different things. But, to me, that’s what makes it such a brilliant piece of art.