Analysis: Lynch’s “Lost Highway”

Another title for David Lynch’s cult classic, Lost Highway, could be: Isn’t it Sad When Parallel Universes Marry (or, Whatever Happened to Baby David). Because when two parallels overlap in this story, the resulting third universe is way beyond strange, not to mention distressing for protagonist Fred, whose unhinged consciousness slips back and forth among them. Yet the overlaps are not haphazard—far from it. As we see it, the film represents unintended speculation on the question of: What if the cause in one parallel universe were to become the effect in another, where that effect becomes cause and has effects in yet a third universe, and all were overlaid, peppered with bad vibes, and played on an endless loop? It’s a circus of the surreal. Some dare call it insanity.

Having leapt into our analysis with that insight, it makes perfect sense that the protagonist would be a (somehow wealthy) progressive jazz saxophonist. His name is Fred Madison, played by Bill Pullman, as no one else could. Fred feels certain that his quiet wife, Renee, played by sexy Patricia Arquette, is cheating on him while he’s at work. Of course she is. He can’t expect her to just lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, can he? Besides, it’s not in the script of her DNA. Nor can we blame Fred for being riddled with doubt, fear, and corrosive jealousy by this bored mysterious woman with her vague allusion to an earlier risqué life that involved her heterosexual male “friend.” 

Some reviewers felt that Lost Highway is two unrelated intersecting stories connected by one wicked woman—maybe they missed the fact that Bill Pullman’s character is also pretty wicked and present throughout. Ebert and Siskel gave it two thumbs down (i.e., they didn’t get it). At least one other insight-less critic described the theme as being the tale of a man who morphs into the body and life of another man, which is like saying Superman is about a guy who changes his clothes in public places. Morphing was a flashy way to transform in the 1990s; nowadays folks morph more discretely and have texting compulsions instead. In any case, Fred, only seems to morph as he loses what little is left of his tormented mind after murdering Renee and facing execution for the crime. His mind checks-out of the Happy Place Hotel and travels far into a dark void. 

The intertwined endless loop of Fred’s leaky parallel universes is Fred’s permanent and personal cell in a karmic prison earned by all lost souls who murder spouses. And who can sympathize with him? It’s not as if he’s the first guy ever to roll over in bed during the night and think his wife looks like Robert Blake or Joe Palooka’s identical twin sister and wonder how she ever managed to land a job as a call girl. Get over it. In any case, part of the apparent message is that there’s no way to murder Patricia Arquette and get away with it in any universe, not with David Lynch’s angel-man around to film it. Humor aside, the script is a basic everyday horror story—read the newspaper. Five years after making Lost Highway, Robert Blake was charged with murdering his own wife, but acquitted. 

Art mimics life mimics art mimics life. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da… la-la how the life goes on. 

Like the Law of Attraction gone majestically wrong, Fred finds that all of his worst nightmares come true in the luridly erotic third universe of his guilt-ridden mind-in-denial where Alice (Arquette again) is deep into porno and vice versa and Fred (as Pete Dayton) is seduced by her again, and again she eludes the exclusive and compatible relationship he desires. “You’ll never have me,” are the words that make her hedonistic amoral intentions crystal clear. This is not a chic-flick; it’s a movie for men, especially men who’ve been married more than twice—the best bad trip since Blue Velvet.

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One Response to “Analysis: Lynch’s “Lost Highway””

  1. PluribusOne™ Says:

    …and sometimes art mimics art. Perhaps this old song served as some inspiration for the screenplay:

    Lost Highway
    (sung by Hank Williams)

    I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost
    For a life of sin I have paid the cost
    When I pass by all the people say
    Just another guy on the lost highway

    Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine
    And a woman’s lies makes a life like mine
    O the day we met, I went astray
    I started rolling down that lost highway

    I was just a lad, nearly twenty two
    Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you
    And now I’m lost, too late to pray
    Lord I paid the cost, on the lost highway

    Now boys don’t start to ramblin’ round
    On this road of sin are you sorrow bound
    Take my advice or you’ll curse the day
    You started rollin’ down that lost highway

    Songwriters: PAYNE, LEON
    Lost Highway lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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