On August 1st as part of its festival of film the Royal Albert Hall celebrated the work of surrealist auteur David Lynch with a 20th anniversary screening of his pitch-dark mid-career oddity Lost Highway in its intimate Elgar Room. After the film the shell-shocked audience was also treated to a Q&A with composer (and original member of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds) Barry Adamson, to discuss the film’s languorously pulsating soundtrack. Lost Highway is sandwiched between Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive and came at an awkward moment for Lynch when he was under fire for the critical and commercial disappointment of Fire Walk With Me, a film that traded in the folksy humour of certain parts of the Twin Peaks tv-show it was based on for the apocalyptic horror and subversive sensuality of the same show’s aggressively alienating elements. Far from scaling back on the elements that people criticised in Fire Walk With Me Lynch, if anything, aggressively doubled down on them.
Functioning as a bleak companion piece to it’s spiritual successor Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway presages the later film’s rotten apple vision of L.A. but depicts it through a warped lens of male anxiety. The film positively teams with Freudian neurosis with Lynch painting a portrait of desperate men who aren’t so much fighting a battle of the sexes but a desperate guerrilla war, rife with atrocities. The film focuses on Fred Madison (Bill Pullman from Independence Day who turns in a fearless performance of simmering tension and barely restrained misogyny) a jazz saxophonist who becomes convinced his vampish wife Renee (Patricia Arquette, icily sexual, though hamstrung by a role that is much textural as character based) is cheating on him. Their shadowy, starkly empty house is a hellish purgatory which thrums with ominous industrial drones as a backbeat to the couple’s elliptical, never quite accusatory, conversations, with Lynch interpreting a dissolving marriage as a squirming social nightmare. It’s in this already fervid atmosphere that the couple begin to find video tapes left on their front steps portraying first the exterior of house, then footage from inside, then footage of Fred and Renee asleep. Clearly something nightmarish is coming…
No wait, that’s not right: Lost Highway is the story of Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty, going for a James Dean-thing that’s perfectly effective but not up to Pullman’s sublimated aggression) a young mechanic who wakes up in a death row prison cell despite having committed no crime. Pete is released into his parents’ care and soon crosses paths with the volatile gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) and his beautiful mistress Alice Wakefied (Patricia Arquette again) and feels an instant pull towards her. However his risky liaisons are interrupted by odd visions and a feeling that something awful is coming.
Lost Highway is both of these stories, tied a broader narrative that stitches the two together into a Mobius strip of dreamy logic and grisly subtext. Lacking the humour (with the exception of Robert Loggia, whose extreme views on road safety deliver some much needed laughs) that props up the majority of Lynch’s work, Lost Highway feels like a deeply personal piece of work which sees the director wrestling with deeply uncomfortable issues in what comes the closest to a pure horror film that Lynch has yet made. Filled with painterly frame compositions and lush shadow Lost Highway is well worth a cultural re-examination and the Royal Albert Hall should be commended for bringing Lost Highway’s darkness into the light.