A deep dive into David Lynch’s 1997 psychological thriller
David Lynch’s 1997 cult classic, Lost Highway, has been likened to a Möbius strip, a psychogenic fugue and a “lost highway” itself. But cult classics aren’t for everyone, and the film has also been called superficial, deliberately obscure and emotionally empty.
Initial reviews were sharply polarized upon first release, yet Lost Highway’s reputation has steadily grown over the years. A majority of cinephiles would now consider it to be a signature work in Lynch’s filmography. Considering its influence on subsequent masterpieces — Mulholland Drive (2001), Inland Empire (2006) and season three of Twin Peaks (2017) — the film’s critical reappraisal has been well-timed and well-deserved.
Full of doppelgängers, time paradoxes and dreams within dreams, Lost Highway is the ultimate “Lynchian” experience. But therein lies what has always been the most disputed question with this film: What the hell does it all mean? Is it a visionary triumph, or is the director just feeding us empty calories?
And, while we’re at it, can Lost Highway tell us anything about the meaning of Twin Peaks? Making sense of one can perhaps provide clues about the other, and Lost Highway might be the skeleton key to unlocking the director’s entire oeuvre. As Dale Cooper says in the penultimate episode of The Return: “The past dictates the future.”
Lost Highway begins with a lengthy opening credits sequence depicting an actual “lost highway.” The fleeting imagery of a road lit only by headlights, painted street-lines rushing past, is a perfect summation of the film’s entire ethos. By opening with a feverish descent into darkness that has no discernible beginning or end, the audience is already lost in a dream before the film proper even begins.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this singular image provided the genesis for the entire film. It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time Lynch took inspiration from free-association — after all, the fabled Red Room sequence was conceived instantaneously when he leaned against a hot car on a cool, summer night. Lost Highway developed along a similar path, with Lynch setting out to make the film simply after reading the titular phrase in a novel.
In Lynch’s vision, the symbolism represents a roadway to the deepest recesses of the mind — the lost highway of our lucid subconscious. And, as evidenced by the seizure-inducing opening credits, we’re hurdling toward our destination at lightning speed. The entire plot of the film, along with its themes of guilt, jealousy and betrayal, is best understood on a metaphorical level.
Lost Highway is just a dream within a dream. In order to uncover its deeper meanings, we’re asked to look beyond the headlights, toward the limitless expanse that exists on the outskirts of illumination. Only then does the film begin to make sense.
Right from Lost Highway’s opening scenes, Lynch envelops the viewer in a darkly expressionist mise-en-scène indebted to silent era masters like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. When compared to his most recent outings at the time — the off-kilter Wild at Heart (1990) and the over-the-top Fire Walk with Me (1992) — Lost Highway could have been viewed as a triumphant return-to-form. It was certainly Lynch’s most original, avant-garde work since Eraserhead (1977). Nevertheless, the film remains an acquired taste. For fans of experimental cinema, the surreal imagery is highly addictive; for viewers expecting a mainstream Hollywood thriller, the lo-fi aesthetic may be too unconventional.
The first thing we see after the opening credits is a man’s blank stare emerging from the darkness. It belongs to Fred Madison, our main character, who sits in a hard-to-see, pitch-black room. He receives a cryptic message on the doorbell intercom: “DICK LAURENT IS DEAD.” Police sirens are heard faintly in the distance but no one’s outside.
Fred Madison, played by Bill Pullman, is a jazz musician who has reason to believe that his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), is cheating on him. He has flashbacks of seeing Renee with strange men at the club, and later recounts a mysterious dream in which she was being attacked: “You were in the house calling my name, but I couldn’t find you. Then there you were, lying in bed…but it wasn’t you. It looked like you. But it wasn’t.” In what may or may not be a hallucination, it appears that Renee’s face has changed.
Although Fred seems like an everyman, he is in no way sympathetic — our protagonist is neither hero, nor anti-hero. And while Pullman may seem like an unlikely choice for a David Lynch role, the Spaceballs star is the perfect man for the job. We aren’t meant to identify with his character in any way whatsoever.
Renee, meanwhile, is played by Arquette in a role that is both coolly seductive and emotionally detached. Not to mention salaciously exhibitionist. It’s no wonder that she haunts Fred’s dreams at night — Renee is the ultimate femme fatale. Naturally, they share the coldest, most uncomfortable sex scene since Blue Velvet.
Things take a strange turn for Fred and Renee when, one morning, a mysterious videotape is left on their doorstep. The VHS contains grainy footage of their house. Over the next few days, more tapes arrive showing the home’s interior, eventually culminating in an overhead shot of the couple sleeping in their bedroom.
Two detectives are sent to investigate the scene, but rather than treat Fred as a victim of home invasion, they seem to have more interest in him as a potential murder suspect. One exchange in particular warrants further examination:
DETECTIVE #1: Do you own a video camera? RENEE: No. Fred hates them. FRED: I like to remember things my own way. DETECTIVE #1: What do you mean by that? FRED: How I remembered them. Not necessarily how they happened.
This conversation, especially the final line of dialogue, is the key to understanding the entire film, effectively calling into question everything we’ve seen so far, along with everything we’re about to see. Our main character prefers to remember things his own way, which means his point of view is not to be trusted — we’re seeing things as they appear in Fred’s subconscious.
That’s why he refuses to believe the contents of the final videotape, which shows him gruesomely dismembering Renee’s body: “I didn’t kill her. Tell me I didn’t kill her.” At first, it seems hard to believe, especially considering the murder happened offscreen. But when we remember that Fred has already admitted to being the world’s most unreliable narrator, his electric chair death sentence makes a lot more sense.
Lost Highway’s cryptic surrealism isn’t deliberately obscure; it’s a feverish byproduct of Fred Madison’s fractured state of mind. His memories have become encased in fantasy. How else do you explain the presence of The Mystery Man? And, furthermore, who — or what — is The Mystery Man?
A Line-by-Line Analysis of Lost Highway’s “Mystery Man” Scene
Fred’s chilling encounter with The Mystery Man is by far Lost Highway’s greatest scene. The entire atmosphere (setting: a house party thrown by Renee’s friend, Andy) is immediately changed by his presence. For three minutes, all aspects of David Lynch’s heightened surrealism come together in a perfect amalgamation of ambiguity, altered reality and an unparalleled ability to make the impossible seem terrifyingly real. If any scene deserves to be called “Lynchian,” this is it.
Robert Blake, in his final acting role before possibly getting away with murder, exudes a chilling, supernatural charisma. Donning white kabuki makeup and shaved eyebrows, Blake’s Mystery Man brilliantly toes the line between eerie and over-the-top. It’s an uncanny performance that absolutely steals the show.
But it’s the dialogue — and the delivery — that allows the scene to exist somewhere outside of time. Lynch and co-screenwriter Barry Gifford give The Mystery Man a level of crypticism usually reserved for inhabitants of the Black Lodge. In fact, he seems like a character borne straight out of Fire Walk with Me. Here’s a quick line-by-line analysis of the scene:
[**The Mystery Man’s dialogue is printed in bold typeface. Fred’s lines are in red bold italics**]
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” The first thing the Mystery Man says as he approaches Fred is perfectly in step with the circular nature of the film. Kind of like the “Dick Laurent is dead” bookending, or Twin Peaks’ “Is it future or is it past?” quandary.
“I don’t think so. Where was it you think we met?” This introductory exchange will be repeated later in the film when Pete Dayton also encounters The Mystery Man. It furthers Lost Highway’s central focus on repetition and duality: Pete is Fred, and The Mystery Man is their common bond.
“At your house, don’t you remember?” Earlier in the film, Fred recounts a mysterious dream in which Renee’s face turns into The Mystery Man’s. In a sense, the two have met before, but Fred can’t seem to remember when, why or how (“No, I don’t. Are you sure?”). It’s also worth noting that Fred’s dream — in which Renee was being attacked — seems to be based on reality.
“Of course. As a matter of fact, I’m there right now.” In the opening scene of Twin Peaks: The Return, the Giant tells Agent Cooper, “It is in our house now.” Is he referring to The Mystery Man? Essentially, The Mystery Man is a supernatural personification of Fred’s murderous evil — he has always been at Fred’s house. Nevertheless, Fred is unaware of the situation: “What do you mean? You’re where right now?” He fears what will be said next.
“At your house,” answers The Mystery Man. Bill Pullman’s performance in Lost Highway is one of the actor’s best, his understatement allowing extremely surreal moments like this to be grounded in reality: “That’s f**king crazy, man.”
The Mystery Man pulls out a hilariously large, circa-1995 cell phone and hands it to Fred. “Call me. Dial your number. Go ahead.” Fred complies. Meanwhile, actor Robert Blake doesn’t even blink, keeping his eyes wide open the entire time he’s onscreen. His ominous stare is haunting, accentuated by the shaved eyebrows.
Astonishingly, The Mystery Man answers the call on the other end: “I told you I was here.” Fred is in disbelief. “How’d you do that?” he asks, incredulous.
“Ask me.” Things take an even darker turn, as it appears that the laws of time and space have been thrown out the window. Fred, disturbed, complies once again, speaking into the phone this time: “How’d you get inside my house?”
“[from the phone] You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I’m not wanted.” Lynch’s camera focuses on The Mystery Man smiling, tight-lipped, mouth closed, as his disembodied voice speaks from the phone. He looks like Nosferatu, and this line fittingly alludes to vampire lore.
“Who are you?” When Fred asks this, both the physical Mystery Man and the disembodied voice from the phone can do nothing but chuckle simultaneously. Demonic laughter emanates from one and the other, as it would appear that some questions are better left unanswered. “[from the phone] Give me back my phone.”
“It’s been a pleasure talking to you.” With that, The Mystery Man takes back his Motorola and disappears back into the party.
So, what the hell was that all about?
Even though The Mystery Man can be seen talking to other party guests and is identified by Andy as “a friend of Dick Laurent,” it’s clear that he’s some sort of supernatural entity. Perhaps a malevolent spirit. Or something even more abstract: a personification of Fred’s darkness within.
If Lost Highway really is just a dream within a dream inside Fred Madison’s mind, then The Mystery Man is an embodiment of Fred’s unchecked murderous jealousy. He was “invited” into the home when Fred killed his wife. And he manifested a physical appearance when Fred escaped inside his head to deny it.
The Mystery Man symbolizes the true Fred, the evil that can’t be outrun. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t escape the past. Lost Highway is Fred’s journey into accepting his inner self, for better or worse, with The Mystery Man acting as his enigmatic guide.
Just like Albert Rosenfield’s explanation for Killer BOB, The Mystery Man represents “the evil that men do.” Fred can’t confront the fact that he killed his wife, and The Mystery Man acts as damning evidence that reality can’t be outrun.
Having been charged with his wife’s murder, Fred is sentenced to death via electric chair. But while he awaits execution on death row, a slew of severe headaches and disorienting visions plague his psyche. He sees flashes of blinding light, along with images of The Mystery Man and a cabin burning in the middle of the desert. At one point, it literally looks like his head is splitting apart.
The next morning, a young mechanic named Pete Dayton (played by Balthazar Getty) is sitting in his place.
Lynch’s own description of Lost Highway as a “psychogenic fugue” provides a possible interpretation for this sudden turn of events. This rare form of amnesia is characterized by extreme dissociation and can sometimes result in the formation of an entirely new identity. Through this lens, Fred Madison’s transformation into Pete Dayton is actually an onset of psychogenic fugue, brought about by the traumatic murder of his wife.
Rather than accept his fate in the electric chair, Fred consciously chooses to “remember things his own way,” and so he reimagines himself as someone else in order to escape from reality. This justifies Lost Highway’s instantaneous and inexplicable change in direction. All of a sudden, we’re now following Pete’s life at the garage, a complete about-face from the first half of the film.
As a matter of fact, it feels like a different movie altogether. The dark, expressionist style is abandoned. The colors are bright and welcoming. In essence, everything seems to be quite “normal.” Likewise, the character of Pete Dayton couldn’t be any more different than Fred Madison. Played by a relative unknown in Getty, his is another role that doesn’t require much emotion. Getty’s smug face and slacker persona are all that’s required of a character who essentially has more sex than dialogue.
It’s a perfect “new life” for Fred — he’s now a twentysomething Gen Xer whose only concern is which girl he’ll f**k next. The grungy soundtrack (featuring The Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and Lou Reed) reflects the not-so-subtle change in mood. If nothing else, it reflects a keen interest in alternative and industrial rock.
But is Lynch trying too hard to be hip? Quite possibly. We probably could’ve done without the Tarantino-esque “tailgating” scene, which is nothing more than a shallow attempt at comedic ultraviolence. And the casting couch audition that forces Arquette’s character to undress at gunpoint is outright misogynistic. Not to mention the fact that the four (?!) sex scenes aren’t just gratuitous; they’re boring as f**k.
Psychogenic fugue or not, the Pete Dayton detour unfortunately finds Lynch indulging in some of his most superficial tendencies.
Of course, the Pete Dayton detour is just that — a detour. As the “dream” progresses, cracks in the firmament begin to show. Pete has no memory of how he ended up in the jail cell. On top of that, he keeps experiencing strange headaches and nosebleeds. Later on, he nearly passes out after hearing a suspiciously familiar sax solo (the same one that Fred Madison had played earlier in the film).
The arrival of Alice Wakefield — Renee’s blonde-haired doppelgänger, also played by Arquette — confirms that the fantasy is falling apart.
Alice Wakefield is introduced via slow motion, bathed in bright light like an angelic illusion. Lynch is perhaps paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, but he’s also highlighting a core theme he’s been working on his entire career: duality.
Alice is not a new character at all; she merely represents a new Renee. Just like Fred’s switch from murderer to mechanic, Renee goes from cheating housewife to gangster’s moll, with Alice every bit the femme fatale of her red-haired counterpart. Her affair with Pete allows Fred to experience his wife’s adulterous liaisons from the other side. In a way, he’s cucking himself. But in doing so, he finds that Renee’s dream double is closer to the real thing than he ever imagined.
Pete learns of Alice’s seedy connections to pornography and organized crime. He also learns about her lover, Mr. Eddy (played by Robert Loggia), a sinister gangster whose real name happens to be Dick Laurent. It isn’t too long before The Mystery Man reappears. His initial conversation with Pete (via phone, of course) starts off exactly the same as when we last saw him: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” But this time, The Mystery Man delivers a cryptic warning — “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.”
The proverb can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but I view it as confirmation that the entirety of Lost Highway takes place within Fred Madison’s mind, a personal purgatory that he can’t escape. In this way, Lost Highway is very similar to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story about a hanged man’s dying fantasy. But instead of a noose, we’re dealing with an electric chair. And instead of one brief reprieve, we’re shown a Möbius strip of psychogenic fugues and lost highways, ad infinitum.
Just as Mulholland Drive visualizes Diane Selwyn’s surreal fantasies in the micro-moments after committing suicide, Lost Highway shows Fred Madison’s subconscious desires as he is fried to death on the electric chair. In a sense, both characters are stuck in the same limbo, trying to escape the unescapable.
Fred can only “remember things his own way” for so long, and so the Pete Dayton dream falls apart when Alice leaves him emasculated in the middle of the desert (“You’ll never have me,” she says before disappearing). In another flash of blinding light, Fred Madison returns.
Just like a fugue, a film needs closure, and Lost Highway is able to bring its ideas full circle by the end. The final stretch of the film focuses on Fred’s journey into accepting his true self, for better or worse. It’d actually be quite inspirational if the main character wasn’t a murderer.
Now working in tandem with The Mystery Man, Fred not only faces his guilt; he embraces it. Apparently, the best way to confront the past is to relive it. Driving to the Lost Highway Hotel, they catch Dick Laurent in bed with Renee. After taking Laurent hostage, they kill him. The Mystery Man himself is the one who delivers the fatal blow.
The last minutes of the film contain very little dialogue. As The Mystery Man whispers into Fred’s ear, Dick Laurent lets out a few grunts and groans before he dies (“You and me, mister. We can really out-ugly them sumb****es”). Fred then drives to his own house and leaves a message on the intercom: “DICK LAURENT IS DEAD.” With this, it appears that he’s finally come to terms with his past.
But does Fred feel remorse for his actions? Not in the slightest. His fantasies were supposed to be a fresh start to escape from reality, but he wound up a murderer in every one of his dreams. Killing is in his very DNA, and ultimately Lynch wants us to contemplate how certain things can’t be changed.
As a fleet of police cars chases Fred into the night, he seems on the verge of another transformation. Is it the onset of yet another psychogenic fugue? Or is the electric chair finally catching up with him?
Furthermore, how long can Fred keep driving down the proverbial lost highway? Will he keep having more dreams within dreams? How many dreams within dreams did he have before the film even started? So many questions, so few answers. Perhaps the most pertinent question is asked by Monica Bellucci in “Part 14” of The Return: “We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream. But who is the dreamer?”
One of my favorite shots in Mulholland Drive begins with a woman singing “16 Reasons Why.” The camera pulls back to show her in a recording studio, and continues to zoom out until we finally see that the recording studio is part of a soundstage on a movie set. The illusion of reality is one of Lynch’s favorite subjects, and it applies equally to the process of moviemaking as it does to the authenticity of everyday life.
Lynch uses this meta-framework as the basis for almost every film he makes. For example, Lost Highway takes place entirely inside a dream, meaning that the “real” versions of the main characters are never seen. The story exists, and yet it doesn’t, which makes the true dreamer David Lynch himself.
Nowhere is the dichotomy between cinema and dreams more evident than Twin Peaks. In fact, the entire series seems to be a self-aware blurring of fiction and reality. As far as season three is concerned, the best explanation might be that the whole thing is a dream. But whether the dream belongs to Laura Palmer, Dale Cooper, or David Lynch himself remains unanswered.
Even though the audience is asked to do a lot when it comes to a Lynch film, piecing together the puzzle is never the sole raison d’être. Likewise, the “it was all a dream” reveal never feels like a cheat. The fact that we are so easily entranced by the dream in the first place is worth the price of admission alone.
Lost Highway is somewhat sloppy in its storytelling, and the inner workings of the film are nearly impossible to comprehend without the context of Mulholland Drive, but it still remains some of the greatest and most terrifying cinema that Lynch has ever put to film. Even if the plot is emotionally empty, the atmosphere is unforgettable.
It’s a film I’ve returned to quite often throughout the years. Just like Fire Walk with Me, it’s something I would classify as a guilty pleasure. It’s highly underrated, but as a self-confessed Lynch fanatic, I recognize that it isn’t perfect. Nevertheless, the labyrinthine nature of the plot, coupled with the unparalleled avant-garde visuals, makes Lost Highway an experience you’re not likely to forget.