Lost Highway is probably not a lot of people’s favorite David Lynch film. I would rank it in the lower rungs of his canon. But it is still a masterful film that draws me back again and again.
The big question about Lost Highway is what actually happens. This movie has a plot that you can fully summarize without really spoiling it, because the meaning is never really given away.
There are only two real options for interpreting Lost Highway. Either the story is a delusion (a dream or a psychotic waking dream), or it is set in a real world. If Lost Highway is a dream, like much of Mulholland Drive, where does the dream begin or end? In Mulholland Drive, there is a break between dream and reality, but no such break is clear in Lost Highway.
Fred Madison, the protagonist of Lost Highway, is clearly somewhat deranged. The song over the opening and closing credits is David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged,” one of the finest creations of his late career, both highly accessible and utterly avant garde. But derangement itself is a real thing, existing in the real world. Fred and his derangement are depicted in the film. The film is not in Fred’s head. Fred’s head is in the film.
If, however, Lost Highway is set in the real world, then we have to conclude that supernatural events and powers are real as well. I am partial to this interpretation, for the supernatural is “real” in all of Lynch’s other major works.
One of the clues to the meaning of Lost Highway is a comment by the protagonist, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who says that he does not own a video camera because he likes “to remember things my own way. Not necessarily the way they happened.”
Fred, however, is followed by a shadowy figure, the Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who documents the things he would prefer to forget, including the murder and dismemberment of his wife Renée (Patricia Arquette), which Fred does not even remember having done until he is confronted with the video. The idea of doing terrible things and only learning of them later, from an external viewpoint, in which one is an object, is deeply unsettling.
This establishes that in Lost Highway, video/film is an objective medium—and since Lost Highway is itself a film, I think we should at least try to give it a realist interpretation. Lost Highway depicts a series of events that take place in a real world, albeit one in which magic takes place, as opposed to a dream or fantasy world, subject to the distortions of subjectivity, such as lapses of memory, repression of memory, wishful thinking, etc.).
But if Lost Highway shows us what really happened, then . . . what really happened?
The movie falls into three parts.
In the first part, Fred Madison kills his wife Renée, whom he suspects is cheating on him. Fred is sentenced to die, but disappears from his cell and is replaced by Pete Dayton (Balthasar Getty).
In the second part, Pete meets Alice Wakefield, a dead-ringer for Renée Madison (also played by Patricia Arquette). Alice is the girlfriend of Dick Laurent/Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), a gangster and porn producer with a really bad temper.
In the third part, Pete disappears, and Fred takes his place. Fred has apparently taken on Pete’s body to get out of jail and has now discarded it. Alice disappears, but Renée reappears, no longer dead. Fred tracks down and kills Dick Laurent/Mr. Eddy, who is sleeping with Renée. The movie ends with Fred in Mr. Eddy’s Mercedes being pursued by police. In the last few seconds of the film, Fred begins to morph into another person, perhaps Pete but more likely someone else who will let him again escape the consequences of his actions.
The film’s publicist suggested the story was a “psychogenic fugue.” This is not strictly true. A psychogenic or dissociative fugue is a form of temporary amnesia in which the subject loses his personal identity but then regains it. When Fred murders Renée he has no recollection of it until he sees the video. This could be a dissociative fugue or just a blackout. But the switch from Fred to Pete back to Fred is not simply amnesia. It is presented as Fred somehow stealing Pete’s skin, using it as a disguise to escape prison and uncover the mystery of Renée’s past, and then discarding it when it is no longer necessary.
Lynch reportedly liked the phrase “psychogenic fugue,” but focused more on the musical metaphor. In a fugue, a theme is played (Fred and Renée), then a counter-theme comes in (Pete and Alice), followed by the return of the original theme. In a particularly well-constructed fugue, the counter-theme is foreshadowed in the main theme, and the main theme is echoed in the counter-theme. Lynch does this systematically in Lost Highway, both with the script and with the soundtrack.
The first part of LH is my favorite. Lynch is masterful at creating an atmosphere of brooding suspicion and menace.
The film opens with Fred Madison sucking on a cigarette and looking a bit worse for wear from the night before. Somebody hits the door buzzer, and when he presses the “listen” button, he hears the words “Dick Laurent is dead.” He looks out the windows, but nobody is there.
That night, Fred is packing his saxophone for a gig at the Luna Lounge (where all the lunatics play), when Renée makes her first appearance, emerging from the dark to tell Fred she doesn’t want to go to the club with him that night. She wants to stay home and “read.” Fred is naturally suspicious. With her tight dress, sultry pose, and highball in her hand, she’s not exactly dressed to stay home and read. Their whole interaction seethes with tension and concealment.
And there is something about Renée’s cool manner that invites suspicion. Her dowdy brunette bangs stand in stark contrast with her tight, chic dresses, giving the impression that she is wearing a wig, inviting us to wonder what else she might be concealing.
Fred is soft-spoken and soft-faced, the kind of guy who bites back on his anger and broods. But his music is menacing, ugly, and unhinged, a window into his inner turbulence. (In the second part of the film, Pete Dayton hears Fred’s music on the radio, finds it intensely annoying, and turns it off.) When Fred calls Renée on a break, there is no answer, which makes him suspicious. When he arrives home, he enters their bedroom. There are red drapes, which is one of Lynch’s visual signatures of the uncanny or supernatural, featured most prominently in his various Twin Peaks projects, but also in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, and perhaps in Eraserhead as well, although it is shot in black and white. Renée is asleep in a bed with dark red and black sheets. She invited Fred to wake her up when he got home. (Presumably for sex.) But there is no sign that he did.
The next morning, Renée goes out to fetch the newspaper and sees an unmarked envelope on the steps. Inside is an unmarked VHS tape. She is somewhat furtive about the tape. Later we learn that she did porn before meeting Fred. Perhaps she fears someone reaching out from her past to mess with her marriage. Fred sees the tape and insists on watching it. It is just a few seconds of video of the front of their house. It makes no sense. Visibly relieved, Renée suggests that maybe it was left by a real estate agent.
That night, Fred lies in bed brooding. He recalls seeing Renée at the Luna Lounge with a suspicious character named Andy. Renée enters, disrobes, and slides into bed. The following sex scene is one of the creepiest in world cinema, simultaneously surreal and hyper-realistic. To détourn a phrase from Enoch Powell, it depicts the sober truth that every sex life—like every political career—ultimately ends in failure. Fred and Renée’s lovemaking is rank with tension and estrangement.
Then there is a flash of light and the motion slows—in Lynch’s cinematic language, signs of supernatural influences intruding into the realm of nature. Then we hear a bit of This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren,” which features prominently in the second part of the film. (This is a fugue-like foreshadowing of a prominent element of the second part.) Fred seems desperate to break down Renée’s icy emotional reserve. When he climaxes—or fails to climax, or climaxes too soon without her (the failure is not clear)—she pats him reassuringly on the back, saying “It’s okay, it’s okay,” causing Fred to disengage and recoil slowly in humiliation and horror.
Renée stares off into space emotionless as an anguished Fred tells her of a dream he had. Renée is in the house, calling Fred’s name, but he couldn’t find her. There is a roaring fire on the hearth. White smoke creeps through the house, another one of Lynch’s signatures of the uncanny. Fred enters the bedroom, passing the red drapes. We see Renée in bed from his point of view. (The movie camera is often Fred’s point of view.) Fred says “It looked like you, but it wasn’t.” Then he rushes at her, and she screams. Then he wakes up from a dream. He was dreaming he was telling her of a dream. But, now awake, he momentarily sees her with the face of a wizened old man, and it scares the bejeezus out of him.
This dream raises an important theme in the movie: Renée’s identity. Fred thinks she is hiding something in her past, as well as sneaking around behind his back in the present. The dream also foreshadows what will happen the very next night—as does the hallucination that Fred has after waking up. In the universe of Lost Highway, dreams and visions and prophecies can foretell the future.
The following morning, Renée finds another video tape. This time, the video continues inside their house. The camera goes down the hall to their bedroom. The last thing we see before the video cuts out is Fred and Renée asleep in their bed. Naturally, they are terrified and call the police.
That evening, Fred and Renée attend a party hosted by the rich and sleazy Andy (Michael Massee), an old friend of Renée that Fred regards with suspicion. Fred looks across the room and sees a face on the stairs that he recognizes but maybe can’t place. It is the face he saw superimposed over Renée’s the night before. The man approaches and the music dies away, suggesting that there is something supernatural about him, that in some way this is an encounter outside of normal time. This is the Mystery Man, played by Robert Blake. The conversation they have is one of the best scenes in the movie:
Mystery Man: We’ve met before, haven’t we?
Fred (smugly): I don’t think so. Where was it that you think we’ve met?
Mystery Man: At your house. Don’t you remember?
Fred: No, no I don’t. Are you sure?
Mystery Man: Of course. In fact, I’m there right now.
At this point, the Mystery Man hands Fred a cell phone and tells him to call his house. Fred complies and hears the man standing in front of him answer the phone in his house. Being two places at the same time is, of course, not a natural ability. Fred, of course, is alarmed. He thinks this may be the guy who taped him last night in his sleep.
Fred: How did you get into my house?
Mystery Man: You invited me. It’s not my habit to go where I’m not wanted.
Fred: Who are you?
Mystery Man: (laughs)
Who is the Mystery Man? First of all, he is the man with the camera, recording the things that Fred prefers to forget. He is the guy who puts things on your permanent record. But he is not an instrument of karmic or cosmic justice. In fact, he helps people escape their just desserts. He has supernatural powers, but he apparently cannot interfere in people’s lives without their consent. His favors presumably come at some cost. Fred has invited him into his house without even knowing it, probably through his suspicion and jealousy.
When the Mystery Man leaves the music returns. Fred points him out to Andy, asking who he is. Andy doesn’t know his name, but believes he is a friend of Dick Laurent. This turns out to be correct. Fred replies, “But Dick Laurent is dead, isn’t he?” Andy doesn’t believe Laurent is dead and seems alarmed at the suggestion. Clearly there is a connection between them.
Fred and Renée leave the party. Fred ask’s Renée how she knows Andy. The story she tells is suspiciously vague. When they return home, Fred searches the house but finds no one. As Renée prepares for bed, Fred wanders through his dark house. He broods, looking in a mirror. Renée calls to him exactly as in the dream. Then we see two shadows crossing the living room. One is Fred. The other is the Mystery Man. Then Fred emerges from the darkness. At this point, I expect that things occurred as in the dream. Fred lunges toward Renée in bed, who screams.
The next morning there is another tape. Fred puts it in and watches it. The images are same as the first two, but when they get to the bedroom, the bed is awash in blood, and Fred is frantic, surrounded by Renée’s dismembered and disemboweled corpse. He has tried to overcome their estrangement by literally opening her up, turning her inside out, and tearing her apart. He is horrified and calls for her in the next room. He has no recollection of his crime.
Fred is convicted and sentenced to death. In prison, he begins to suffer headaches. A huge bruise appears mysteriously on his forehead. One night in his cell, racked with pain, Fred looks at the wall of his cell. We hear “Song to the Siren,” and he has a vision. It is as if curtains are raised on a stage. He sees a cabin exploding and burning in reverse. Time moving backwards is a sign of the supernatural. Then the Mystery Man appears at the door of the cabin, looks at Fred, and goes back inside. (“Song to the Siren” foreshadows its usage at the cabin at the climax of the film.)
Fred’s cell is bathed in flickering blue light, another of Lynch’s signatures of the supernatural. We then see Pete Dayton by the side of a road. People scream to him not to go. We see smoke. A figure writhes on a bed. There is screaming and tearing, then we see something that I can only describe as what it would look like to pull a new skin over one’s face. Then there is just a blurry blob of skin.
The next morning, Fred Madison is not in his cell. He has been replaced by Pete Dayton, an auto mechanic who shares Fred’s general size and hair-color, as well as his soft build and face. He also has a huge bruise on his forehead. Later, we manage to piece together the following story. Pete came home with a man his parents and girlfriend Sheila had never seen before. It was the Mystery Man. Pete left with this man, for reasons unknown, and his parents and girlfriend witnessed something profoundly disturbing. At the very least, Pete simply vanished.
I believe the Mystery Man offered Pete something in exchange for, basically, his skin. Pete was spirited away and somehow wrapped around Fred, as a disguise. Since Pete Dayton does not belong in prison, he is released, and Fred goes with him. But the police tail him to find any possible clues about what took place.
Pete returns to work after a few days. He then becomes romantically involved with Alice Wakefield, Renée’s dead-ringer, although Alice is blonde. As the film unfolds, we discover that Alice and Renée are the same person.
This story, of course, reminds many people of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson falls in love with Kim Novak’s icy blonde Madelaine Elster, loses her to death, then finds her brunette dead-ringer and slowly learns they are the same person. Of course the mystery of Vertigo has a perfectly mundane explanation, whereas no such explanation is possible in Lost Highway.
Alice is the truth about Renée: a more real, less concealed version of Renée. She’s a bottle blonde, but instead of wig-like bangs, we see her roots, so we know it is her natural hair if not her natural color. Alice stars in porn. Alice is the girlfriend of gangster and porn producer Dick Laurent/Mr. Eddy, who hires Pete as a mechanic. When Mr. Eddy begins to suspect their affair and threatens Pete, Alice hatches a plot. They will rob Andy, one of Laurent’s associates in the porn industry, and run off together. But things don’t go exactly as planned. Andy attacks Pete and ends up killing himself in a gross but genuinely funny way.
When they are robbing Andy’s house, Pete sees a picture of Andy, Dick Laurent/Mr. Eddy, Alice, and Renée. Pete asks “Is that you? Are both of them you?” Of course both of them really are the same person, but which one is more real? Alice points to the blonde and says “That’s me,” which sends Pete into agony, including a nosebleed (another Lynchism, this one standing for bad news), which I interpret as Fred’s shock at finally getting to the truth about Renée.
In the third part of the film, Alice and Pete both disappear, and Renée and Fred both return. The police at the crime scene look at the same group photo, and it contains only Renée. When Fred asks the Mystery Man “Where’s Alice?” and is informed that her name is Renée, and if she told him her name was Alice, she was lying.
Both Fred and Pete desperately want to possess Renée/Alice, both sexually and spiritually. But they also want to know the truth about her, the real her. Fred is so frustrated by her essential mystery and aloofness that he literally turns her inside out. But woman, like earth, can be torn apart, and still each part will clamp down on, close up, and preserve an essential mystery and otherness.
Lost Highway is Fred’s quest for the truth about Renée. Fred is essentially a truth seeker. But like many truth seekers, Fred is so focused on his object that he remains a mystery to himself. Fred is an extravert, a modern man who seeks infinite knowledge/power over the external world (Renée in particular) while not knowing himself. Self-knowledge is a classical virtue connected with another classical virtue: temperance, self-limitation, self-liberation from ceaseless striving for knowledge/power in the external world.
To seek truth, Fred needs power. Knowledge requires power. Knowledge gives power, and power makes it possible to acquire more knowledge. Enter the Mystery Man.
The Mystery Man is evil, but he also represents self-consciousness. With his video recorder, he tapes the things that Fred prefers not to remember and confronts him with the truth about himself. Fred uses the Mystery Man but disowns him at the same time. At the party, Fred recognizes him but doesn’t know from where. Fred has already invited him into his house but represses the memory. In his cell, Fred sees him before his transformation into Pete, which will get him out of jail and give him a new life so he can continue to pursue the truth about Renée. In the third part of the film, the Mystery Man confirms that Alice was really Renée. Then he points his video camera at Fred and asks him who he really is. But Fred doesn’t really know the answer to that question, so he flees.
If Fred is Faust (= fist, the outward-focused power of grasping = objectification, subjugation, appropriation), then the Mystery Man is his Mephistopheles. Fred will sell his soul for power, because he is such an extravert—obsessed with power/knowledge in the material realm—that he doesn’t know himself. So why would he value his soul?
The Mystery Man, however, knows the value of a soul because he is the principle of self-knowledge and self-limitation and ultimately of freedom from striving.
Which raises the question: Why does he enable Fred’s ceaseless quest for knowledge/escape from himself and from personal responsibility? When the Mystery Man clothes Fred in Pete’s skin, he is helping him evade responsibility. When Fred begins to morph in the car at the end of the film, the police will find someone else when they pull the car over, and Fred will escape punishment yet again.
Perhaps the Mystery Man follows William Blake’s principle of allowing the fool to persist in his folly long enough to become wise. As I will argue, this strategy actually works, for Fred does attain self-knowledge and even some wisdom by the end of the film. But we can’t really blame him if he still doesn’t want to end up back on death row.
If Lost Highway is a search for the truth about Renée, then the climax takes place when Pete (Fred) learns the final truth about Alice (Renée). Pete and Alice ransack Andy’s house, take his car, and go into the desert to the cabin of a fence. It is the cabin that Fred saw burning and exploding in reverse before his transformation.
The fence is not there. They will have to wait. They make love in the desert, in the sand, in the headlights of Andy’s red Ford Mustang, to “Song to the Siren.” Pete repeats, with increasing desperation, “I want you. I want you.” To which Alice finally replies: “You’ll never have me.” Sexually, there is no climax, but musically there is. Also, dramatically speaking, this is definitely the climax of the movie.
Alice walks into the cabin and disappears. Pete disappears as well. It is Fred who stands up in his place, illuminated by the headlights. If the purpose of Pete was to get Fred out of jail and learn the truth about Renée, then he has served his purpose and can be discarded. (One wonders where Pete ends up.)
There is, however, another form of knowledge—self-knowledge—and thus another, subsidiary climax in the third part of the film. When Fred enters the cabin he sees the Mystery Man, who confirms the truth about Renée and then asks Fred who he is. But self-knowledge is not Fred’s strong suit. With the Mystery Man in pursuit, Fred rushes to Andy’s car, whose headlights are now dying. It is the dying of outward directed consciousness as the Mystery Man tries to force Fred inwards. But Fred manages the start the car in the nick of time and speeds away.
Fred ends up at the Lost Highway Hotel where he finds Renée and Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent having a tryst. After Renée departs, Fred abducts Eddy/Laurent, throws him in the trunk of his own Mercedes, and takes him to the desert. When Fred opens the trunk, Mr. Eddy lunges for his throat. It looks hopeless until Fred makes a conscious leap of faith. Instead of using both hands to fight off the guy strangling him, he reaches out. Someone puts a knife in his hand, and he slashes the throat of Mr. Eddy.
Mr. Eddy looks up and asks “What do you guys want?” Two men are standing above him. It was the Mystery Man who came to the rescue. The Mystery Man, as keeper of one’s permanent record, hands Mr. Eddy a tiny TV. In his dying moments, Mr. Eddy is going to see his life flash before his eyes on a Sony Watchman. We see Mr. Eddy, Andy, and Renée in Andy’s living room, watching a porn film in which Renée stars. As the porn morphs into a horror/snuff (?) film, we see Renée and Mr. Eddy with their hands all over each another as they watch. This is the full truth about Mr. Eddy and Renée, now revealed. The Mystery Man takes back the TV.
Mr. Eddy looks at his former friend, who has now betrayed him, and says “You and me, mister. We could really out-ugly them sumbitches, couldn’t we?” Then the Mystery Man shoots Mr. Eddy with Fred’s gun, a gun stolen by Pete from Andy’s house. The Mystery Man whispers something in Fred’s ear, imparting some sort of knowledge. We see an extreme closeup of Fred’s face. When the camera pulls back, only Fred remains, with the gun thrust in his pants. Fred has gone from being unconscious of the Mystery Man to consciously asking for his help to becoming one with him.
Outwardly directed knowledge can be represented as an arrow of intentionality, a beam of light sweeping back and forth like headlights illuminating the external world. This is represented by Lynch’s footage of a nighttime highway. The lost highway is Faustian man rocketing ever forward in the dark, ever searching for power/knowledge, ever fleeing self and responsibility. Thus the Lost Highway Hotel is a suitable location for two hedonists’ endless pursuit of pleasure.
Self-knowledge, which turns back to its source, can be represented as a circle. Fred has learned the truth about Renée. But has he gained any truth about himself? Yes. For after merging with the Mystery Man, Fred returns to his house, presses the buzzer, and says “Dick Laurent is dead.” The first time he hears these words, it is not his voice. Who said it and why remain mysteries. But by circling back to the beginning, the movie shows us that Fred has achieved self-consciousness.
How is merging with the Mystery Man equivalent to gaining self-consciousness? Fred’s obsession with Renée and Pete’s obsession with Alice are all about wanting to overcome mystery. And not just mundane biographical mysteries but sexual and ultimately metaphysical otherness. Faustian Fred’s whole problem is that he rejects mystery. But in rejecting mystery, he rejects the finitude of the world and knowledge of his own finitude. A world without finitude is a world without boundaries to our knowledge and power.
But that’s a grandiose fantasy, and the world tends to push back, creating greater and greater frustration and finally murderous rages. By embracing mystery, Fred embraces both the finitude of the world and his own finitude. By accepting that there are some things we can’t know or do, Fred actually gains self-knowledge and self-control, i.e., real freedom. Whereas the ancients abided by the Stoic maxim, “There are some things we can control and some things we can’t,” and thus they could rest in the face of necessity, moderns follow the maxim “There are some things we can control and some things we can’t control yet,” which means ceaseless striving for knowledge and power.
Does this mean that the Mystery Man was part of Fred all along? That strikes me as a reductive psychological interpretation. The Mystery Man is real. Fred merely comes to self-consciousness of their relationship. Lynch ends the film as he begins it: rocketing down a nighttime highway to Bowie’s “I’m Deranged.” But by ending and beginning in the same place, Lynch encloses the restless intentionality of modernist Faustian striving within the circle of classical self-consciousness and self-limitation. So we return to the beginning with a difference.
Fred’s achievement of self-consciousness is arguably more important than learning the truth about Renée, but realizing that truth is still the climax of the film, whereas Fred’s self-awareness is relegated to the dénouement.
So what is the truth about Renée? How is it possible for Alice to be Renée if Renée is dead? How is it possible for Alice to simply disappear and for the dead Renée to be alive again in the third part of the film? These are the toughest questions for a realist interpretation of Lost Highway. Here is my reading. Either Alice and the revenant Renée are dreams/hallucinations—or they are real but defy the laws of nature, i.e., they are supernatural. I wish to suggest the latter.
Fred and Pete are desperate to overcome the gulf, the mystery that lies between them and Renée/Alice. But this gulf can never be bridged, because Renée/Alice is not a natural being. What is she? She’s obviously a femme fatale of some sort. Hence, during one of Pete’s freakouts, Lynch shows us a black widow spider creeping up a wall and moths in their last convulsions around a lightbulb. But if Renée can cheat death, if Alice can simply pop in and out of existence, we are dealing with no ordinary femme fatale. She has a supernatural dimension.
Perhaps she’s a succubus, a demon in female form, who drags men to their doom. Or, what amounts to basically the same thing, perhaps she is a siren, another supernatural female entity who lures men to their deaths—as made crashingly clear by the music that plays both times Fred and Pete try in vain to sexually break down the distance between them and Renée/Alice, This Mortal Coil’s version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” These are the lyrics, including This Mortal Coil’s changes:
On the floating, shapeless oceans
I did all my best to smile,
’Till your singing eyes and fingers
Drew me loving to your isle.
And you sang, “Sail to me, sail to me
Let me enfold you.
Here I am, here I am
Waiting to hold you.”
Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you here when I was forced out?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks
For you sing, “Touch me not, touch me not
Come back tomorrow.”
O my heart, O my heart
shies from the sorrow.
Well I’m as puzzled as the newborn child
I’m as riddled as the tide:
Should I stand amid the breakers?
Or should I lie with death my bride?
Hear me sing, “Swim to me, swim to me
Let me enfold you
Here I am, Here I am
Waiting to hold you.”
In the end, when Fred reappears, standing in the headlights of the car, he is choosing to stand alone in the breakers, with all their terrors, rather than to embrace death, his bride. He embraces life, and by embracing the Mystery Man, he might just get away with it all in the end. Decency does not allow us to describe this as a happy ending, but that is probably Lynch’s intent.
Like the human soul itself, Lost Highway is deep and dark. It is hard to take its measure. But it remains one of Lynch’s most unsettling and rewarding works of art.