Essays · Movies

‘Lost Highway’ and the Paranoia of Intimacy

Sometimes it’s our closest relationships that elicit the worst in us.
Lost Highway
By  · Published on December 9th, 2016

David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway was a bit of a comeback, as well as the start of a new chapter in his filmography, a chapter some – this author included – consider to be his best. Lynch’s previous feature had been Fire Walk With Me, the prequel film to his Twin Peaks series that was met with, shall we say, an unexpected response. Fans were hoping for a sequel, and when they realized what they were getting instead, they were not happy. The film was booed at its Cannes’ premiere – especially insulting considering Lynch’s film before that, Wild at Heart, had won the festival’s highest honor, the Palme D’Or – and is the worst-reviewed film of his career. At this particular point with the third season of Twin Peaks finally on the horizon, FWWM is starting to get a little more objective appreciation, but in its day it was regarded as a disaster, not just commercially – something Lynch has never cared about – but creatively as well, and in its aftermath Lynch entered a bit of a dry spell.

Of course, with an artist like Lynch there’s no such thing as a dry spell, the mere act of living is creative for him, but in terms of popular output, there was very little in the immediate wake of FWWM. He and Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost tried their hands at another TV show, On the Air, which came out a year after Twin Peaks ended and the same year FWWM was released, but of the seven episodes shot, only two aired before the series was canceled. The next year, 1993, Lynch tried TV again with Hotel Room, a three-episode anthology of which he only directed two episodes. Then, for four years, nothing.

When Lynch did return to the world of feature filmmaking he did so with a vengeance, extrapolating off the themes of skewed identity and duality that Twin Peaks had raised, and reuniting with his Wild at Heart co-scripter Barry Gifford for the polarizing, visceral, and mind-bending but mostly-well-regarded Lost Highway.

Set in a city not unlike Los Angeles, Lost Highway is the parallel look at dueling identity crises, with a little fugue-state consciousness and intentional misdirection mixed in. The first part of the film deals with jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). Fred’s got it into his head that Renee is cheating on him, and Renee, with all her blasé nonchalance and skin-tight dresses, isn’t helping to dispel that notion. When strange, predatory videotapes start arriving on their doorstep, Fred’s paranoia kicks into high gear and he ends up apparently murdering Renee. I say “apparently” because Fred has no memory of the event, and only realizes what has happened once he plays another videotape, one that shows him next to Renee’s body, her blood on his hands. Midway through his incarceration, and the film, Fred inexplicably becomes Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young man who’s been missing a few days and who has no recollection of where he’s been, what happened while he was gone, or how he ended up in a prison cell in place of a convicted murderer. Things get even further complicated – because somehow that’s possible – when Pete starts up an illicit relationship with a woman, Alice Wakefield (also Patricia Arquette), who’s either Renee by another name or a dead ringer for her (a “doppelganger,” for Twin Peaks fans). Whoever she is though, she’s also the girlfriend of a vicious gangster (Robert Loggia) who won’t tolerate anyone making time with his woman.

Confused? You’re supposed to be. Lost Highway is a Möbius strip of narrative with no signposts along the way, it is a film seemingly built for multiple interpretations, and it signaled a new era in Lynch’s storytelling, one that was no longer concerned with plot as much as it was with themes. Though the themes Lost Highway tackles – misconceived, misrepresented, and misunderstood identity (self- and otherwise) – have been present in other Lynch films, most notably Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, what’s particularly interesting about Lost Highway is how the fractured identities of Lynch’s “protagonists” – Fred and Pete – are seemingly born of paranoia, and specifically of paranoia related to their closest, most intimate relationships.

Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship can tell you there’s no one who has the capacity to hurt you more than someone you love. This is because you are your most vulnerable with them, and when instead of nurturing that vulnerability they take advantage of it, they use it to wound you, it has the most painful and life-altering consequences. And of all the ways love can wound you, infidelity is one of the worst. It is a refusal of your love, of you, and people are all-too-often physically hurt and even killed over such matters, it’s a story as old as the Ten Commandments and one you can find in pretty much any news feed any time of any day. Even the suspicion of infidelity can ruin lives. In Lost Highway, Lynch (and Gifford) examine this to an extreme degree, demonstrating not only how paranoia born of intimacy can lead a man to violent ends, but also how it can fundamentally – or in this case physically – turn him into someone else entirely. While their respective paranoias develop at different speeds and manifest in different, almost opposing ways, both Fred and Pete are unmade by their suspicions, not destroyed, necessarily, but definitely altered for the negative.

Because the characters of Fred and Pete are extensions of one another and thus share a fate, I’m going to focus solely on the impetus of all that happens in Lost Highway, the relationship between Fred and Renee. it is the paranoia inherent to their intimacy that sets in motion the many strange tragedies to come.

The paranoia that will be the undoing of nearly every character in the film is present from the opening scene. We see Fred first, answering the intercom and being told that “Dick Laurent is dead.” Fred doesn’t know a Dick Laurent, he can’t be sure the message is actually for him, and in fact, he can’t even see the source of the message when he looks outside, but we can tell it raises suspicion in him, one whose nature we learn about in the very next scene upon meeting Renee. The first time we see her she’s in a crimson silk dress that leaves very little to the imagination. This and her bright red lips scream sex. She’s the type of woman who attracts the attention of men and as her first words indicate – or perhaps Fred’s transferred paranoia would have us suspect – she just might be the type of woman who feeds off and even indulges that attention. The initial conversation between Fred and his wife has Renee opting out of watching him perform at a club that night. No sooner does she suggest she might stay home than Fred’s paranoia, perhaps on high-alert since the “Dick Laurent” message, manifests itself.

“What are you going to do?” he asks her.

“I thought I’d stay home and read,” she answers.

“Read? … Read what, Renee?”

Through this brief exchange, their relationship dynamic is established. He’s the needy one, she’s the independent one, he’s the paranoid one, she’s the one tired of bending to his paranoia. Her response to his question is to not respond. Instead, she sits and sips a cocktail until he relents, sits next to her, and kisses her cheek. One giggle from Renee and the question of what she’ll be doing while he’s out is forgotten or at least left unrepeated.

Later though, while at the club, Fred is compelled to call home. There’s no need, it’s only a few hours that he’ll be gone, but his paranoia won’t let him believe his wife. So he calls. And sure enough, there is no answer. Lynch walks his camera through their house as the phone rings but there’s no sign of Renee. Whether or not she’s there is neither confirmed nor denied, but the inference based on Fred finding her in bed when he gets home is that she slept through his call. However, we heard the phone and its shrill, clamorous ring, so we know no one could have slept through such a sound. Just as Fred’s paranoia flared when he hung up the phone, ours flares now. The difference is we are new to this relationship so still figuring out which of the participants to trust, still deciding which conclusions to draw. Fred has already drawn his and though he hasn’t completely articulated them yet, we can see how they make him feel by the grimace he wears: bitterly justified and angry, aggressively so. The harsh, blindingly-bright red light Lynch washes him in visually reinforces his percolating rage.

The next day the first tape arrives. Renee is the one who finds it, and as she’s opening the envelope in which it came, Fred sneaks up as though trying to catch her in some secret; the way she startles suggests she might have one or two. He asks her who the tape is from, not absently wondering aloud but directly pressing her like he expects her to have the answer. She doesn’t. He has to coax her to sit down and watch it with him – “Come on” – and when she acquiesces there is a notable space between them on the couch, almost like she’s preparing herself for a quick escape. The tape shows nothing but the exterior of their house, causing Renee to speculate it must be from a real estate agent. The dubious air surrounding them would have us wonder if she believes this, or if she’s just dispelling his suspicion. In the very next scene, Fred is remembering/imagining her leaving the club with another man, and when these images dissipate he is in bed and she is standing next to it, disrobing to nude. This juxtaposition of image and reality lets us know where Fred’s thoughts about Renee and the other man were headed – towards infidelity – and when moments later they begin making love, it is an obvious sexual reclaiming of Renee by Fred, while at the same time also a refusal of his paranoia, an act to convince himself she still loves him. He finishes and rolls off her seemingly confused and distressed while she’s stone-faced and emotionless like this was a joyless exercise for her, some dreaded duty. He tells her a dream he had in which she was in bed – a lover’s locale – but it wasn’t really her. This is him admitting, in a roundabout way, that he isn’t sure Renee is who she seems to be, a faithful wife and committed partner. Then, in reality, he sees the face of a strange, ghastly, and mysterious man (Robert Blake) over hers, a sign his paranoia is crossing over from fantasy into a fantastic reality.

When the second tape arrives, again Renee is the one to discover it and again Fred startles her. She tries to ignore the tape, but he won’t let her.

“Don’t you want to watch it?”

“I guess so.”

He’s practically daring her, and she’s passively evading. Twice he has to ask her to watch, and when she yields the distance between them on the couch is again noticeably vast. On the tape, the camera moves from outside to inside and becomes terrifyingly more intimate. They call the police but when detectives arrive, Fred withdraws, becomes defensive, fueled by surging paranoia. This invader, he seems to be wondering, could it be Renee’s lover? She is calm with the police, helpful, even, in her placid, seemingly unconcerned way.

Next, we see the couple they are at a party and hanging out with the same man, Andy (Michael Massee), who Fred saw in his memory/imagination with Renee. Andy and Renee are friendly, handsy, and towards Fred, Andy is mockingly dismissive, all of which teams with the videos to play into Fred’s mounting paranoid suspicions. Then the Mystery Man from Fred’s vision shows up.

Mystery Man says they’ve met before, at Fred’s house, though Fred has no recollection of this. Mystery Man says he’s there right now and calls Fred’s house to prove it. Sure enough, someone with a voice identical to Mystery Man’s picks up the phone. If Fred’s paranoia was played with before, it is manhandled now, specifically his paranoia that another man has been in his house, and by extension his bed, a man there to replace him in his marriage, a man there to ruin him, possibly even to kill him.

This one, absurd, and horrifying encounter is all Fred needs to submit to his paranoia, to convince himself it isn’t paranoia at all, but an accurate perception of his marriage. This, in turn, allows him to act on his paranoia as well. Renee approaches him. He blows her off to ask Andy about Mystery Man. Andy says the man is a friend of Dick Laurent’s, the name of the dead man spoken at the film’s start. Fred grabs Renee and they leave.

On the drive home, Fred’s paranoia is given voice.

“How’d you meet that asshole, Andy, anyway?”

“…He told me about a job…”

“What kind of job?”

“I don’t remember…anyway, Andy’s okay.”

“Yeah, well, he’s got some pretty fucked up friends.”

Fred is testing her in this exchange, not just her truth-telling ability which is shaky at best but also by passing judgment on Andy, seeing if she will agree with her husband or defend the other man. Her silence we – and Fred – take as a defense.

When they arrive home Fred goes inside himself. Finding nothing there, he returns to her on the stoop and admits this part of his paranoia to her:

I thought there might be somebody inside.”

What he doesn’t admit was that he thought perhaps the someone inside was related to her infidelity, which he no longer suspects, he believes. His leaving her in the car while he searched the house wasn’t an act of protection, then, it was a hunt, he was looking to arm himself with facts before facing her again. But in the face of no facts, only confounding circumstances, Fred is left percolating in his paranoia with nowhere to pour it, meaning it’s just going to build and build and build.

Later, Fred leaves the bedroom for the darkness of the house and returns only when Renee steps to the edge of that darkness and calls him back. But it is not Fred who returns, not mentally. His paranoia is no longer suppressed, it is in charge. The darkness follows him into the bedroom until it takes over the entire screen.

The next morning Fred finds the third videotape. He watches it alone, no longer trusting Renee, subconsciously perhaps knowing it’s not even an option because she’s dead. The tape proves it, as it would seem to prove he’s her killer, shown as he is next to her badly-mutilated body in a frenzied state, his hands, arms, and torso slick with her blood. He can’t remember the crime, he doesn’t want to believe he did it, but he can’t convince himself it isn’t true, as now his paranoia, with nowhere else to go, is extended to himself and his capabilities.

Everything that happens from here – Fred’s incarceration, his molting into Pete, Pete’s love affair with Renee’s doppelganger Alice, Mr. Eddie/Dick Laurent’s realization of their affair, the resulting threat on Pete’s life that leads to the robbery in which Andy is killed, the flight of Pete and Alice that ends in the desert with some lovemaking, some betrayal, and some molting back into Fred, then the kidnapping and execution of Dick Laurent, and lastly Fred returning home to speak into the intercom the very words that opened this mystery, “Dick Laurent is dead” – all stems from Fred’s initial break from reality, mentally and physically, which is caused directly by the paranoia sparked in him by his most intimate relationship, that with his wife. The character of Pete has his own issues with paranoia, some directed at himself and the time he was missing that he can’t remember, some directed towards his illicit relationship with Alice and the threat it provokes, but these are extensions, or perhaps echoes of Fred’s paranoia. It is Fred, after all, that the film starts and ends with. In the first act, Fred is consumed by his paranoia; in the third, he purges himself of it. Already he has eliminated Renee, and once the Dick Laurent prophecy has been fulfilled, Fred’s paranoia is gone, but so is his life. This is why he doesn’t deliver the message in person, there’s nothing left of him in that house, not even in the him still residing there.

Lost Highway is a film about many things, but mostly it is about identity: how we see ourselves and how we project ourselves to others, the latter born of fear, or paranoia, that the real us won’t be enough. As it is presumed that the person with whom you choose to make your life, and who in turn chooses to make their life with you, is the one who loves that real you the most, it is especially insidious that marriage is the Eden into which the director released his paranoid serpent. And just like in that famous instance, the result here is banishment, Fred’s from his marriage, his old life, his old self, even, and on a very real level, from the notion of reality as he understood it. That Lost Highway of the title, that’s the one Fred’s taking out of everything he’s ever known, and the only place it leads is right back to the beginning so his paranoia and the horror it wreaks can start all over again.

In some cultures, they call that Hell. In Hollywood, they call it Lynchian.

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