No one in the last 20 years has made a movie greater than David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In that 1986 masterpiece, arguably the real launching point of the new independent film movement (it’s hard to imagine Tarantino’s bad-boy virtuosity without it), Lynch fused the beauty and terror of dreams with the hypnotic storytelling excitement of a Hitchcock thriller. A romantic mystery powered by narcotic volts of shock, Blue Velvet seemed at the time — and still does — as total an experience as a movie can be. It’s no surprise, then, that the picture has haunted Lynch’s career as surely as it has haunted most everyone who’s seen it. Simply put: When a filmmaker’s aesthetic is rooted in outrage, in the dramatic possibilities of going up to the edge and then past it, how does he keep upping the ante? In Twin Peaks, Lynch had the imaginative daring to adapt Blue Velvet‘s rhapsodic mood of open-eyed dread to the pulp demands of a weekly soap opera. But since then he has faltered, and always in the same way: In Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, he was so transparently out to top himself, to lead us into new realms of the kinky-forbidden, that the films felt showy and inorganic. They were labors of transgression.
Now we have Lost Highway, Lynch’s most audacious spectacle since Blue Velvet, and anyone who has ever been transfixed by his brand of domesticated surrealism will instantly recognize the mood. At the beginning, Lynch seduces us into the story of Fred and Renee Madison (Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette), a morosely sexy modern couple living in what looks like a wormy hallucination of Los Angeles. He’s a square-jawed saxophone player, she’s a sultry vamp (in Lynchland, that’s a profession), and as the two loll around their spaciously gloomy burnt-orange apartment, exchanging dialogue in the slow, how-did-I-get-here tones of creatures who live underwater, Lynch displays his peerless gift for creeping us out with a minimum of means — the sheer anticipation of horror.
A series of mysterious videocassettes appears in manila envelopes on the Madisons’ doorstep. As they pop each one into the VCR, we see a quietly advancing nightmare: Someone, it seems, is sneaking into their home and filming them as they sleep. Each grainy tape inches that much closer to the marital bed (a Freudian primal scene-turned-slasher film). But what ominous secret lies there? Is she cheating on him? Wandering through what looks like a decadent Hollywood Hills party, Fred encounters a ghoulish, white-faced spectre (played by Robert Blake sans eyebrows) who invites him to make one of the spookier telephone calls in movie history. Evil is everywhere in Lost Highway. It’s not just threatening your home — it’s in your home. It’s in you.
Up until that point, Lynch’s control is masterly. Then, without warning, he spins Lost Highway onto a different road entirely. There’s a series of gruesome tabloid crime-scene cuts, implying that Fred has murdered his wife and suppressed all memory of the incident (a subliminal echo of the Simpson case). Suddenly, he isn’t Fred anymore. His spirit has somehow passed into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), an adolescent auto mechanic who’s about to get enmeshed in hanky-panky of his own. Fixing the car of a murderous gangster (Robert Loggia), Pete spies the boss’ moll (also played by Arquette) and gets embroiled in a hot, lusty affair with her. We’re suddenly plunged into a classic film-noir triangle, a reverse image of the film’s previous plot (the cuckold has ”become” a guilty adulterer), with the horny hero headed for a self-destructive crash.
Lynch wants us to find resonance in the mysterious nexus of stories: one dream morphing into another. But the morph feels more like a clunky collision. The structural boldness of Lost Highway is all conceptual. The meaning of it remains locked up in Lynch’s head, and so we have more than enough time to notice how conventional the movie has become beneath its thin veneer of pop irony, and how flagrantly the director is repeating himself. Robert Blake’s sawed-off demon? He’s this year’s model of the dwarf from Twin Peaks. Robert Loggia’s raging crime boss? An unscary gloss on Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The opposing ”light” and ”dark” ladies? Blue Velvet again. Arquette, with her ’40s-style curves, is certainly a spellbinding temptress, but Lynch’s sex scenes now feature so much tawny flesh that they’ve relinquished all suggestiveness, like the steamy trysts in mediocre Hollywood thrillers. By the time the film reaches its heart of darkness (it has something to do with a porno movie), Lynch, for the first time, seems to be using avant-garde tricks to pass off as ”taboo” what looks to the naked eye like mere routine sleaze. Lost Highway has scattered moments of Lynch’s poetry, but the film’s ultimate shock is that it isn’t shocking at all.