A funny thing happens as you travel down David Lynch's Lost Highway. During a fight, a man falls heavily onto the edge of a marble table, which drives deep into his brain, almost splitting his head in two. Blood pools around his bisected noggin, and yet your first instinct as you watch this fatal scene is to chuckle nervously. It's absurd, so much so that you can't help wanting to titter at the strangeness of the moment - and, of course, this is a typically Lynchian thing - - forcing you to laugh at the outlandishness of life even as you gag on its horror.
Attempting to rationalise the plot of Lost Highway is an exercise in futility. You can't make sense of it on a traditionally logical level, because it was never intended to be logical. As Lynch has explained, his movie is there to be understood intuitively, if at all: "These days, most films are pretty easily understood, and so people's minds stop working."
Then again, not many people will try to understand this piece. The lazy will dismiss it as Just Another David Lynch Film, citing the lingering dialogue, the sparse, oddly decorated sets and Angelo Badalamenti's score. Yet Lost Highway is Lynch's most consistently assured turn since Blue Velvet. It overflows with paranoia, identity loss, fear, helplessness, incipient madness, bizarre sex and bloody violence - - and that's just in the first 45 minutes.
The opening segment, charting Fred Madison's (Bill Pullman) scary descent into madness - - and his conviction for a murder of which he has no knowledge - - is intensely unsettling. Although it consists mainly of Pullman and Arquette talking in their house, with no background music, the atmosphere is one of extraordinary menace. You know bad things will happen.
When Fred inexplicably becomes Pete, the tension cools and the movie becomes more conventional - but not for long. Although the plot threatens to congeal, you continue to reel from the double whammy of possible plot interpretations and visual shocks (a constant onslaught). A storming soundtrack from Trent Reznor, Smashing Pumpkins, Lou Reed and Marilyn Manson only adds to your numbed sensibilities: Lost Highway certainly leaves its audience shell-shocked.
An eclectic cast pitches in with fine performances. Bill Pullman lops off any remaining connections with ID4, mixing vague unease, confusion and anger in perfect measure. Patricia Arquette is a standard Lynch siren in the roles of Renee and Alice: big, pouty lips, a penchant for the warped, and a potentially treacherous nature. (Happily for a woman who's just confessed to a phobia of nudity so acute that she has to bathe in the dark, Arquette isn't fussed about stripping off at regular intervals.) Robert Loggia reprises Dennis Hopper's role in Blue Velvet - a terrifyingly fascinating psychopath by the name of Mr Eddy (or it could be Dick Laurent). Balthazar Getty turns in a convincing, if fairly standard, troubled young man.
But it's Robert Blake, probably best known over here as the doomed cop of Electra Glide In Blue, who makes the film his. As Lynch's "mystery man", he's genuinely disturbing, not in an OTT manner, but with a quietly threatening oh-fuck-there-is-something-very-wrong-here stance. His first appearance at the party will leave you gasping for breath.
It's clear Lynch doesn't give a severed ear for commercial considerations any more. With each feature, he pulls further away from the mainstream, although Lost Highway has plenty to entertain the casual viewer: sex, violence and a healthy dollop of rock 'n' roll.
Many people will detest this film, but it remains an astonishing work and, if you give it a chance, utterly engrossing.