Is It Just Me? or is Lost Highway David Lynchs most underrated film?

In our regular polarising-opinion series, Total Film writer James Mottram asks, ‘Is it just me? … or is Lost Highway David Lynch’s most underrated film?'

There’s only one thing worse than being talked about,” said Oscar Wilde, “and that is not being talked about.” Which rather applies to David Lynch’s Lost Highway – his 1997 “21st Century noir horror” that seemed to vanish mysteriously upon release, echoing the fate of Bill Pullman as the sax-playing protagonist Fred Madison. Arriving five years after the derided Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me , this head-scratcher struggled to get the director’s rep back on track.

“Uneven and too deliberately obscure in meaning to be entirely satisfying,” claimed Variety . Meanwhile, those digit-waggling pundits Siskel and Ebert gave it their famous “two thumbs down” – though Lynch later claimed this was “two good reasons to go and see Lost Highway ”. The public didn’t buy it; in the US, the film took just $3.6m. It was as if the world was out of step with Lynch-land once again.

True, Lost Highway can’t touch Blue Velvet (1986), but then again, what can? I’d argue Lost Highway has seen its genius ignored, overlooked and underrated. Maybe it’s all down to the brain-frazzling plot, which is perhaps too obscure for some… unless you’re Michael Haneke, who seemingly lifted Hidden ’s (2005) home-invasion video footage riff from Lynch.

Or consider Lynch’s own follow-up, Mulholland Dr. (2001). This earned Lynch his third Oscar nod – but it wouldn’t exist without Lost Highway, from its bold two-part structure to its sustained atmosphere of dread, headed up by the pale-faced Mystery Man: one of Lynch’s most unnerving characters, brilliantly portrayed by Robert Blake.

OK, I’ll concede that Pullman’s Fred and Balthazar Getty’s Pete Dayton, the mechanic he ‘transforms’ into after being arrested for murder, aren’t the most compelling Lynch heroes. But has there ever been a sexier Lynch femme than Patricia Arquette – whether she’s the raven-haired Renee or the blonde bombshell Alice? Her sex scenes make the Naomi Watts/Laura Harring tumble in Mulholland Dr. look like a playground snog.

And whatever you think of the film, you can’t dispute the coolness of a cast that includes Henry Rollins, Marilyn Manson and Richard Pryor (in his final movie role). Factor in cameos from Gary Busey and Eraserhead himself, Jack Nance, and it’s as if Lynch went shopping at Cult Thesps ‘R’ Us. Maybe Robert Loggia’s gun-wielding gangster Mr Eddy comes on like a Dennis-Hopper-in-Blue-Velvet tribute act – but his ‘tailgate’ rant is classic Lynch.

Then there’s Trent Reznor’s soundtrack – one of the best assembled for any Lynch film. Bookended by David Bowie’s haunting ’I’m Deranged’, it rocks with Rammstein, mellows with This Mortal Coil and wows with Lou Reed during a to-die-for use of ‘This Magic Moment’. Certainly not, as Time Out claimed at the time, “an uncharacteristically clumsy use of music”. So forget The Straight Story (1999) or Inland Empire (2006). This is the Lynch trip where everyone needs to get on board.

Or is it just me?

Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.