Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death! This month, I’m talking to director Jennifer Reeder, whose film Knives and Skin made my list of favorites from 2019. It’s a beautifully off-kilter movie that presents everything in a surreal atmosphere, as Reeder both disorients us but also gives us clues for how to settle into the film’s wavelength.
It’s no big surprise, then, that Reeder’s film selection for this month is David Lynch’s Lost Highway, another movie known for messing with audience expectations for narrative structure. While Knives and Skin has been compared to other Lynch stories Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, Reeder says Lost Highway was much more in the forefront of her mind when she made her film.
Lost Highway is a neo-noir-meets-erotic-nightmare that follows Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a brooding jazz musician who wakes up one morning to receive a cryptic message over his home intercom claiming “Dick Laurent is dead.” This baffles Fred, as he has never heard the name before, and these mysterious messages continue, including video tapes showing he and wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) being filmed while they sleep. Shortly after meeting a sinister stranger with seemingly paranormal abilities (Robert Blake), Fred’s world is shattered when Renee is brutally murdered and all signs point to him as the culprit. He’s convicted and sentenced to death, but one night in his cell he spontaneously morphs into a young man named Pete (Balthazar Getty), who the authorities allow to go free. Pete then sets off on his own saga, as he falls for Alice (also played by Arquette), a beautiful woman married to local crime boss Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who also just happens to go by the name Dick Laurent.
Confused yet? I can’t say that I blame you, as I must confess that before this month I’d never watched a David Lynch film in its entirety. In fact, my one and only attempt was with Lost Highway in my early teens, but I only got about halfway through before quitting in utter bewilderment. After a couple of decades and an acquired taste for films that don’t necessarily offer logical narrative arcs, I was ready to give it another shot.
And I’m glad I did, not because I understand the plot any better than I did the first time, but because I now know that having questions after the credits roll is kind of the point. For her part, Reeder has always been a Lynch fan, particularly the duality that permeates his films.
I grew up in Ohio. It wasn’t a super-bustling metropolis, but it also wasn’t the middle of the country. But I really love the way that in Blue Velvet, and then in other films, Lynch has this way of suggesting that even in small towns there’s kind of a portal to the parallel world. And sometimes that parallel world is really wonderful, and sometimes that parallel world is really, really dangerous and dark. Literally dark, and kind of psychologically dark.
I was a fan from the beginning because he creates these worlds that are really unexpected, and I think that if you can kind of get into the frequency, like the Lynch frequency, and not over-determine where the next plot point will be, then it can be really enjoyable. And Lost Highway in particular, because the structure of the film is a loop… it’s a film that’s not linear, but it’s something that is kind of happening in parallel. And of course when you’re watching, it’s impossible to watch it like that. You watch it in a linear way, but in order to unpack what is possibly happening outside of that narrative structure, you sort of have to think of it not in a narrative way. You actually have to think of it in reverse. By the time you get to the end of the film, and you realize that’s kind of how the film starts, what’s most useful is you actually then kind of reverse the whole film in your head. And for me at least, it starts to make more sense, but that can be a lot of work for people.
Reeder also notes that while it has recognizable elements to those familiar with Lynch’s work, what makes Lost Highway particularly brilliant is how far he leverages those elements to creep us out, twisting our point of view so that the familiar becomes unknown without devolving into gibberish.
I think it’s very “Lynchian” in the sense of the structure. In other films, he has definitely played with the structure where it’s suggested that certain things could actually be happening simultaneously, or certain things could have happened before what you’re seeing in the present. But they’re not presented like a flashback, so he really messes around with time, and he also messes around with the doppelganger. That happens very specifically later on, for instance in Mulholland Drive, but there are doppelgangers that have appeared in Twin Peaks.
And I just think in Lost Highway, more so even than something like Mulholland Drive where there’s also sort of dual identities, I just think in Lost Highway the dual identities and the way that the structure is presented, I think of it as like the film version of a funhouse. You come around the corner, and something that feels like a very conventional narrative moment, like, “Oh it’s a staircase. I’m going to walk up that staircase, that seems like a reasonable next move.” But then you get to the top of the staircase and it just ends. There’s no door, there’s no corner. Or like in a funhouse where you emerge into the hall of mirrors, and it’s very disorienting.
But I don’t think that it’s just full of nonsense. I don’t think of Lost Highway as being absurdist at all. I really like that kind of mental funhouse gymnastics exercise. We kind of lead you down this path and you think that it’s one thing, and he gives you these clues that actually lead you in a totally opposite direction. Or these little narrative moments where you think you’ve got at least that sequence of scenes figured out, and then the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. That, to me, is actually fun.
Reeder points out that characters within the film grapple with this absence of logic, such as the guard who is dumbfounded to find Pete in the cell where Fred should be. Lynch also finds metatextual ways to make the film even more surreal, such as casting known eccentric Gary Busey as one of the more normal people in the movie.
I think in that scene where Pete’s parents are trying to get him to remember what happened the night he disappeared, that moment where Gary Busey just looks like he’s on the edge of tears, it’s the most restrained, tense moment. And no information is revealed, and you sort of watch that scene holding your breath like, “Yeah, wow, something horrible and totally unspeakable happened that night.”
Because I also feel like what’s super terrifying in real life is not always the monsters, whether they’re like fantastical monsters or psychotic killers, but it’s like the unknowable or the unknown. And I think that there’s so much in the Lost Highway world that you will never know. Pete will never know what happened to him that night, and that is a kind of torture, right? Not just for Pete, but for us, too. And that terror with which the whole film starts, where there’s this couple being secretly videotaped… the whole thing starts with this torture of the unknowable and the unknown.
In a Rolling Stone interview leading up to Lost Highway’s release, Lynch said, “When most mysteries are solved, I feel tremendously let down. So I want things to feel solved up to a point, but there’s got to be a certain percentage left over to keep the dream going.” And as Reeder notes, part of the fun in watching Lynch’s work is in discussing potential meaning behind those mysteries.
As a filmmaker myself, I want to inspire conversation… I think that what can draw communities together, and this is the kind of beauty of Twin Peaks, are those shared questions. So if everybody knows what happened to Laura Palmer, or if everyone watching Lost Highway understands what happened that night to Pete, or how Fred became Pete and turned back into Fred, etc., then there’s sort of not much to talk about. But if David Lynch can create something that we all either collectively watch together, or watch separately and then sit and wonder, “What do you think happened?” I think being able to talk about a movie in this way, kind of in the way that perhaps some people sit and say like, “What do you think happened to Jonbenet Ramsey?” That just feels like this other kind of parallel human connection. When talking about the mystery of a film that is completely fictional, that just feels like, what a generous thing that David Lynch has done, which is to allow us to ruminate on what exactly happened in that film.
Reeder also notes that these discussions won’t be compelling if we don’t care about the material, and that Lynch makes us care by writing compelling characters.
And I think half the battle, and I think of this both as a filmmaker and as someone who teaches screenwriting at the college level, you don’t have much of a narrative or you can have a very compelling story, but if your characters aren’t provocative and complicated, and if you’re not writing characters that get the audience directly involved in what’s happening to those characters and with motivating them, then I just think that your whole story falls apart. So I actually think that more so than Lynch being so concerned with an expected, plot-driven, causal narrative, I think he is much more invested in writing very compelling, provocative, complex characters.
And then in kind of like a crazy chess game, he puts those characters in proximity to other characters, and those relationships and the conflict that happens within those relationships keeps you invested… I think that for Lynch, it’s about these characters that he puts into this really shifting, swirling world together and so what’s not as paramount is that they are all reacting causally or in an unexpected way, but that they are all living totally in the present and kind of ping-ponging off of each other. And we are able to really invest in that character’s emotionality, invest in that character’s final outcome, and invest in characters’ relationship to the other characters. So I feel like that’s what he’s up to. And I feel like it’s in the casting. He casts in a very unexpected way, and it’s like the art direction is very, very specific, and that whole section with Patricia Arquette both as Renee and his Alice, she’s in these incredible silky gowns, [and] everybody is kind of [in] a very unrealistic makeup and wardrobe. And the art direction is just so over-stylized, but I think that also speaks to the atmosphere, like the Lynch atmosphere as its own character.
And just because Lynch doesn’t necessarily have one definitive meaning behind everything that’s going on, that doesn’t mean the audience can’t come up with their own theories. I’m particularly intrigued by Reeder’s interpretation.
When we get to the end, and the final scenes are propelled out of the Lost Highway Motel that make you think about both The Lost Highway as an actual place, but for me also the “lost highway” is that kind of very Lynchian sort of parallel world where you can make a deal with Robert Blake to get away with killing your wife. What I think is happening here, and I always sort of begin to figure out if I move the whole thing backwards, there’s something like: Fred figures out that his wife Renee was having an affair with Dick Laurent, and he figures out a way, he makes a deal with Robert Blake to kill his wife and get away with it and get back at Mr. Eddy, or get back at Dick Laurent. It sort of starts again where it ends, and kind of Fred is on the run. It doesn’t really start over again, it’s sort of that mobius strip.
But I like thinking about it in that way, that’s kind of how I think of it where the devil is Robert Blake, and since Robert Blake has the camera, you imagine that maybe he was the one who was videotaping them, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be that literal. But there’s something about that kind of movie within the movie, and the facsimile of the thing. I also feel like Lynch does an interesting job with the way Fred wanted to kill Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent, but he wanted to be able to get away with it, so [it’s] that kind of sort of body swap with Pete. And then Pete kind of unknowingly brings down Mr. Eddy, because he takes Alice away from him… And I haven’t read any kind of interpretation essays about it, but I do know there was something about it was written around the time of the OJ trials, in that David Lynch and the co-writer [Barry Gifford] were thinking about wife killers, thinking about this sort of wife killer narrative. So how something like Lost Highway can swirl out of that, then somehow it’s like, “Oh yeah, okay, it’s a totally normal movie in that regard.”
Viewing the story as Fred’s deal with the devil to take revenge against Renee puts a lot of what happens into interesting focus, particularly the fact that there is a lot of toxic masculinity emanating from Fred, Mr. Eddy, and even Pete as we see him struggle with Alice’s past, asking with disdain, “How did you get mixed up with these people, Alice?” And, as Reeder points out, Lynch pulls fear out of the notion that we’ve all got the potential for darkness in the right circumstances.
I often find myself talking to people, where they’ll say, “You’ll never believe, I got into a fight with my neighbor,” and I’ll say, “How do you get mixed up with these people, Alice?” People who don’t know that reference ask me, like, “What are you talking about? My name is not Alice.” I think that moment is so well-directed, it’s just sort of a question: how did you get mixed up with these people, Alice? But he’s so turned off by her past and he can’t believe that he’s fallen for [these damaged goods].
And I think it happens more so in Mulholland Drive… and I won’t give it away, but I will tell you that there’s a moment, one line of dialogue in Mulholland Drive, that does exactly what that kind of “you’ll never have me” [from Lost Highway] does, and then the whole kind of thing flips and you’re like, “Oh, okay, that’s the key.” In Mulholland Drive, the key is much more conventional. The thing I love about Lost Highway is that it’s still kind of like reading Braille in butter. When you think that you’ve got that thing, it sort of sinks away.
I think that the world he creates can be so terrifying, there’s no jump scares in this. I mean, I guess there’s nearly a decapitation with Andy’s death. It’s gory, but I do think the horror of this film is really about being an unknowable person who doesn’t know the lengths to which we’ll go. Who among us is a wife killer? Or these entanglements, the slippery slope to making a deal with the devil just feels so much more terrifying to me than to someone turning into a werewolf or being stalked by Michael Myers or something. The internal logic of Lynch, in particular the internal logic of Lost Highway, just becomes a hair on your tongue. It’s one of these very kind of subtle, small things that just kind of drive you crazy. That feels kind of terrifying to me. I think that he creates this atmosphere where at any moment you can all shift around, at any moment the floor could give out. It’s a different kind of internal jump scare that not so many filmmakers are interested in doing. Then I think he always leans into that kind of provocation.
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