So we were flipping channels on the idiot box one evening, and landed on the beginning of an episode of Star Trek: TNG, just after the pre-title teaser. Something had gone badly wrong somewhere, there were fires and dead people and such, and there was a dog onscreen next to Jonathan Frakes. We all agreed that seeing as how no one ever had a dog on this show, it was clear that whatever had happened was because of the dog, and went on to other things. Fifty-odd minutes later, we popped back over to the end of the episode to find out that the surprise ending turned out to be that it was, shockingly, because of the dog.
I hate predictable stories.
Nothing like a predictable story is to be found within the film Lost Highway. This is probably why, despite the public's professed disdain for the same old thing, the film only grossed 3.57 million in the states, because something different is clearly not what a public which continues to scarf down the likes of Britney Spears year after endless year actually wants. They want the reassuringly similar which they can tell themselves is different and cool without actually having to deal with the shock of difference, which this film makes you deal with by the whaleful.
Lost Highway is the most complete evocation of magical thinking I've ever found in cinema, the term "magical thinking" referring to the all-too-common and absurdist viewpoint of correlating actions with unrelated causes, such as believing a particular hue of feline moving perpendicular to your own path will cause misfortune, or that wearing the same shirt you wore when you were last noticed by a girl will give you a leg up the next time around, as well. It's pervasive as hell, even to the rational person, because every night our brains get fed up with ordering the whalefuls of information they sort out every day and allow that information to go cross-connecting willy-nilly without any regard to reason. Even in our waking lives, that sense of impossible relationships holds fast, resulting in a ridiculous amount of symbology and needless ritualism wrapped around everything we do. The brain wants to find patterns, and it will find them, with little deference to whether they're actually there or not. It is this altogether invisible and irrational glue that informs everything we see in Lost Highway.
Told, from all appearances, from the point of view of an emotionally unstable and probably deranged man, we cannot take what we see at face value. While events seem to flow continuously from preceding events, the recursive nature of these events makes taking the film as a literal, linear narrative flat-out impossible to anyone who isn't similarly deranged. Memories precede the actual events, characters change into different characters, and the flow of cause-and-effect is dictated not by time but by the applicability of meaning. Look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts, while keeping in mind there might not actually be any facts.
Remember to breathe.
Through all of this emerges, if slowly, the story of an insecure and possessively jealous man whose wife may or may not be cheating on him, and his desperate attempts, through any possible means, to win her admiration and loyalty, even if he has to go through hell (maybe even literally) to get it. Part noir thriller and part psychological horror, it's a fascinating trip, however you interpret it. This film also boasts the scariest sound design I've ever heard, and a truly creepy performance by Robert Blake as the otherwise unnamed Mystery Man. You probably won't get it all the first time, but that's half the joy. Too many films give you everything they have to give in a single viewing (or in Star Trek's case, the first five minutes.) It's far more interesting to have something to go back for.
It wasn't the dog. The dog might not have even been a dog.
(There is no dog in Lost Highway, just so we understand each other. Well, I mean, except for the dog.)
-review by Matt Murray