Lost Highway explained: the meaning of David Lynch’s masterpiece

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This article explains Lost Highway, the movie directed by David Lynch, revealing crucial elements of the plot and the meanings behind them. Therefore, we recommend you to read it only after watching the movie, and not before, in order to preserve the pleasure of the first vision.

Lost Highway, for many the real David Lynch’s masterpiece, was released on February 21st, 1997. The film arrived five years after Fire Walk with Me, which was a way to continue the success of Twin Peaks, but actually ended up as a flop at the box office. Lost Highway probably grew in Lynch’s mind as a little, personal challenge: staying out of the sales pressure is always possible but movies which don’t sell can be a problem for anyone (Dune was a nice example), the real challenge was creating films that can become commercial successes, and at the same time preserving the identity of the visionary filmmaker who expose complex, multi-layered ideas like no one else.

The background

The story of the film wasn’t taken from a book (with David Lynch it’s quite unusual). The title came from Night People by Barry Gifford (the author of Wild At Heart story), a book that pushed Lynch to ask for his collaboration in writing the movie. But you know, Lynch is a pretty demanding guy and in the end the writing process was a little internal war, where each one was refusing the other’s ideas. All that happened already before Fire Walk With Me. Then, the night Lynch was heading back home from the last day of shooting, as if Lynch’s mind had the immediate need to focus on the next project, legend says that the whole first part of the film (until Fred’s imprisonment) magically appeared in his head, in all details. The vision of the dark highway from the car was probably the trigger, and it will become later opening and closing scene of Lost Highway.

When the movie was released, the critics used the only possible reference for such a shocking vision: Eraserhead, his first movie made twenty years earlier. The similarities were mainly on the effects for the audience. Both were films with a strong psychological load, playing with the unconscious, disturbing sensations that we all share, and both could be read at multiple levels of depth: the spectator sense that there are many elements in the movie that he didn’t understand entirely, but he still appreciates what he saw and he ends up loving the experience of watching (even when the pleasure remains under the conscious awareness). But besides these similarities, there weren’t many other elements that you could use to correlate Lost Highway to the other psychological movies produced until that day.

The film drags the spectator inside the weird events described, and doesn’t put much effort in avoiding him to feel uncomfortable. The mechanism is the one that, after Lost Highway, will make David Lynch famous: the movie brings the viewer on an apparently linear plot, through a sequence of events that look initially clear, and you just need to solve the few mysteries encountered so far; Lynch guides you like a protective father would do with his little son, and you trust him; until he suddenly slams you with a change of perspective that transforms the situation, the events, even the characters. Lynch’s goal isn’t about you understanding the movie: it’s about the shock he can give you and the existence of an higher level that goes beyond the conscious dimension. The spectator has just a feeling about it, he senses that there is something more in what he saw. He hears the words “Dick Laurent is dead” at the end of the film and he wonders whether everything he saw really makes sense or not. The meaning should be hidden in the movie. But you can’t be sure that it doesn’t really exist.

The meaning of the movie

The meaning of the film is actually there and lays more in Freud psychological theory: Lost Highway tells the story of a schizophrenic man who loses contact with reality, kills his wife and then, from prison, escapes in an unconscious projection of his life.

What’s real is that Fred is a jazz musician betrayed by his wife, with some impotence problems; the projection is the one starting from the blue lights in prison, probably a sign that the electrocution has already started. In the projection, we have three main characters: Pete, the Mystery man and Mr. Eddie, and they represent the three parts of our psyche according to Sigmund Freud: Ego, Id and Super-Ego. The id is the set of impulsive instincts, the ones that need to be filtered and kept under control in a sane mind. The super-Ego is the moralizing part of our mind, the one that comes from our eduction and rational principles. The ego is our personality, that tries to reach the best balance among the inputs from the Id, the Super-Ego and the world we live in.

Pete is the projection of Fred’s ego, or rather the person he would like to be, a young man, good at sex, appreciated at work, able to “steal” the others’ woman; the mystery man represents the Freudian Id, the instinctive impulses, who records everything he sees (he observes the real facts, not their interpretation), lives “at home” (in your intimate sphere) and eventually helps Pete to kill Mr. Eddie;  Mr. Eddie is the Freudian Super-Ego, the moral conscience, holder of the rules and the ethics, who reacts vehemently if you don’t respect the speed limit, representing the authority to be afraid of. Real life is therefore what happens until the prison, while what happens from that moment on is a mental projection, which begins with the blue flashes and ends again on the highway, again in the blue light of the electric chair. In that moment, the Id already killed the Super-ego and Fred losed the psychic structure that keeps him in the world of rules, making him lose control.

The reactions to the movie

The whole film is conceived in order to provoke on the spectator a state of alteration of the perceived reality, a bit like inducing an identity dissociation. Supported also by a stunning soundtrack, which begins and ends with David Bowie’s Deranged and contains original compositions by artists like Marilyn Manson, Trent Reznor and Rammstein.

In 1997, Lost Highway started officially contemporary psychological cinema, paving the way for the masterpieces that will come years later, from Inception to Shutter Island, passing also by Mulholland Drive and Inland’s Empire, which complete David Lynch’s psychotic trilogy. At that time, critics were quite cautious, not at ease with structures that make the understanding so hard. People loved it instead, turning it slowly into a cult and feeding more and more the popularity of David Lynch. All this happened more than twenty years ago and must be considered a unique case: Lynch’s filmography has several episodes that you can correlate each other, but none of them is replicable. They are unique and should be protected like precious gems.


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