Can we make sense of Lost Highway (1997)?

“Some things, strangely, are not so easy to understand, but when things in films are not so understandable, people become worried. And yet they are in some way understandable.”- David Lynch

The initial image we see of Lost Highway (1997) is indeed, a lost highway. It is highly stylised and not altogether realistic due to its missing frames which create a fragmentary view, along with focalisation of the highway ahead- we see nothing past the highway in those opening moments and this leads to the assumption that from that point onwards the spectator will only see what Lynch wants them to see. Lost Highway has been criticised for its lack of linearity and complete aversion to the classical Hollywood narrative model which had led some to argue that the intelligibility of this film is completely lost, on a filmic highway. One thing we must accept before critically analysing Lost Highway is that “to dismiss it as merely complicated is to ignore the complexity of the film, the layers of perception and understanding that Lynch works with, and depths of emotions on display” , Lynch intended his film to be a puzzle and the desire to search for one meaning will certainly limit our experience of viewing it. Through close analysis of the film, the use of the works of Buckland and Vass and psychoanalytic theory regarding the film, I will demonstrate how there is meaning to be made from Lost Highway without actually making sense of the film as a whole.
Narrational Structure of Lost Highway
Lost Highway offers a complex narrative structure which is difficult to place in tandem with a classical paradigmatic style (comprised of a beginning, middle and end). Buckland states that “Lost Highway also prevents spectators from automatically applying schemata to it, since it goes beyond the commonsense, rational logic embedded in these schemata to it; instead the spectators become aware of the schemata’s conventions, and work hard to apply them in new and unforeseen ways” . Buckland is correct in his claims that the film prevents an automatic application of schemata. However, through analysis of some moments of the film it is evident that elements of classical narration can be extracted from Lost Highway.
Interestingly, despite Lost Highway’s aversion to a classical narrational structure (as depicted in the above diagram) it does still utilise its components within a non-linear narrative. At the beginning of Lost Highway Fred Madison is smoking and there is an interruption of a ringing doorbell, a voice speaks over the intercom: “Dick Laurent is dead”. At this moment, Fred does not know of a Dick Laurent and therefore this uses a ‘classical enigma’ in its narrative structure. This plot point offers the spectator an answer at the end of the film whereby we find out that it is Fred Madison delivering the message to himself. This works in two ways, the ‘repetition’ of this scene solves our confusion from the beginning although it also lacks so much sense that it then avoids a cause/effect logic of events completely.
Branigan argues that films which show the events in a non-linear way can still build a coherent chronology of the story as “the spectator realises filmic elements as a series of cause evaluation: as consecutive (and); as chronological (then); as aligned to social or generic convention” . He creates ‘eight functions’ which will guide our ‘schematic constructions’ and these can be said to be an elaborated version of David Bordwell’s ‘canonical story’, the difference being that Branigan believes that these functions can be interchangeable without losing narrative coherence. Lost Highway appears to disregard the use of the ‘canonical’ narrative structure yet it misleads us with fragments of information such as “the lack of information on Dick Laurent’s identity [which] is a temporary flaunted, focused gap that leads the spectator to generate an exclusive, curiosity hypothesis that operates on the macro level ” and this is an example of how Lynch uses generic or narrative functions to provide a facade of guidance. Lynch says that “the beauty of a film that is more abstract is everybody has a different take. Nobody agrees on anything in the world today. When you are spoon-fed a film, more people instantly know what it is. I love things that leave room to dream and are open to various interpretations. It’s a beautiful thing. ” Consequently, the spectator can seek to find a solution in Lost Highway but ultimately the beauty of the film- is the experience of trying to figure it out rather than finding one solution.
Buckland suggests that we can make sense of Lost Highway by going through narrative events of the film part by part. Constructivist Theory regards the act of creating an organised pattern of narrative or schema using information given to us, namely via film. As spectators, we can recognise characters, action and notice the use of fragmentary scenes which then cause us to attempt to fill in the missing parts. By merging these different narrative elements we also use knowledge and beliefs which already take precedence in our minds. Bordwell states that “to understand a film is to grasp what happens and where and why it happens. Thus any schemata for events, locations, time and cause/effect may become pertinent to making sense of a narrative film” . Modern viewers now have an extensive knowledge of film genres and the production of films. Therefore, following a classical Hollywood structure means that the audience, from the beginning, will know where they end. David Lynch flirts with this concept in Lost Highway through his use of mixing genres such as film noir, horror and mystery. He says in Lynch on Lynch that: “it’s a dangerous thing to say what a picture is. I don’t like pictures that are one genre only, so this is a combination of things. It’s a kind of horror film, a kind of thriller, but basically it’s a mystery. That’s what it is. A mystery” .It is precisely this way of thinking which tells us that Lynch doesn’t want us to locate a singular meaning to his work and Buckland’s literal interpretation limits how we see the film, as parts of the film cannot merely be described and linearly interpreted.
Buckland approaches the opening credit scene with little critical awareness; he simply describes in a literal fashion what the spectator is observing on screen: “The credit sequence of Lost Highway consists of a shot of a camera attached to the front of a car travelling very fast along a highway at night” . What I feel Buckland intends to convey with this dull description is his scepticism towards the film so early on, as Lynch films do set precedence in our minds for us to be sceptical. On the other hand, Vass offers that this opening sequence is a reference to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly but he also believes that this serves no purpose, arguing that “Lynch’s allusions do not function as references to specific, fixed cinematic codes that he wishes he speak through, or to speak of”. Both Buckland and Vass take very little information from the opening credits. However, in terms of making sense of this moment we can interpret it further by applying qualities of ‘the uncanny’. These qualities include what we see as familiar (the highway as an everyday object), now partially hidden and therefore causing us to become intrigued or afraid. This could potentially be read as a sign of things to come as many films often open with what the film is actually about. Conversely, due to the fact we return to the highway at the end of the film and never find out the aim of the journey, we can only then make sense of this moment up until a certain point, just as we can the entirety of the film.
What problematises Lynch’s work is our desire to find an answer: to find one resolute meaning. However, what is interesting in Lost Highway is that numerous moments which at first seem mysterious are revealed to us through its own double; that is to say that Lost Highway works in states of twos. Later in the film, after the reverse exploding of the Mystery Man’s cabin, we are back on the highway; although this time we gain more information by means of revealing to us on the side of the road, a man standing in the obscure darkness: Pete. Michael Vass writes “we could say that Lynch acknowledges that the two states of fantasy and reality can be distinguished according to a certain narrative logic, but at the same time he also calls attention to the fact that this division can only take us so far; the most important mysteries will always remain beyond the reach of all narrative explanation” . Through applying this to the scene aforementioned, we are no closer to examining and finding a true meaning behind Lost Highway: we still do not know how or why Fred has transformed into Pete.
The Uncanny or Das unheimliche
We can apply the logic of ‘the Uncanny’ to Lost Highway as a way of making sense of certain moments of the film. The concept of ‘the Uncanny’ or unheimliche derives from a 1906 essay by Ernst Jentsch. He describes the uniqueness of the German word and how it encompasses a double meaning of something which is both distressing yet subtle at the same time; much like the uneasy weirdness of Lynch’s films. As in the majority of Lynch’s work, there is an evident desire to make the domestic and familiar spaces strange and uncomfortable for the spectator. For example, the house that Fred and Renee occupy represents domestic comfort and safety, but Lynch shows that this safety is merely a facade. When the house is broken into and the two aforementioned characters are filmed in their sleep, Lynch causes the safety of a home to become a place of fear. Aesthetically, the house bears resemblance to the lair of a vampire; everything looks as though it is functional but in reality the sofas, tables and chairs are the epitome of discomfort. Furthermore, upon close inspection of the house reveals minimalist furniture, and very few items that denote a comfortable home. There are no photographs, furnishings or ornaments that would usually accompany a natural home, adding an uncanny element to this setting which can be likened to American Psycho. Buckland instead chooses to focus on “the deadpan way the two characters interact ” and notes that “sparse dialogue may suggest that the marriage is at a stalemate ” and this is evident through the monotonous tones of Fred and Renee’s voices and the long, frequent pauses. However, I feel that it is more through what we see that tells the story more effectively: what is shown visually, tells us that something is not quite right.
The use of light and darkness presents another state of two, which is important when examining the use of the uncanny. The uncanny works in terms of twos, it is both familiar and unfamiliar; we understand but we don’t understand; it is something that is ever moving, happening at the same time. Laura Mulvey states that in “Freud’s definition, the uncanny is simultaneously located in homeliness and is the eruption of something that should remain hidden” . It is precisely this point which can be applied to an interpretation of Lost Highway; from what we understand from a precedence set by films we can understand that Fred has murdered his wife, has been sent to prison and thus seeks a second chance in the form of a new life. The idea that the uncanny is grounded in circularity invites the idea that the ‘eruption’ would be our twist in the Mobius strip (the moment Fred transforms into Pete) and if this is something that should remain ‘hidden’, it is then always expected to cause terror due to the very nature of the circular form the uncanny assumes; the return to Fred at the end of Lost Highway.
Lost Highway is preoccupied with the use of the double motif, as is Lynch himself. The Double has featured in several of his works including Blue Velvet (Frank tells our hero, Jeffrey “you’re like me”), The Elephant Man (Fred wonders if he and Mr Bytes are “very much alike”) and Twin Peaks (the progressive double lives of characters). In Lost Highway, we observe the doubling of characters and events and these can be demonstrated through the use of mirrors. A mirror can be compared to the characteristics of the ‘uncanny’: a reflection is something which remains familiar while also being unfamiliar. One half of the reflection belongs to reality and the other arguably doesn’t; Fred is depicted through the use of mirrors in the early moments of the film while he is in his house. Another form of reflection takes place within the film as “at the beginning of scene 27, Pete looks at himself in the mirror in the same way as Fred looked at himself just before he murdered Renee. But in this part of this film, Pete takes Sheila out on a date ” and this can be interpreted as Fred changing his ways- instead of killing his partner, he is now somewhat humorously taking her out on a date. It can be said that Renee/Alice and Mr. Eddy/ Dick Laurent fail to complete their own transformative processes as Fred murders one half of their identities. By doing this, Fred appears to successfully merge both aspects of his identity (Fred and Pete) and this is demonstrated by his ability to remember Pete’s life after he has returned to Fred’s body.
Elsaesser and Buckland propose that narrative theory may be responsible for Lynch’s use of the ‘uncanny’ which is defined as ‘the powerful feelings the non-rational evokes in us’ . Their writings imply that we can investigate various inexplicable moments of Lost Highway, such as the use of ‘the double’, the ‘Mystery Man’, as opposed to a structured linear format as depicted by the work of Bordwell or Branigan. Buckland, in my opinion, fails to provide an in-depth analysis of the uncanny elements of the film and these can be argued to play the most vital role in dissecting the intricate nature of Lost Highway.
There is more to read of David Lynch’s Lost Highway than its narrative alone, for it is what appears within that narrative which is truly a point of interest. As has been noted, Lost Highway has characteristics of the Mobius strip in terms of its narrative. However, it can be interpreted and argued that Lynch’s world of ‘The Uncanny’ can also be likened to it. Mlader Dolar, an expert in psychoanalysis, argues that ‘there is a specific dimension of the uncanny that emerges with modernity […] and that it haunts it from inside’ and this can be related to the way in which the film presents characters to us which we are familiar with from the first half of Lost Highway and using their same outward appearance which then disconcert us in a somewhat frightening manner. Freud states that ‘the “uncanny’ is that form of terror that leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” . Therefore, if we base the logic of Lost Highway on ‘the uncanny’ and focus on the many moments of ambiguities in the film such as Fred’s transformation into Pete, The Mystery Man’s face superimposed on Renee and his ability to appear in two places at once. As aforementioned, the uncanny regards a state of two existing at the same time and we can use this as a hypothesis to suggest why these ambiguities occur. We must also take note that the setting is something of a fantasy- there is a present semblance to generic features which aim to guide us through the narrative. Vass proposes that “the cinematic image does not attempt to represent the Real, rather it creates a viscerally affecting experience for the spectator which opens up access to the Real in a unique and powerful way; the Real is accessed not through the act of representation, but through experience of mediation. ” However, these elements are strictly Lynchian Americana and the film presents a complex reality: the way the characters look and dress and the attention to technology all denote modernity although the cars appear to belong to the seventies. This appears problematic due to places and times coexisting yet we can use its uncanny qualities to provide it with some meaning which inevitably will only take us so far.
It is frustrating to attempt to make sense of Lost Highway as ultimately our answer is always no, as we can only make sense of it up until a certain point. David Lynch didn’t intend the work to be figured out with one straight shot- he wanted his spectator to stop and enjoy the cinematic experience of Lost Highway. We could invent as many different hypotheses as we like in order to determine what is really happening in this film, for example: The Supernatural (all ambiguities can be reasoned by supernatural soliciting), The Dream (the second part of the film is all a dream of Fred’s) or even that Lost Highway is a piece of art without any intentions of certainty. Therefore, it can be said that we can make sense of Lost Highway up until a certain point but we can never truly know one concrete meaning.











Buckland, W. (2009). Making Sense of Lost Highway. Puzzle films: complex storytelling in contemporary cinema, p.42-60.
Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in the fiction film. University of Wisconsin Press. p.34.

Brannigan, E. (1992). Narrative Comprehension and Film. London/New York: Routledge, p.26.

Carter, D. (2010). Not Coming To a Theatre Near You. URL: [27th March 2013]

Dolar, M (1991) “I Shall Be with You on Your Wedding-Night”: Lacan and the Uncanny. October. 58. Fall. p.7.

Elsaesser, T., & Buckland, W. (2002). Studying contemporary American film: a guide to movie analysis. p. 186.

Freud, S. (1919). The uncanny. The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, 17, 219-52.

Jentsch, E. (1997). On the psychology of the uncanny (1906) 1. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 2(1), 7-16.

Mulvey, L. (1997) The pre-Oedipal father: the Gothicism of Blue Velvet. In Modern Gothic: A Reader. Sage, V., & Smith, A. L. (Eds). Manchester University Press. p. 56.

Rodley, C. (Ed.). (2005). Lynch on Lynch. Faber & Faber.

Vass, Michael. (2005). Cinematic meaning in the work of David Lynch. Cineaction. 65. p. 14.





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