With Triple Nine looking all vaguely neo-noirish and me having already reviewed director John Hillcoat’s notable films, I’ve decided to look at a handful of films from the last heyday of the neo-noir: the 1990s. And of course David Lynch …
David Lynch’s Lost Highway begins with a paragon of the untrammeled cinematic id. As the pulpy, pop-fried credits announce themselves on the screen like pugnacious fighting words from the darkest bowels of Lynch’s gut, the camera hurtles on a forward trajectory to hell itself, a slithery, avant-garde David Bowie melody doing violence to the darkness of the screen before us. This is the noir expunged of propriety, excised from the surface level world and headed straight to the dustbin of male inadequacy.
Sandwiched in between Lynch’s excursions to the inferno of the Pacific Northwest and the curdled paradiso of mother Hollywood herself, Lost Highway is a sort of purgatory. It might be domesticity run amok, if you want, but Lynch is hardly contained within the world of domestic small town America anymore. Lost Highway exists in neither the provincial, prosaic regions of Twin Peaks, Washington or the psychotic metatextual stewing pot of Lynch’s Hollywood, but in a phantasmagorical space uncontained by geometry altogether. As if that was a surprise, right? But, although Lost Highway isn’t as antithetical to the Lynch spirit as it initially seems, it drags the director’s psychotropic nightmare style well beyond the ridges of society and into a purely interiorized space. It’s like a one-way ticket into the ghostly afterimage of male potency trampled by its own capriciousness into phlegmatic, rotten meat on the ground.
Bill Pullman, the platonic an ideal for “crestfallen, post-prime prince-of-pseudo-cool living on as a vestigial structure of his own half-cocked bluster,” replaces Lynchian canvas Kyle Mchlachlan with equally churlish, immured results. Patricia Arquette, another performer skilled in entrapping an almost post-actorly sense of the vapid and the vacant, is his girlfriend, or at least another semi-fleshed body sauntering around Pullman without much to say. Lynch has always had a knack for apposite performances, and the title of the film is apt in these two figures; the characters are left pantomiming for a life, stuttering around with aimless, maladroit gaits and little hope for self-discovery.
Lynch’s style, as always, is that of an obstreperous firebrand who nonetheless crystallizes images prone to presentiment. There’s a deep well of subterfuge in the indifferently sublime cinematographer Peter Demming’s intimating images and a font of machination in the lacerating, self-harming performances as they wall themselves in with untenable humanism and mannequin-like ossification. Pullman’s character remains clandestine, his malignant brio long ago solidified into mental calluses and clogged arteries as he resorts to calcified retorts and pugnacious remarks that reflect a ghostly apparition of his once-inveterate machismo. This is a man so stuffed full of his own testosterone-engorged innards he has no room to aerate or breathe.
The cryptic asperity of the film begs a brutal satire the very Hollywood noir so en vogue throughout the back half of the 1990s, with Lynch’s walking waxworks so gauntly failing to strut their stuff through invidious catchphrases designed to provoke disapproval. The nihilistic worldview of the noir is extrapolated into sheer absurdity. Nothing here is demonstrative; what we get is a spooked-out world of beguiling negative energy where the derogatory facets of the male persona are left out to rot in all their fleshy anti-charisma. If Eraserhead was Lynch’s most empathetic, expressionist inside-out depiction of male frailty, Lost Highway is a more impressionistic view of feckless male inadequacy completely sidestepping Pullman’s perspective for a provisional interpretation of the brutal world he creates around him rather than the fascinated-with-him world he feels inside. Churning the irrepressibly antic into ruthless baleful chimeras aplenty, it’s a particular sort of haunted house, where the ghosts are the lies fed us about male virility, and the specters are fractious, crude slivers of dude clay amenably morphed into their most deleterious selves.