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The Ending Of Lost Highway Explained

How exactly does one explain a film like "Lost Highway"? This is David Lynch at his most Lynchian, meaning that it is a work made far more from instinct than logic. In his charmingly odd little book on creativity, "Catching the Big Fish," Lynch describes his process as just that: "Ideas come in the strangest way if you just pay attention ... So things like this happen and you start dreaming. One thing leads to another, and if you let it, a whole other thing opens up." It is an idiosyncratic and frustratingly non-linear way to approach filmmaking. The result is a blend of surrealism, noir, horror, and middle-American nostalgia that never quite allows the viewer to get comfortable — frequently unsettling, sometimes horrifying, and rarely fully intelligible.

"Lost Highway" is all of the above. After establishing itself very clearly as a slow-burning whodunit, its narrative unexpectedly jumps into one of switched and/or mistaken identities. One protagonist is literally replaced with another one, someone we have never seen before, whose own story and struggles are somehow interwoven with his predecessor.

Considering all this, it would be easy to dismiss "Lost Highway" as nonsense, the ramblings of a director with a keen eye for moody atmospheres who has long been left to his own devices, conventions like plot and coherence be damned. Taste of Cinema included "Lost Highway" on its list of the 30 most confusing movies in cinema history. But to leave it at that sells the film — and its director — quite short. Just because a film is confusing doesn't mean it isn't coherent. Just that it is demanding us to suspend our disbelief a little bit more and open ourselves up to how bizarre real life can be.

Welcome to Los Angeles

First, some context. "Lost Highway" was released in 1997 and is considered the first in David Lynch's unofficial "Los Angeles trilogy," which continues with 2001's "Mulholland Drive" and 2006's "Inland Empire." Though the three movies aren't officially connected, they are all set in and around Los Angeles and examine the same broad themes regarding the divide between art and life and how a city dedicated to creating that divide, that artifice, is able to chew people up and spit them out (via Los Angeles Review of Books).

Whereas "Mulholland Drive" and "Inland Empire" both center around actresses used and abused by the Hollywood machine, "Lost Highway" starts by introducing us to a male protagonist, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). Fred is a jazz musician — a saxophonist — living with his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) in a large house in the Hollywood Hills. Fred, it is strongly hinted, is suspicious that Renee is having an affair with another man. When we first see him, he receives a strange message over his home's intercom: "Dick Laurent is dead." Who Dick Laurent is, or why we should care, is not discussed. At least not at this moment.

Fred and Renee start receiving disturbing packages in the mail: VHS tapes showing the couple asleep in their own bed. Terrifying. They call the police, but as there is no sign of a break-in at the house, they are unable to help.

'I'm there right now'

At a party, an already-tense Fred meets a freakishly pale man with slicked-back hair who is only referred to in the credits as "Mystery Man" (Robert Blake). Fred has seen him before, in a hallucination that briefly replaces Renee's face with that of the strange man. Without introducing himself, the Mystery Man insists that he and Fred have met before, which Fred doesn't recall. The Mystery Man persists, though, saying that they met at Fred's home. What's more, he states that he is there right now. Handing a confused Fred a cell phone, he tells him to call home. Sure enough, the Mystery Man's voice answers at the other end, claiming that Fred invited him in. Terrified, Fred finds Renee and leaves the party.

The next morning, another videotape arrives. Fred watches it by himself and sees that it is of him, awake in his and Renee's bedroom, standing over her dead body. Renee, as it turns out, is indeed dead. Fred is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for her murder. Awaiting his sentence on death row, Fred is tormented by visions of the Mystery Man and a cabin in the desert — on fire.

A missing man

Here is where the story's events take a dramatic turn toward the unexpected. In fact, it would be safe to say that it's where we enter an almost entirely different story, connected to that of Fred and Renee by only the thinnest of threads. During a routine cell check, the prison guard discovers that Fred has vanished from his cell. In his place is a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty).

Pete is his own man with his own past. He has no idea how he wound up in a prison cell nor who Fred Madison is. But because he is clearly not Fred Madison, the Department of Corrections has no choice but to let him go. He is released into the care of his parents and returns to his job as a mechanic at Arnie's auto garage. Here Pete meets slick gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) and his girlfriend Alice Wakefield (who is also played by Patricia Arquette). 

The two begin having an affair, during which Alice reveals to Pete that Mr. Eddy is actually an amateur pornography director named (wait for it ... ) Dick Laurent. She is terrified of him and increasingly suspects that he knows about Alice and Pete's affair. They devise a plan to rob Alice's friend Andy (Michael Massee) and skip town. The robbery goes horribly wrong, and Pete ends up accidentally killing Andy. Pete and Alice meet up and flee to an empty cabin in the middle of the desert (the same one that plagued Fred in his dreams). After having sex outside, Alice enters the cabin, leaving Pete, who then turns back into Fred. Fred enters the cabin, but instead of finding Alice or Renee, he encounters the Mystery Man cackling behind a camcorder, chasing Fred.

A final drive

Fred escapes and drives through the desert to the Lost Highway Hotel, where he finds Renee having sex with Dick Laurent. After Renee flees, Fred grabs Laurent and cuts his throat before the Mystery Man shows up with a gun, finishing Laurent off. The man whispers something in Fred's ear before disappearing.

Fred then drives back to his home in the Hollywood Hills, where he buzzes the intercom and speaks into it: "Dick Laurent is dead." Our closing shots are of a shrieking Fred behind the wheel of his car, speeding down the highway in the pitch-black night, police cars in pursuit, as his mind comes apart at the seams.

In interviews, David Lynch said that "Lost Highway" was influenced by the experience of watching the notorious 1994 police chase of O.J. Simpson on the Los Angeles highway (via The A.V. Club). There is, of course, the obvious similarity: a high-speed chase, a man who allegedly killed his wife. But within that, there is something deeper. In his 2019 PopMatters review of the Kino Lorber Blu-ray of "Lost Highway," Brian Holcomb considers the gap between Simpson's media persona and the version of him we hear screaming in the background of Nicole Brown's 911 call.

"We move through life among strangers whom we try to make less strange by identifying repetitive behaviors as identity," wrote Holcomb. "At some point, we might even say we 'know' a person ... Which is why people feel so betrayed when they discover that someone isn't who they seemed to be. Because how could such a nice person do such a thing? A person we constructed in our minds a certain way. We are shocked because they suddenly revert to the stranger they were before — only worse."

Mistaken identity?

This bisection — between who a person seems to be and the horrible things they are actually capable of — is key to understanding the plot of "Lost Highway." In a winter 1997 interview sourced at LynchNet, Lynch stated that he and co-writer Barry Gifford conceived of Fred's transformation into Pete as a "psychogenic fugue," wherein the sufferer creates an entirely different identity and life for themselves in their mind. This accounts for the transformation and for Fred's reappearance near the film's end. It also fits "Lost Highway" in nicely with the other two films in Lynch's Los Angeles trilogy, both of which feature jumping narratives that provide a view into a protagonist's fractured psyche, along with the revelation of things they wish they hadn't done or were not done to them.

What this doesn't explain, however, is the message over the intercom. It could very well be that Fred, having just killed Dick Laurent, is simply returning to his home to relay the message that he now remembers getting at the film's opening. But this doesn't explain why he received it in the first place. This is why some reviewers have compared the film's plot to a Mobius strip, turning back in on itself to wind up back where it started. It also pulls us further into the slippery and highly subjective concept of identity that "Lost Highway" centers around.

You can't escape the Mystery Man

In an early scene in "Lost Highway," Fred tells the police that he doesn't trust videos because he likes to remember things his way. But in this world — before everyone and their mother was able to edit videos with the flick of a wrist — videos can only tell the truth, no matter what we might think independent of them. In this light, it is highly significant that when Fred encounters the Mystery Man toward the film's end, he is holding a camcorder, giving chase to capture everything Fred is and has done.

The intercom messages may then be a kind of bookend for the beginning of Fred's break with reality and his being pulled back into it. Fred clearly wishes he were someone more like Pete, a James Dean type who effortlessly attracts affairs around him. Try as he might, he is inevitably far closer to someone like Dick Laurent: aging, jealous, constantly betrayed in his own mind. Therefore, when Fred hears that Dick Laurent is dead, he is making a decision from which he can't escape. Not only is Fred about to kill his wife, but he is also, in doing so, about to kill what is essentially an externalized version of himself in favor of being his ideal version of a man. It won't work, though. As he discovers in the film's closing shots, Fred will always be pursued by his own gruesome actions. And, most likely, the cops.