Lost Highway: David Lynch’s Thriller, Starring Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette

David Lynch’s new thriller, Lost Highway, begins promisingly, when a young married couple, Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette) get paranoid over intrusions into their privacy, which they realize through several videos sent to their home.

Renee vanishes and Fred goes to jail. The film then takes up a new set of heroes, Pete (Balthazar Getty), a gas attendant who dumps his girlfriend and takes up with a gangster (Robert Loggia) and his moll (also played by Arquette).

The narrative takes one character to the end of the line, then sets another one on a parallel track. Fred gets a second chance– a new identity as Pete–that noir heroes never get, but it’s not clear whether it’s the same man. The requisite Lynch scare show is in the spooky presence of Robert Blake (with white face, shaved eyebrows and sickly smile, like the dwarf in Twin Peaks). A mystery figure guiding the characters toward their destinies, he is the director’s creation, a manipulator who navigates the film in an arbitrary manner.

An enigmatic thriller with complex formal strategies and intriguing metaphors, Lost Highway lacks a potent narrative. Noir’s perennial issues of paranoia and fatalism are peppered here with touches of the fantastic. As always, Lynch’s technical mastery is impressive: The images and editing rhythms are alarming, but they bear little meaning because they are not conceived in the coherent spirit of Blue Velvet.

Described by Lynch as “a 21st century noir horror,” Lost Highway makes many references to classic noir. But for all the sordid sex and vengeance, the self-reflexive narrative feels tidy and hermetic, an elegant exercise blending supernatural and noir elements. As long as Lynch’s journeys have the visual audacity of Eraserhead, or the playfulness of Blue Velvet, they are satisfying.

As the critic Richard Corliss observed, if Lost Highway had preceded Wild at Heart, it might have had some novelty, but the turf, with its obsessions and grotesqueries, is by now familiar and lacks menace.

Lynch is poet laureate of harebrained Americana, but his work is not shocking anymore–his motifs have been exploited in nightclubs and gift-shops across the country. Lynch has always been more interesting when placing issues of order within a framework of deviance. But in his recent work, he has strayed into bizarreness for bizarreness sake–movies that burst into climactic sensations without first establishing logical narrative premises.

Too bad, the American cinema needs a visionary filmmaker like Lynch.