Eye Of The Duck

The Film sleeve for the 2005 DVD release of the Film

Lost Highway is Lynch's 1997 release. The film has much more in common with Blue Velvet than Wild at Heart. The film sees a distinct change in style for Lynch and the further noir homage can be seen throughout; this would follow in Mulholland Drive.

Introduction and General Overview[]

In a note at the beginning of the screenplay, David Lynch described Lost Highway in what reads like a series of taglines:

"A 21st Century Noir Horror Film.
A graphic investigation into parallel identity crises.
A world where time is dangerously out of control.
A terrifying ride down the lost highway."

A dark and erotic psychological thriller that explores themes of infidelity, jealousy, and violence, Lost Highway is an example of contemporary film noir combined with surreal imagery and plot developments.

General outline in three parts[]

Lost Highway can be described as having three parts.

  1. In the first part, Lost Highway introduces jazz musician Fred Madison and his wife, who are played by Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette. Though no acts of infidelity are shown to the audience, Fred is portrayed as fearing that Renee is cheating on him. And though Fred does not express his sexual anxieties, a tense and uncomfortable sex scene portrays Fred as fearing that Renee does not want him and that he does not satisfy her. The first segment of Lost Highway ends with Fred murdering Renee and mysteriously transforming into another man, Pete Dayton, in his jail cell.
  2. In the second part, Pete Dayton, a young auto mechanic played by Balthazar Getty, has a passionate sexual affair with a woman named Alice Wakefield, played by Patricia Arquette. However, Alice is virtually under the possession of a powerful and violent mafia-boss-like man named Dick Laurent, a.k.a. Mr. Eddy, played by Robert Loggia, though Alice and Mr. Eddy are not married. Moreover, Alice is portrayed as a pornographic actress and as using sex for personal gain. The second segment of Lost Highway ends with Alice defying Pete's desire to possess her and Pete transforming back into Fred Madison.
  3. In the third, and shortest, part, which may or may not a remembering of earlier events, Fred finds Renee and Dick Laurent together, having sex, at the "Lost Highway" hotel. As well, it is now Renee who is shown in a pornographic film. The film ends with Fred murdering Laurent and driving into the desert in flight from the police.

General overview[]

One way to present a general overview of Lost Highway, without committing to a single theory of "what really happened," is to say that Lost Highway unfolds and explores the inner workings of Fred Madison's fears and fantasies regarding his wife Renee. Fred’s fantasies and fears are full of contradictions, but they play themselves out in the following ways:

  • Fred murders Renee (first portrayed in Fred's dream, prior to the murder)
  • he is her virile lover and she cannot get enough of him (as portrayed through Pete Dayton and Alice)
  • she is possessed by another man (Mr. Eddy) and she is a whore (as depicted through her relationship to Andy, the pornographic filmmaker)
  • he finds her with another man and kills him (this happens twice: Pete finds Alice with Andy, and Fred finds Renee with Laurent)
  • she eludes his possession (Pete: "I want you Alice." / Alice: "You’ll never have me.")

Another way to present a general overview of Lost Highway is to say that it is a "metafilm," that is, a film about film. More specifically, Lost Highway uses non-linear narratives to examine multiple facets of a prototypical film scenario: the adulterous wife and the jealous husband.

Narrative Method and Plot Development[]

Lost Highway develops by means of the carefully orchestrated repetition and reconfiguration of thematic elements. After revealing Fred’s murderous desire to possess Renee, the film introduces doubles (Pete and Alice) while inverting key characteristics: Fred is an inadequate lover, whereas Pete is a virile lover; Fred is middle-aged, whereas Pete is young; Renee is unsatisfied, whereas Alice is insatiable; Renee is a dark brunette, whereas Alice is a platinum blonde.

Through the doubles, implicit themes and dynamics are made explicit:

  • she is possessed by another man (Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent)
  • she is a whore (as depicted through her relationship to Andy, the pornographic filmmaker)
  • he is threatened by the possessive 'other man' (literally: Mr. Eddy threatens Pete with a gun)
  • he kills the man associated with her whorishness (Andy)

The character inversions are then exposed as lies driven by the truth that she eludes his possession:

Pete: "I want you Alice."
Alice:"You’ll never have me."
(...Pete transforms into Fred...)
Fred: "Where's Alice?"
Mystery Man: "Her name is Renee! If she told you her name is Alice, she’s lying. And your name?... What the f*ck is your name?"

Reintroducing the original pair of Fred and Renee, the concluding section of the film synthesizes and resolves the plot’s development (compare with the following with the preceding list of bullet points):

  • Renee is with the possessive 'other man' (Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent)
  • she is a whore (as depicted with Renee in the porn film)
  • Fred beats the possessive 'other man' with a gun, while wearing his counterpart's virile clothes (Fred wears Pete's motorcycle jacket throughout the concluding section of the film)
  • Fred murders Laurent (with the help of the Mystery Man)

For more detailed analyses of the repetition and reconfiguration of thematic elements, see Psychogenic Fugue: Musical below and Lost Highway Scene Analyses: Repetitions in Lost Highway.

Chronology of Events[]

Some of the most debated questions about Lost Highway focus on "what really happened" and in what order. Unlike movies like Wizard of Oz or It's A Wonderful Life, to give two examples, Lost Highway does not provide definitive answers to these questions.


In Lost Highway, the order and significance of events depends on how the viewer answers several questions, to which multiple answers are legitimate:

  • First question: does Fred turn into Pete in his jail cell, or is that transformation all in Fred's head? The film can be interpreted both ways, and the film intentionally allows both interpretations.
  • Second question: if one says that Fred’s transformation into Pete is just in his head, then one has to decide if Andy and Laurent were actually murdered, or if these murders are merely fantasies.

Possible Answers[]

Depending on how the viewer answers the above questions, the following interpretive variants emerge:

  • Fred's transformation into Pete is all in his head.
    • Fred murders both Laurent and Andy: Fred murders Laurent, then Renee, then Andy. Then he imagines transforming into Pete, but the repressed realities of his past begin to creep back in. The chronology for triple-homocide is as follows: Fred murders Laurent prior to the scenes we see at the beginning of the film, and he murders Renee and Andy after Andy’s party.
    • Fred murders Laurent and imagines murdering Andy: Fred murders Laurent and Renee, imagines transforming into Pete and killing Andy, then the repressed realities of his past begin to creep back in.
    • Fred murders Andy and imagines murdering Laurent: Fred murders Renee and Andy, and then works through his repressed suspicions and desires via his fantasies, though he never actually caught Renee with anyone and he never killed a man named Dick Laurent.
    • Fred imagines murdering Andy and imagines murdering Laurent: Fred murders Renee, imagines transforming into Pete, and then works through his repressed suspicions and desires via his fantasies, though he never actually killed Laurent or Andy.
  • Fred transform into Pete in his jail cell, and the scenes are left in the chronological order in which they appear in the film: Fred murders Renee, transforms into Pete, becomes Alice’s lover, kills Andy, is rejected by Alice, turns back into Fred, catches Renee with Laurent, then kills Laurent. This interpretation cannot pretend to be realistic. Rather, it lets the film play out the surreal realization of Fred’s contradictory fears and fantasies about Renee, pushing them to their "logical", but contradictory, conclusions. This sort of surrealist interpretation is made possible by the fact that Lost Highway, unlike Wizard of Oz, It's A Wonderful Life, and countless other films, provides no definitive "return to reality" after entering an imagined or alternate world.

Mobius Strip[]

A mobius strip is continuous one-sided surface made by taking a regular two-sided strip (of paper, for example), turning one end upside down, and attaching it to the other end. One can now trace a continuous line beginning anywhere on the strip and return to the starting point, having traversed both sides of what had been a two-sided strip.

At the end of Lost Highway, Fred returns to the beginning of the film ("Dick Laurent is dead."), having traversed a parallel identity. Fred's journey can thus be seen as having the structure of a mobius strip.

Because the each of the above chronologies involves a psychological and/or surreal journey, rather than one based in linear time, the mobius structure can be combined with each of those chronologies.

The Mystery Man[]

Another frequently discussed and debated question about Lost Highway is "who or what is the Mystery Man"? Here again, multiple interpretations are possible, but it is best to begin with basic observations about the depiction of the Mystery Man in the film:

Basic observations[]

  • The Mystery Man is grotesque and otherworldly in appearance.
  • Fred first sees the Mystery Man right after Fred describes his dream to Renee, in which Renee looks like she is being attacked. At Andy’s party, when the Mystery Man says "We've met before... at your house... you invited me," he is referring to Fred's dream and Fred's vision of him after describing the dream.
  • It is the Mystery Man’s "custom" to get involved only when he's "wanted."
  • A sinister laugh is his answer to Fred’s question, "Who are you?"
  • At Andy’s party, Fred refers to the Mystery Man as "the guy in black."
  • The Mystery Man inhabits a burning cabin.
  • The Mystery Man appears in Fred's vision of the cabin right before Fred transforms into Pete.
  • Pete and Alice go to the Mystery Man’s cabin to meet a fence who will take the goods stolen from Andy and give them passports. The Mystery Man is a fence, or black market go-between: he receives and sells stolen goods on the black market.
  • Pete transforms back into Fred at the Mystery Man's cabin.
  • After Pete turns back into Fred, Fred is chased the Mystery Man carrying a video camera. The Mystery Man is the source of the videotapes at Fred’s apartment.

Mystery Man as a surreal devil figure[]

One interprtation of the Mystery Man is that he is a sort of surreal devil figure, who brings Fred's only partially conscious fears and fantasies to their full realization, and who does so by means of a swapping of identites and bodies.

Notice that a "fence," in the sense of a physical boundary, separates yet connects two spaces, just as a "fence," in the sense of a black market dealer, serves as an intermediary or bridge between buyers and sellers of stolen goods. Similarly, the Mystery Man can be seen as an intermediary or bridge between the two worlds of Fred-and-Renee and Pete-and-Alice.

According to this interpretation, it is by way of the Mystery Man that Fred transforms into Pete (after having a vision of the the Mystery Man at his cabin), and it is at the Mystery Man’s cabin, an in-between space, that Pete turns back into Fred. Thus, the Mystery Man enables the transitions between Fred and Pete.

Taking this view, the Mystery Man's role can be seen as a sort devil figure who enables Fred’s innermost fears and fantasies to be realized, fears and fantasies that Fred cannot even admit to himself. The repressed fantasy of murdering Renee, expressed in Fred’s dream, is the Mystery Man’s invitation, but the fantasy of murdering Renee is bound up with a whole host of other fears and desires: Fred fears that she is a whore and that she is possessed by another man; Fred wishes that he could be her virile lover and that she desired him; Fred fears catching her with another man but also fantasizes killing him; Fred fears having Renee reject and elude his possessive grasp.

The Mystery Man allows all these things to come about, revealing along the way that the fantasy of being her virile lover is a lie driven by the truth that she eludes his possession (see the relevant section of Narrative Method and Plot Development above).

Psychogenic Fugue[]

David Lynch has used the phrase "psychogenic fugue" to describe Lost Highway, although he was made aware of the phrase, and of the psychological condition, only after working on the film, during the publicity campaign. Nevertheless, if there are two words that are capable of describing Lost Highway, they are perhaps "psychogenic fugue."


First, the film employs "psychogenic fugue" in the psychological sense, but only in a loose sense.

Strictly speaking, what happens in Lost Highway cannot possibly be interpreted as case of "psychogenic fugue". Psychogenic fugue, properly known as a "fugue state," involves (a) sudden or unexpected flight or travel to a new location; (b) an amnesic forgetting of one’s previous identity and life; and (c) the assumption of a new identity.

However, if Fred interpreted as being trapped in a jail cell while imagining that he is Pete Dayton at Arnie’s garage, then Fred has an altogether different, and more extreme, psychological disorder.

Nevertheless, the transition from the world of Fred and Renee to the world of Pete and Alice is enabled by the assumption of a new identity and by the amnesic forgetting of the past. As well, the identities of Fred and Renee return at the same time that the new identities are exposed as lies (see the relevant section of Narrative Method and Plot Development above).


Second, the film employs "fugue" in the musical sense.

Roughly stated, a fugue elaborates a set of variations on a musical theme. A fugue introduces the theme and then develops it by re-articulating, modifying, and re-configuring its elements. A fugue presents and re-presents its theme continuously and aims to never re-present the theme in exactly the same way.

  • The portion of the fugue that introduces the theme is called the "exposition."
  • The following section is called the "development." Various techniques can be used to modify and develop the theme while ensuring that it remains recognizable. For example, the melody might be flipped upside down, a technique known as "inversion." Or the note values of the theme might be doubled, known as "augmentation."
  • The final section of a fugue, sometimes known as the "recapitulation," consists of a final statement of the theme in the key in which the fugue began. It acts as a kind of synthesis of the whole piece while also providing a resolution or conclusion to the work.

Lost Highway's central thematic elements can be interpreted as being Fred’s fears and fantasies regarding his wife Renee, and Lost Highway can be interpreted as repeating, reconfiguring, and developing these elements in much the same way that a fugue does, complete with three main sections Introduction and General Overview and Narrative Method and Plot Development above):

  • exposition (from the beginning to Fred’s transformation into Pete)
  • development (ending with Pete’s transformation back into Fred)
  • and recapitulation (from Fred’s return to the end of the film)

The film introduces its themes via the world of Fred and Renee, develops them through the world of Pete and Alice, and recapitulates them through a return to the world of Fred and Renee.

Lost Highway is like a fugue not only in its overall structure but also in its technique of repeating specific images, pieces of music, and elements of the story: see Lost Highway Scene Analyses.


Third, "psycho-genic" is a particularly apt word because the narrative that the film unfolds is psychologically driven.

Eye of the Duck in Lost Highway[]

Sex in the headlights[]

One scene that is often cited as the eye of the duck in Lost Highway is the scene where Pete and Alice have sex in the headlights.

First, with the over-exposed, white-hot bodies of Pete and Alice entwined against dark, objectless backgrounds; the superimposed images that confuse the contours of their bodies and create the appearance of flames; and Alice's platinum hair radiating light strand by strand, the scene is a visual gem.

Second, the scene is also the crucial moment of truth in the film’s narrative, when Alice defies Pete’s desire to posses her (Pete: "I want you Alice." / Alice: "You'll never have me."). This moment of truth brings Fred back and reveals the world of Pete and Alice as a lie (Mystery Man: "Her name is Renee! If she told you her name is Alice, she’s lying. And your name?... What the f*ck is your name?").

Finally, during this scene, Song to the Siren plays for the third time in the film. It first plays when Fred and Renee have passionless sex, which leaves Renee unsatisfied and leaves Fred disturbed and disgusted. It plays a second time when Fred has the vision of the cabin in his jail cell, immediately before he transforms into Pete. Now it plays for a third time when Pete and Alice have sex at the cabin and she rejects him, and Pete transforms back into Fred.

See also[]


  • Paperback: The Lost Highway screenplay, by David Lynch and Barry Gifford, is published by Faber & Faber (ISBN 0571191509). The book also includes a 15 page interview of Lynch by Chris Rodley.

Published works and film reviews[]

  • The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway, (ISBN 0295979259) by Slavoj Zizek, 2000.
  • Numerous essays and reviews are available at City of Absurdity

External Links[]