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David Lynch’s themes—the Manichaean nightmares of a pubescent child—remain consistent from film to film, but the quality of his work is distressingly uneven. After the haunting, unsettling Blue Velvet (1986), one of the few great American movies of the past two decades, he returned with Wild at Heart (1990), a coarse, lurid Elvis-Marilyn-Oz pop fantasia that could have been made by a dull-witted imitator. 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me revealed the director at his worst and best: a dumb, jokey half-hour prologue followed by an intense, shattering descent into hell. Like his polarized view of existence, Lynch’s artistic strengths and weaknesses have become inextricably yoked.

Lost Highway, which the filmmaker co-scripted with novelist Barry Gifford, is another mixed bag—structurally intricate and visually polished, yet thematically obfuscating and impoverished. Lynch compares its perplexingly twisted narrative to a Möbius strip, but a more fitting analog would be an Escher poster: seamlessly executed, inscrutable kitsch. Like the match game in Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, the film is a no-win trap for gullible viewers.

Lynch and Gifford fuse two seemingly unrelated narratives. In the first hour, jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) worries about the fidelity of his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette), who is prone to mysterious disappearances and oddly unresponsive during lovemaking. The couple is troubled by the arrival of anonymous videocassettes depicting the exterior, and subsequently the interior, of their austerely furnished home. In a final tape, Fred sees himself butchering Renee, only to realize, with horror, that the murder has actually taken place. He is swiftly convicted of the crime and incarcerated on death row.

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One day, prison guards open Fred’s cell and are astonished to find that he has disappeared, replaced by Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a much younger auto mechanic. With no legal cause to retain him, Pete is released, returns to work and soon becomes involved in a torrid, clandestine affair with Alice Wakefield (Arquette again), the mistress of Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), a ruthless mobster. After the pair pull a heist to obtain enough money to escape from Mr. Eddy, the story lines implode into a surreal climax; the characters’ identities merge in a series of erotic and bloody confrontations.

However intriguing this synopsis sounds—and I admit the advance publicity certainly piqued my interest—Lynch’s presentation of it could scarcely be more enervated. Lost Highway creaks along so lethargically that one wonders whether composing the screenplay sapped the filmmaker’s creative juices. Still, devising a scenario to contain so many chichi modernist devices must have been exhausting. Viewers who have kept pace with fiction and film narrative experiments of the last few decades will find Lynch’s movie peculiarly passé. The interlocking stories-within-stories derive from the metafictions of Borges and Calvino. The movie’s circular conception of time has been explored in Chris Marker’s La Jetée and other movies inspired by it, including The Terminator and 12 Monkeys. Krzysztof Kieslowski toyed with the notion of separate but mirrored identities in his enigmatic The Double Life of Veronique. The conceit of shooting on real locations but pretending that they are the filmmaker’s invention (Lost Highway is “set in a city that looks suspiciously like Los Angeles” according to its press kit) has already been used by Alan Rudolph, who transformed Seattle into Rain City for Trouble in Mind. The Lynch-Gifford claim that they have created “a 21st-century noir” was achieved with far greater skill and scope in Ridley Scott’s visionary Blade Runner, and the sequence in which Loggia bashes a driver for tailgating his Mercedes, then offers him a facetious citizenly lecture about highway manners before kicking him in the balls, is so shamelessly derivative of Quentin Tarantino that one scans the roadside for Big Kahuna Burger wrappers.

Although there remains enough potential in these secondhand gambits to fuel several future generations of filmmakers, Lynch has applied them to the stale, recurrent obsessions that informed his earlier work: sexual desire inexorably leading to violence and death, placid surfaces masking unspeakable, unnamable horrors, and anachronistic lighting fixtures illuminating stark, monochromatic environments. Despite fashionable academic theories that anatomize literature and movies to isolate political, psychological, racial, and gender content, the value of a work of art cannot be determined solely by the quality of the ideas and attitudes it embodies. If this were the case, Yeats and Eliot, whose verse is based on crackpot metaphysics, would be minor poets. But when a work is structurally derivative and its content cheesy, all that remains is the skill of its execution, and Lost Highway isn’t exactly dazzling in that regard, either.

At the very least, Lynch’s background in painting yields movies that are compositionally arresting, and this one, photographed by Peter Deming and designed by Patricia Norris, is no exception. Although his interiors are intentionally unrealistic—one could barely negotiate the Madisons’ dim dwelling without the help of a seeing-eye dog—they are the film’s most expressive element. Angelo Badalamenti’s score, which incorporates performances by Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and the Smashing Pumpkins, attempts, too emphatically, to pump suspense into Lynch’s striking but static images. His ominous low-pitched synthesizer rumblings supply most of the tension in the film’s turgid opening half-hour, a last-ditch ploy to energize inherently slack footage.

The cast has little to work with in a skimpy screenplay that probably consists of fewer words than this review, and contains flaccid clunkers like, “He gets more pussy than a toilet seat.” Pullman, coifed and made up to resemble Lynchian signature actor Kyle MacLachlan, seems invigorated to be in a real movie again following his entrapment in the puerile blockbuster Independence Day, but the Tom Hanksish Getty brings little life to the masquerade, and Loggia, another Independence Day refugee, offers a by-the-numbers tough-guy turn. Gary Busey, Henry Rollins, Natasha Gregson Wagner (Natalie Wood’s spitting-image daughter), and poor wheelchair-bound Richard Pryor supply hipster window-dressing in secondary roles. Robert Blake stands out from the rest of the ensemble as a mysterious shaman; with his whitewashed, eyebrowless face, pop eyes, and yellow teeth, he looks like an escaped crone from a Fellini movie. Arquette, whose robotic affectlessness doomed John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon, is less damaging here, since all she’s required to do is loll about, usually naked, with a look of incomprehension. Her delivery of lines remains abecedarian; she seldom misses an opportunity to whine, rather than speak, dialogue.

Sitting through Lost Highway, I was reminded of the childhood Christmas when I was given a medium-size Erector set that came packaged with a brochure illustrating the wondrous things I could have built—a revolving Ferris wheel, a motorized parachute jump—had my parents been willing to spring for the deluxe version. The film’s trickily synchronistic screenplay can be assembled to form an infinite number of assumptions—Renee and Alice are the same person; Pete is Renee’s killer—but frustratingly, we’re not provided sufficient material to construct any single, satisfying interpretation. Lynch’s admirers may buy the press kit’s assertion that “the film is no more about its ‘story’ than it is about its unique style,” but that suggestion strikes me as a canny cop-out. “Arbitrary” is not a synonym for “ambiguous,” and the do-it-yourself screenplay is less an experimental text than a sucker’s game designed to dupe viewers into mistaking complexity for profundity. A line from a Yeats poem casts light on the dark corner Lynch has painted himself into in Lost Highway: “The fascination of what’s difficult/Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent/Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart.”CP