We're on the road to nowhere; CINEMA

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Question: What have David Lynch and Countdown presenter Richard Whiteley got in common? Answer: They have both turned the uneasy pause into a moment of transcendental signification. Lynch's Lost Highway (18) is full of such disconcerting silences, often stretched to the point of absurdity, yet still delivering their payload of overpowering dread: empty space has rarely been so thick and murderous.

Silence is not the only weapon in Lynch's arsenal. His main assault is made through the twisted progress of his plot. Preoccupied with molls 'n' murder, it's a story rooted in the seedy world of Raymond Chandler. But the complexities it inherits from the hard-boiled thriller are intensified by a darker abstract weirdness that defies interpretation, and alludes beyond film noir to sci-fi, pornography, and the occult.

Here's what seems to happen: Fred and Renee Madison (Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette) receive a series of videotapes in the mail. The first shows a monochrome image of the outside of their house. The second tape has the unseen cameraman stealing up the stairs and into the bedroom, where the Madisons are sleeping. The third, watched by Fred while Renee is upstairs, is grainy as minimart CCTV or the Roswell autopsy footage, and shows husband dismembering wife on a blood-soaked bedroom carpet. Before there is time to wonder whether this has actually happened, Fred is languishing on Death Row.

However, during one night of confinement, his cell's wall parts like a stage curtain and a monstrous event erupts, something between UFO abduction and ECT. Next morning, the man in the arrowed suit is Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty) who emerges from his cell as utterly addled as Kaspar Hauser. The film then shifts its focus to Peter and his nervy friendship with Mr Eddie (Robert Loggia), the local Mafioso-cum-porn racketeer. Things get trickier when Peter begins a sexual relationship with Eddie's bottle-blonde consort, Alice (Patricia Arquette).

And so enigma hatches enigma: Lost Highway becomes a journey without maps across territory that fails to obey the usual physical laws. Narrative convention also veers off-road: The plot reverses back on itself, and - like some kind of quantum paradox - meets itself coming the other way.

Intriguingly, characters don't seem to be experiencing events in the same sequence as the audience. For instance, the film opens with an angst- ridden Fred listening to a voice on his entryphone. "Dick Laurent is dead," is the message. But his tense response to these words is justified only when we learn, in the movie's final moments, that it is Fred himself who is at the door. Similarly, early scenes witness Fred burning with hatred for his wife - but it's impossible to guess why he's so full of anger until the film's conclusion, when his alter ego is betrayed by Renee's doppelganger, so furnishing him retroactively with a reason to butcher her. The motive for murder is generated after the crime has taken place. As a prison guard comments, "This is some spooky stuff."

By dislocating events from helpful contexts, Lynch encourages you to read his film through its nightmarish images. Some of these are familiar, lifted straight from the typology of Gothic strangeness that he established in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: red drapes, thunderstorms, Rumpelstiltskin- like men who know the future. But most are impossibly confusing: the camera lingers as Peter stares hard at a paddling pool in his neighbours' garden. Its colours are unnaturally emphatic: a boat and a ball bob on the water's surface. It seems a self-consciously symbolic moment. But what, if anything, does it stand for?

The film continually returns to this sort of perverse disconnectedness: the doorbell rings but no one's there, phones go unanswered, blank envelopes appear on doorsteps, banal conversation meanders at a somnolent pace. But the central enigma of Lost Highway is Patricia Arquette. While Fred transmogrifies into Peter in a melodramatic flash of lightning, Renee's rebirth as Alice is a more outre process. We don't know if the two women are twins - like the Palmer girls in Twin Peaks - or if they have some occult connection. Simultaneously fragile, seductive and poisonous, Arquette's presence in the film is the locus of its terrors.

Lynch's women tend to be vampiric honeytraps, but they have their tragic vulnerabilities. Under the rouge and peroxide camouflage, they are victims of a junkie-like dependence on male sadism. Arquette's characters comply with this dark, misogynist pattern. They're both tyrannised by their partners, but their masochism implicates them in their own humiliation.

Chillingly, Lynch directs Arquette as though she's in one of the violent porno flicks peddled by Mr Eddie. Her individuality is obliterated by heavy make-up; her voice is reedy and fragile, as though it was meant to be overdubbed. The camera treats her like a piece of meat, carving her up into choice cuts: mouth, breasts, legs, hair, fingernails, preparing for the moment when we see Fred hunched over her carcass.

This sexual brutality forms the dark heart of Lost Highway, and it's a demonic energy that undermines confident critical statement. Lynch's film won't give up all its secrets. Most of what it does tell you is genuinely terrifying. But the rest is silence, and that's where the horror really begins.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14