We're on the road to nowhere; CINEMA

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

Suggested Topics
Actor Burt Reynolds last year
newsBurt Reynolds, once among the most bankable actors in Hollywood, is set to auction his memorabilia
Gordon and Tana Ramsay arrive at the High Court, London
newsTV chef gives evidence against his father-in-law in court case

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

Presents unwrapped, turkey gobbled... it's time to relax

Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt

The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

    £40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

    Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

    £30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

    Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

    £35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

    Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

    £60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game