A Nightmare framed by Bowie’s ‘I’m Deranged’, which plunges into the unknown in the windshield-spanning cinemascope and never looks back, Abandoned highway is the smell of wheels driven to escape the inescapable feeling that you’ve screwed everything up. Although it is the first of David Lynch’s psychogenic fugue trilogy (along with Mulholland Drive and domestic empire), this film is fixated on the end of things in a way that contradicts its Möbius structure, unable even to accept this supernatural other life as a means of reconciliation (domestic empire) or a blissful, possibly ambitious fantasy for the damned of now (Mulholland Drive).
Abandoned highwayLynch’s second collaboration with Wild at heart Author Barry Gifford, is all too aware that fate is metaphorically on your heels. It’s a seedy Los Angeles noir that even James Ellroy would have to look at and say, “Damn.” When asked about the film in interviews, Lynch is unusually candid, explaining that it was his meditation on the OJ Simpson murder trial and how a mind divides its actions and how people deceive themselves. And that certainly gives you a thematic framework. But it can in no way prepare you for the unforgiving journey that awaits.
Jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman, who keeps getting better at it zero effect the following year) suspects that his wife Renée (Patricia Arquette, brunette, quite well-behaved) is cheating on him. But when a stranger starts leaving behind videotapes filmed outside the Madison home, that initial fear is subsumed by this voyeuristic abuse waged against Fred and Renée. But it gets worse: the contents of the tapes escalate, and whoever is filming them eventually enters the house without tripping the security system and tapes the Madisons in bed while they sleep. And whatever started this process of documentation and prosecution will follow Fred Madison into other bodies and lives, a scourge on the condemned’s heels.
Pete (Balthazar Getty) is a lowly twentysomething who works at a dealership run by Richard Pryor (in his last role). Mysterious criminal figure Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia, scary) has a soft spot for Pete because he does a good job on cars. He has such a soft spot for Pete that he trusts him to escort his Lady Alice (Patricia Arquette, blonde, exquisite) around town. Chemistry does what it does, soon Pete moves on with Alice, always trying to stay one step ahead of Mr Eddy and his allied henchmen. But regardless of what becomes of the process of being a David Lynch film, this is film noir, and fists are clenched and fates sealed long before we encounter suspected killer Robert Blake as a spatially unleashed incarnation of sexual insecurity – and before players find their way into a snuff ring and discover the absolute best example of why your mother was always right about not walking around things with sharp corners.
Once when I was hosting a midnight screening of abandoned highway, Not even halfway through the first reel, a bunch of Belmont students stumbled into the lobby and said, “Is this a devil movie?”
This much-anticipated 4K restoration certainly has a lot to offer – reproducing the inky shadows and shapeless emptiness that make up so much of this film’s visual sensibility is difficult for DCP technology and most modern digital projectors. Many films are dark, however Abandoned highway feels somehow more than just that – something chthonic and obliterating lurks in those shadows, something that feels as close as any modern filmmaker has come to the thematic personifications that characterized the ancient Greeks on stage. That fits somehow The film was adapted into an opera in 2003.
But nothing – not even Slavoj Žižek’s extraordinary writings on film – gets over the visceral charge of its twists and turns. This film has a power that gradually builds from the elliptical, classic art-house home imagery of its early scenes into the hardest adrenaline rush since the last half hour of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Relentless, fatalistic, flawlessly soundtracked and unforgettable, a nightmare accompanied by Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” hurtling into the unknown in a windshield-spanning cinemascope, never looking back. Abandoned highway is the smell of wheels driven to escape the inescapable feeling that you’ve screwed everything up.