Renée Madison and Alice Wakefield would be versions of each other - except that they coexist in the middle timeline of Lost Highway
By Michael Schmidt
David Lynch’s noir film Lost Highway (1997) has a notoriously confusing plot (film synopsis here) but I’m going to give it a go. Stripping away supporting characters including screen-time-consuming ones such as the mechanic’s girlfriend Sheila who winds up jilted and the wife’s old friend Andy who winds up dead, we are left with three essential characters: the main protagonist is jazz saxophonist Fred Madison and, as we shall see, his variant(s), his dispassionate brunette wife Renée Madison and her variant(s), and vicious porn producer / gangster Dick Laurent, aka Mr Eddy.
Aside from the anomalies which I shall shortly discuss, the plot is in fact linear as we follow Fred from waking up to answer his door-buzzer to hear the fatal words “Dick Laurent is dead”. This initial version of Fred – let’s call him Alpha Fred – does not know the name Dick Laurent, and his mysterious caller has vanished. The first of six anomalies occurs later when, on waking up from a nightmare, Alpha Fred hallucinates briefly that his concerned wife’s face is supplanted by that of a Mystery Man.
The second anomaly occurs when, at a party thrown by Andy, Fred is approached by the same Mystery Man who mockingly demonstrates to him that he is both standing in front of him at Andy’s – and simultaneously able to answer the phone at Fred’s house.
This rattles Fred as he has by this time received the second of two video tapes, this one showing the vision of an intruder who filmed Fred and Renée while they were asleep, an incident that provokes them to call in detectives to watch the house. Alpha Fred asks Andy who the Mystery Man is and is told he is a friend of Dick Laurent – apparently the first time Alpha Fred has heard the name.
The third anomaly is that the third video tape received by Fred shows him crying out in agony in their bedroom over the bloodied body of Renée, giving the impression that he saw the tape after Renée was murdered. Did he film himself doing it and then send himself – or an unsuspecting or innocent version of himself – the tape? Either way, his shock is swiftly escalated by his trial, conviction for murder and sentencing to the electric chair.
However, while in prison awaiting execution, Apha Fred suffers from migraines and further hallucinations that culminate in the first of two disjunctures which jolts Alpha Fred out of his primary timeline and into an alternative, though not necessarily parallel, universe: awaking in his cell, Alpha Fred appears to have been transfigured into motor mechanic Pete Dayton – to the consternation of his jailers.
Pete – who may also be called Beta Fred – is dating Sheila but got himself into some sort of, to his parents and Sheila, literally unspeakable trouble and wound up in jail on a traffic violation. With the wrong man behind bars and with Pete’s memory a blank, the confounded authorities release Pete but put a tail on him.
Pete returns to work and there meets overzealous customer Mr Eddy who takes him for a violent joyride with two of his thugs. On later bringing in a second of his cars for repair, Mr Eddy is this time accompanied by Alice Wakefield, a woman that, but for her shorter blonde hair, is the spitting image of the murdered Renée. We would be tempted to call her Beta Renée – but it turns out later, that in this alternate timeline, Renée exists separately to Alice and that they cohabit the same timezone as friends of both Andy and Mr Eddy, with Alice working as a porn star for Mr Eddy.
Alice initiates an affair with Pete behind Mr Eddy’s back. Growing suspicious, Mr Eddy telephones Pete and puts onto the line the Mystery Man who has a conversation with Pete that mirrors that which Alpha Fred had with the Mystery Man at Andy’s. Spooked, Alice and Pete rob Andy in order to raise getaway money and Andy is killed in the process. They drive into the desert looking for a fence to give them cash for the goods they stole from Andy’s.
The fence is not at his cabin, and after making love on the sand, a second disjuncture occurs when Alice walks into the cabin never to be seen again while Pete, dusting himself off, is transformed into Fred again, or perhaps this should be Gamma Fred. This version of Fred is on the warpath because a brunette woman who seems to be Renée, and thus his wife (or perhaps Gamma Renée), is sleeping with Mr Eddy – Dick Laurent.
Gamma Fred follows them to a motel and, when Renée leaves, assaults and kidnaps Dick, taking him out into the desert where with the assistance of the Mystery Man, he cuts Dick’s throat before a dying Dick is shot dead by the Mystery Man who then disappears.
So far so good in that we have had only one alternate timeline disjointed from the primary narrative – which remains linear – in which the characters assume different personae and roles, while the Mystery Man is revealed to be rather an alter ego of Fred/Pete, apparently one that enables him to kill.
But then Gamma Fred returns home, presses his own doorbell, thereby waking Alpha Fred, and telling him over the intercom that “Dick Laurent is dead.” The timeline has thus looped, with Gamma Fred, having completed the loop, initiating Alpha Fred’s sequence with which the movie began. This is the fifth anomaly.
But there is one more, for Gamma Fred’s presence at the house is noted by the detectives that Alpha Fred called in after the second video tape. So it appears that the point of initiation is either not the same as in the initial narrative – or this timeline is slightly different, with potentially different outcomes.
Is Renée still alive at the point when Gamma Fred presses the buzzer? Will she – as Gamma Renée who slept with Dick – be murdered by Alpha Fred/Gamma Fred/Mystery Man later? Has she been spared that fate now that Alpha Fred’s rival has been eliminated by Gamma Fred? Is she perhaps now a Delta Renée with no relationship to Dick? Or does she even exist in this apparently new timeline?
So in essence we have an initially linear plot in which the characters are midway disjointed temporally into another timeline where they play different roles, before returning to their initial timeline, but which then loops back to initiate its own sequence – though not in an identical manner to the original timeline, suggesting the possibility of several outcomes along various timelines enacted by variants of the three primary characters. Quite sci-fi for a noir movie!