Lynch’s Lost Highway is full of neo-noir ideas, metaphors, and symbols. Yet I’m interested in one element it lost: sound. The film is ripe with silences, minutes long stretches where no character fills the air. Instead of telling us what to understand in a film, the audience is asked to analyze, to understand in our own heads. In filling the film with silence, the use of music and score is then made to be more impactful.
In the first three minutes of the film, the only words we hear on screen are “Dick Laurent is dead” across the intercom. We watch Fred pace his house—losing himself in the anxiety of his own mind—without any real idea of what is happening. Without a narrator or protagonist to guide our thoughts, the audience, like Fred, lose ourselves in the anxious state of our mind. This silence is eventually filled with a short conversation between Fred and Renee, though even then they continue to whisper. This scene cuts sharply to the cacophonous sounds of the jazz club. By ending this silent scene with jazz, Lynch accentuates how truly quiet the scene before it was.
The night that Renee dies, Fred stalks the house in silence. Again, the audience is forced to return to our own minds to understand what is happening on screen, there is no assistance from Fred or Renee. When Renee finally dies, we again see a sharp cut to a loud, cacophonous scene: the detective yelling in Fred’s face “KILLER!” The silence of Renee’s death is underscored by the detective’s loudness.
This pattern of silence is everywhere in the film—from the scene where Pete’s parents pick him up from jail and do not say a word to both Renee’s and Alice’s whispered phones calls. In those particular scenes, Lynch asks us to pay attention to the women’s speech with close-up shots of their lips and then continues to lean on this anxious, quiet speech.
We watch both Fred and Pete lose their minds and, in the silence, we, the audience, lose our minds along with them. The silence makes you question everything, invokes insecurity and anxiety in even the most mundane actions. Fundamentally, Lost Highway is then a film about anxiety and the power of the human mind. In his silence, Lynch allows the audience to fill these gaps with any and every thought we have, and in doing so Lynch highlights both human fear and how truly easy it is for our feeble minds to lose control.
McKenzie’s examination of Lost Highway takes my own one step further: she includes both the sparse soundtrack and the sparse set as mechanisms Lynch uses to “build a sense of unease.” Their home is without character in its blank walls, vague, modernist furniture, and lack of personal details. Just as the soundtrack is eerily silent, so is Renee and Fred’s home. We are not just asked to understand the film within our own mind, we are forced to fill the silences with our own imagination and our own anxiety. Finally, Mckenzie connects this silence to the history of Film Noir–quoting James Ellroy in The Big Nowhere–reminding us that this is a film noir about film noirs, a film anatomizing the very misreading of the genre.