Dream Interpretation of the Film "Lost Highway"

    Cop: Do you own a video camera?
    Renee: No. Fred hates them.
    Fred: I like to remember things my own way.
    Cop: What do you mean by that?
    Fred: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.

    A dream can mean everything, or it can mean nothing. According to Freud, if we take its contents seriously, it has the potential to reveal things about ourselves that we scarcely believe could be true. But often the fragmented oddness of such a vision damages its credibility, and one is left wondering how something so disjointed could contain insight of any value. Such is the dilemma with "Lost Highway," a movie seemingly bent on walking its viewers down one path, and then, when they begin to understand the nature of it all, to abruptly change course and begin anew. Hitchcock's "MacGuffin" - the term he coined to refer to the apparent plot of a story, which is merely a cover for the underlying, more important thread - is both irrelevant and vital in this film. The viewer will watch what is happening, trying to get a sense of the plot, but the plot, really, is unimportant. The very nature of plot demands a sense of linearity, and this movie lacks such a characteristic. However, the plot is also the most important aspect of the film, because, ultimately, almost everything each character does seems to be part of a dream in the mind of the central character, Fred Madison. Consequently, what happens is not merely manifest content to be brushed aside. Hidden within it is the latent content which will give the viewer an understanding of what is happening in the mind of this man. How do we know it is a dream and not merely poor story-telling? How do we know what is real and what only exists in the mind? And since the nature of this dream seems very Freudian, what does each character represent, and how does that character contribute to the purpose of the dream? These are all questions that should and will be addressed to effectively understand "Lost Highway."

Dream or Reality?

    In the realm of works which blur the line between reality and fantasy, The Country Doctor is an exemplary text to examine. How does the reader know that this story is a dream, when in fact it seems likely that much of it could actually have happened? 'Time' provides the clearest indications for the reader. One example involves the trip the doctor makes from his residence to that of his patient. The last image the reader has before he takes off is the complete lack of control he has with the horses. Then, magically, he appears at the patient's house. How did he get there? No explanation is given for his seemingly sudden ability to command the horses and get to where he needs to be, in the middle of a blizzard, no less. In dreams the mind has a tendency to fill in holes when necessary to keep the story moving. When rationality can offer no next step, irrationality (magic, surrealism) takes over and does the rest. This gives a strong indication that the dream-work is, essentially, a dynamic between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. The id, ego, and super-ego are all working simultaneously to create an experience which might feel like reality, but is completely unreal in certain, distinct ways.

    In "Lost Highway," the viewer sees similar examples of unreality, as in the way Fred disappears into a shadow in his bedroom and his wife cannot find him. In another instance, perhaps the most distinct surreal moment in the movie, he is somehow replaced in his jail cell by Pete. Lynch makes the implausibility of this scene all the more apparent by using lights and sound to present the supernatural event. With booming, whooshing sounds and blue-green lights creating an effect of light reflecting off of water, one is forced to conclude that reality is not all there anymore. Many examples in the same vein follow, as when Pete is suddenly switched back to Fred when they reach the desert, or when the Mystery Man meets Fred and tells him to call him at his house. How can he be in two places at once?

    Furthermore, an experience may be interpreted as a dream when events and outcomes seem to consistently work for or against a person's favor. In a dream the outcomes would usually work for the dreamer, as dreaming is a process through which pleasure is sought. In many studies on dreams subjects have reported that they were able to control the direction and actions of their dreams once they discovered that it was not reality. How did they make such a determination? The key aspect of this process is the presence of fantastical phenomena. The dreamer is led to believe that what is happening must be a dream, for there are events taking place which defy rationality. Fred seems to follow this course of action in the movie. It is hard to tell when reality stops and the fantasy takes over. There are surreal images early on in the movie where almost everything seems real, but later there is certainly a point where the fantasy has taken over completely. But what is clear is that he seems to learn how to control his dream. The first few things that happen are truly awful. He is found to have brutally murdered his wife, much to his disbelief, and is then sentenced to death. At first glance this does not seem to fit into Freud's notion of a wish fulfillment. However, Fred has extreme feelings of jealousy and paranoia about his wife, and killing her would certainly abate those feelings. This is the first example of Fred's death instinct at work. Later on in the dream he will create circumstances that bring pleasure, but at this introductory phase he is working to reduce tension. In this case, the tension surrounds his wife and his fear that she may be unfaithful to him. So, while killing her is the manifest content, the latent content is the destruction of the feelings related to her in his mind. And so, after he has reduced these drives the dream can move into a more pleasurable, positive phase. Fred is replaced by Pete, seemingly an idealized version of himself, and begins to live out the lifestyle Fred wishes he had.

Compositions: Fred Madison & Pete Dayton

    There are so many instances of condensation in this film that they surely must play a role in the dream-like structure. The first and most important is the parallel between the protagonist, Fred, and the mental idealization of himself: Pete. In appearance, both actors, Bill Pullman (Fred) and Balthazar Getty (Pete), look very similar, but in terms of what the viewer knows about their characters' lives, one sees that they contrast greatly. Fred is a struggling musician in a dispassionate marriage. He seems to like his job as a saxophonist, and he loves his wife, but his life is not nearly as fulfilling as it could be. Pete, by contrast, is one of the best mechanics around, and he is slick with the ladies in all the ways that Fred is not.

    Fred is steadfastly monogamous, but has feelings of ambivalence about his wife and paranoia about how loyal she is to him. He wants to possess her but Renee comes across as somewhat distant and unwilling to be in the same place he is emotionally. The viewer observes this in the way she says she does not want to come to the club to hear him play (obviously something he is proud of and wants to share with her), and later in the way they have sex. He seems much more involved than she is. She knows that if she continues to sleep with him his feelings will remain controlled and restrained. She knows that to Fred having sex is a sign of loyalty and love, and she offers this as a consolation when she sees his disappointment over her disinterest in watching him play. Later when they have sex she casually undresses in front of him, perhaps to make him believe that he possesses her as no one else does. And yet he senses something is amiss. He cannot put his finger on it, but her willingness to have sex at least keeps him quiet about such worries. All of this comes together to form a believable, pitiable character who has the same fears and frustrations as most human beings. This background is important because Pete's character is then understood as Fred's double; as the rebellious fantasy of a troubled man.

    And so, in all the ways that Fred is restrained, Pete is care-free and in control. He has a girlfriend but no sense of monogamy. After being released from prison he takes his girlfriend out, but one senses that something is wrong between them. While dancing at a club she asks if he cares about her, and he merely looks her in the eyes and kisses her. To the viewer this plays as a smooth dodging of the question, but she is like Fred in that she believes physical and emotional affection are one and the same. If Pete is in fact an idealized version of Fred, we see here the idealized Fred using the same technique that his wife used against him. If Fred were the man he wants to be he would be in control, and when someone questioned his adoration he would just use sex to abate the questioning. In reality Fred has no such control, and he cares too much to merely be physical. He needs unmistakable, verbal reassurance.

    Another stark and important contrast between these characters is established in the two major sex scenes of the movie, one with Fred and his wife Renee, and one with Pete and Renee's double, Alice. Lynch makes it very simple for the viewer by making the setup the same, in terms of how much foreplay occurs, and the position for sex. But then he breaks from the similarities and one observes that Fred's sex scene is very unemotional, and even fairly unattractive. He stares into his wife's eyes, looking for emotion and meaning, but her facial expression is flat and unresponsive. Pete and Alice, on the contrary, are much more passionate. Alice is as excited as Pete is and they both seem very satisfied at the end. This use of similarity makes the composition of the two characters readily apparent, while the contrasts in the situations give the viewer an indication of what Fred's life is like, and how he wishes it would be. And at this point the viewer now has prime examples of both types of wishes (according to Freud): erotic and ambitious. In fact, the jobs and sex lives of these two characters are given so much attention in the movie that it wouldn't be at all overreaching to observe that Lynch could have written the story with Freud's "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" as its singular foundation.

Compositions: Renee Madison & Alice Wakefield

    As with the Pullman and Getty characters, here one finds physical as well as situational similarities and differences. The most distinct, perhaps, is the fact that both characters are played by the same actress: Patricia Arquette. Fred's wife Renee has black hair in a plain hairstyle as well as makeup which is not very flattering. Her counterpart, Alice, is stunning, with blonde hair in a very attractive style and makeup which is much lighter and more fitting for her appearance.

    The other major overlap is a story that is told by Renee to Fred on the way home from a party of a man she met at a bar called Moke's who told her about a job. Fred does not delve into her story any further. But later when the story recurs with Pete and Alice Pete asks how she got involved in pornography, and she tells of this very same man whom she met at Moke's. He wants to know more, and she goes on to relate the story of meeting Mr. Eddy (a customer of Pete's) who forced her to strip at gunpoint. Hearing the story Pete is very tense and jealous, and afterwards asks bitterly why she didn't just leave. She offers no reply, and he suggests that perhaps she enjoyed it. The fantasy now seems to be breaking down.

    The viewer now sees more of Fred than Pete. If the idealized Fred were still playing an active role he wouldn't care what Alice said. He would merely be satisfied to know that he was with her now. But it is Fred's nature to fret over the past and cultivate paranoia, and the viewer sees his inability to maintain the fantasy in this instance. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that Fred, in reality, had no idea what kind of job it was that the man told Renee about. But because it is his nature to fear the worst and consider baseless hypotheses, he works off of this jealousy to develop a story which deals with seedy men and pornographic movies. So now the question becomes, "Why would Fred let such negative emotions and experiences into his dream? Why not persist with this idealized version of himself and everything around him?"

    Perhaps Freud's assessment of his own dreams can help make sense of this. In Interpretation of Dreams he wrote near the end of his Irma's Injection Dream that, "It was a noteworthy fact that this material also included some disagreeable memories, which supported my friend Otto's accusation rather than my own vindication." (Freud, The Freud Reader, 142) The importance of this observation is the implication that both the pleasure principle and the reality principle are at work in a dream. Though one may think that a perfect representation of himself and the world is favorable, reality creeps in and reminds him that nothing can be as he absolutely wishes it to be. This would seem to go against the grain of Freud's wish fulfillment theory, but in a way it creates a more fulfilling dream-experience. The ego and superego play roles in the dream-work which are just as important as that of the id. And so it is not unreasonable to retain aspects of reality in one's dream, not only in terms of the people one comes into contact with, but also with the limits of one's experience and emotion. By including attributes of reality here and there the dream becomes more believable, and therefore more pleasurable in retrospect. What one finds, then, is that a dream is not actually pure imagination, but the interplay of absolute gratification and imposing rationality.

Compositions: Mr. Eddy & Dick Laurent

    Again we find two characters played by the same actor: Robert Loggia. This example of condensation differs from the previous two insofar as the "real" character - Dick Laurent - does not appear in any scene. The only time he is even mentioned is at the very beginning of the movie when Fred answers the buzzer for his front door and a voice on the other end says "Dick Laurent is dead." Mr. Eddy, however, does play an important role, acting as the antagonist and villain. At first he seems to be a protagonist: he really likes Pete and wants to pamper him, and Pete is the only mechanic he will let work on his cars. But after Pete begins his affair with Alice their friendship quickly goes sour.

    Later his role becomes more complicated. He is an important character "for" AND "against" Fred in his fantasy. He is important "for" Fred because he keeps Fred's fantasizing in check. When Fred imagines Pete having this affair with Alice, he is dropping all of his moral standards and letting his id run rampant. But it was pointed out that a sense of reality in any fantasy can be a positive attribute. And so that sense of reality comes in the form of Mr. Eddy who reminds Fred that if you double-cross a gangster in real life by having an affair with his girl, you are going to get into deep trouble. Here again is the co-existence of the pleasure principle and reality principle in the fantasy. As much fun as it would be to just get sexually involved with any girl, there are consequences to every action. But while this may be a friendly reminder for Fred, Mr. Eddy's presence is not wholly endearing and positive. Mr. Eddy uses women by seducing them with money and gifts, then objectifying them by putting them in his pornographic movies. He possesses no true sense of love or commitment. The reason this benefits Fred becomes clear later in the movie: Fred fights back against Mr. Eddy and eventually kills him with the help of the Mystery Man. And so, again, something negative is turned into something positive. Killing Mr. Eddy - one of the men who might take his wife away from him, the source of so much paranoia and worriment - is a cathartic exercise. Building a character out of one's fears and then conquering that character is a wish fulfillment in every sense, and so it becomes clear that Mr. Eddy's involvement, both as an imposer of rationality and as an all-encompassing target of Fred's frustration, is essential to the story.

The Super-Ego: The Mystery Man

    This is perhaps the most tricky and elusive character in the movie, but when one considers his role it becomes clear that the Mystery Man is in fact another manifestation of the super-ego, and a manifestation who plays that role definitively throughout the film. If one takes each scene in which the Mystery Man occurs, the pieces start fitting together in a very distinct manner. The Mystery Man's role is to keep Fred in check; to punish him when he thinks inappropriate thoughts, to remind him of his sense of right and wrong, and to force him to remember who he truly is.

    The first time the Mystery Man shows up is when Fred relates a dream about not being able to find Renee in the house. He eventually finds her but it is not quite her. It is merely someone who looks like her. He looks over at Renee after telling her this story and sees the Mystery Man. Then later at the party they meet. The Mystery Man asks if they have met, Fred does not recall that they have, and the Mystery Man tells him that they met at his house. Could this be an allusion to the vision Fred had of the Mystery Man in his bed? Then the Mystery Man tells Fred that he is at the house right now, and to call him. Fred does, the Mystery Man picks up, and Fred is sufficiently spooked. But what is important here is the fact that Fred is feeling very jealous and uneasy at the party. He is not having a good time and his wife is drunk and hanging onto another man. Perhaps his feelings are beginning to get out of control and it is at this point that the Mystery Man steps in. Towards the end of their conversation, when Fred asks how he got into his house, the Mystery Man replies, "You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I am not wanted." This shows that Fred possesses control over the Mystery Man's presence, whether he believes it or not. And the notion that this man could be at his house and at the party at the same time suggests that he is not a real person. All of this contributes to a conclusion that the Mystery Man is a manifestation of Fred's mind who offers increased common sense just as it is about to be lost.

    Further examples of the Mystery Man's role follow. Towards the end of the movie, when Pete is turned back into Fred, Fred asks the Mystery Man where Alice went. The next few lines of dialogue are perhaps the most important in the movie. The Mystery Man replies, "Don't you mean Renee? If she told you her name was Alice, she's lying." Then he holds up his video camera, points it at Fred, and asks "And your name? What the fuck is your name?" He says this with a great deal of aggression. Whereas before there was an emphasis on the Mystery Man as the super-ego, here one finds that he also represents the ego. This manifestation represents the rational side of Fred, angrily reminding him of who he and his wife truly are. It is a testament to how convoluted Fred's mind has become that he persists with the fantasy even though much of the pleasure he first created has vanished.

    Even more turmoil is evidenced by the murder of Mr. Eddy. In the movie it is not actually Fred who fires the shots, but the Mystery Man. Since Mr. Eddy and the Mystery Man are both characters in Fred's mind, the scene shows that the factions of his mind are warring with one another. To reduce the discomfort produced by the faction responsible for Mr. Eddy, Fred's super-ego tries to destroy that other part. This is the death drive doing its work. While much of Fred's fantasy centered around the libido, it now becomes clear that he can't live in such a phony realm of fantasy for long, and the thoughts that begin to creep in all deal with fear and anger. So the next step in satisfying the pleasure principle is to try to destroy those thoughts and their source, which Fred does by killing Mr. Eddy. Just as he began by killing his wife to symbolically destroy all of his restlessness surrounding her suspected infidelity, he now kills Mr. Eddy to destroy the other half of such paranoia: the kind of man Renee might cheat with.


    An introductory understanding of Fred Madison's mind should be clear at this point. While the movie presents many more images that could be examined for further meaning, there just isn't enough space in the confines of this essay to do a complete character study. What is clear is that Fred's mind has tended toward fantasy as a coping mechanism for the troubles in his life, and that each component of his psyche - id, ego, and superego - are each equally at work creating an illusory universe where he can work out these troubles by venting his frustration. Ultimately, however, this fantastical diversion seems to have done little good. Fred's superego does a remarkable job of keeping him relatively close to reality, letting him know that he's taking his fantasy too far. In the end he may feel as though he has exorcised many of his demons, but the closing shots of the film suggest otherwise. Perhaps near the end, after the fantasy has dissolved, he begins to realize that the anger he feels so deeply does not in fact originate with his wife, but with himself. Much of his paranoia seems unfounded, and in the early, reality portion of the film the viewer finds little reason to suspect that Renee is cheating on him. His inclination to fabricate the ending of her story about the job she was offered by the man at Moke's seems indicative of a mind bent on expecting the worst, and then worrying about it endlessly.

    As for the movie itself, it should be obvious at this point to any viewer with a merely introductory knowledge of Freud that Lynch is working from Freudian fundamentals in creating this world Fred imagines. The uses of composition, psychical faculties, and wish fulfillments is unmistakable. The obvious question, then, is why use Freud's approach to dreams to tell this story? While there is certainly no simple answer to this question, one can imagine that it could be a number of things. Maybe it is merely a fascination of Lynch's, or perhaps it's the fact that Freud's approach seeks to explain all phenomena in a dream, and a director's attention to detail complements this approach quite well. In either case, the effect works. One of the most difficult tasks in a movie is to let the viewer inside the mind of one of its characters. This is much easier in literature, which can employ the faculties of narration and omniscience. In a film with no such leisure, a director must rely on images and dialogue alone to accomplish this feat. To visually represent the emotions of a character can only be well-executed in a few distinct ways. One such, effective way is to film the dreams and fantasies occurring in the mind of that character. Lynch's approach works, and Fred's emotional and psychical states of being are clear, if the viewer can just look past the manifest to find the rich, latent content buried beneath.


Gay, Peter, ed. The Freud Reader.
    New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.