How are the Protagonists in “Lost Highway” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Similar?
Like many of David Lynch’s films, Lost Highway (1997) is an original screenplay. However, there is a strong similarity between the protagonists of this surreal psychological thriller and Ambrose Bierce’s short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, originally published by the San Francisco Examiner in 1890.
The character Payton Farquhar in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a Confederate sympathizer who is sentenced to death by hanging from the very railroad bridge he set out to sabotage during the American Civil War. In Lost Highway, Fred Madison (Bill Paulman) is a Los Angeles saxophonist sentenced to death by electrocution for the murder of his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette).
Both characters find themselves in hopeless situations, but somehow find a way to escape the gravity of their doomed existence. Payton appears to have survived the hanging after his noose snaps. He falls into the water below the railroad bridge and proceeds to lead Union soldiers on a chase through the Alabama wilderness. While in prison, Fred violently transforms into a young auto mechanic named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) and is ultimately set free.
It is during the middle part of Lost Highway’s loose narrative that Pete lives the life Fred wishes he could. He is carefree and able to make love to an alternate version of his wife, whose new name is Alice Wakefield. However, this dream world begins to spiral out of control when Alice’s boyfriend, a violent gangster named Mr. Eddie (Robert Loggia), begins to suspect an affair between the two.
Earlier in the film, when Fred and his wife report to the police a series a mysterious videotapes being placed at their front door, the protagonist expresses his dislike of video cameras by stating, “I like to remember things my own way… Not necessarily the way they happened.” This implies that Fred prefers to alter his own reality. Although, it is the videotapes, placed by The Mystery Man (Robert Blake), that force Fred to confront the reality he wishes to remain oblivious to.
After returning to his old self and settling a score with the film’s antagonist, Fred finds himself on the run with the police hot on his trail. At this point, he either begins a new transformation to escape the initial fantasy he created for himself, or, perhaps like Payton whose dying vision of making it home to his beautiful wife cuts to him dangling from the titular railroad bridge, Fred’s own lost highway comes to a dead end when he begins to feel the first shocks of the electric chair as his death sentence is carried out.