Few films have ever deserved critical re-evaluation more than Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Released in 1992, just over a year after Twin Peaks, the TV series, left viewers on a horrific cliffhanger, Fire Walk With Me came to us at exactly the wrong time. The critical and cultural understanding of Twin Peaks at the time was far removed from more modern takes. We tend to view Twin Peaks now as a cult object, a series with alienating eccentricities. The first two seasons of Twin Peaks are remembered mainly for their strangest elements; backwards-talking men dancing around red-curtained rooms, cryptic poems delivered through dreams, the main character fleeing his doppelganger through endlessly repeating hallways. In that context, the nightmarish and gut-wrenching Fire Walk with Me seems perfectly of a piece with the preceding series. It’s an escalation of its strangest predilections, a deepening of its darkest themes.
In 1992, Fire Walk with Me received a gleeful drubbing from most critics. The film was famously booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was shredded by American critics following its stateside release a few months later. Quentin Tarantino complained that “David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different.” Though a handful of people had positive reactions at the time (in a quote I think of often, director Jacques Rivette said, “I have no idea what I saw, all I know is that I left the theater floating six feet above the ground”) the consensus was not so kind. People found it too bewildering, too morbid, and above all too pretentious. Pretentious, a word which tends to say more about the person using it than the thing they’re describing, is the operative adjective here. People assumed that Lynch resorted to weirdness because he had nothing to say. The rejection of Fire Walk with Me is really a rejection of Lynch’s best artistic instincts, and of the heart of Twin Peaks. Lynch showed his hand, and for a very long time, people turned away. It’s only in recent years that people have started to come around on Fire Walk With Me. I think it’s Lynch’s best film, and, barring Twin Peaks: The Return, the most effective distillation of his sensibilities.
Fire Walk with Me signals its intentions to do away with the trappings of the TV series early on, with a prologue following Agent Chester Desmond, a new character played by Chris Isaak, as he investigates the death of Teresa Banks. Tagging along is the twitchy agent Sam Stanley, played by Keifer Sutherland in an uncharacteristic and underrated performance. Desmond is everything that Dale Cooper, the protagonist of the series, is not. He’s cold and brusque, with a monotone voice and a secretive nature. The Twin Peaks counterpart here, a small town called Deer Meadow, is in turn as unfriendly and uncooperative with Desmond as Twin Peaks is warm and inviting to Cooper. The only helpful person he meets is trailer park owner Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton), whose exclamation, “Goddamnit these people are confusing” serves as a cheeky acknowledgement of how unforthcoming these scenes are. Cooper himself doesn’t appear for about half an hour, and even then only briefly, in scenes that didn’t make much sense until The Return picked up their dangling threads. One can imagine
The prologue also features a scene which I find a useful counterpoint to certain descriptions of Lynch’s work. Early in the film, FBI director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself) brings Desmond and Stanley to meet his “cousin” Lil, a woman with clownishly red hair and a dress to match. She does a strange sort of pantomime, and the two agents depart. Immediately afterwards, Stanley asks Desmond what it was all about. Desmond explains that each of Lil’s actions, down to the tailoring of her dress, signified something about the case, giving them details about the situation they were walking into. Lynch’s critics like to talk about his work as though nothing within has any meaning. It’s all just random imagery, they say, symbolism that symbolizes nothing. Bizarrely, many of his fans have the same attitude. As The Return unfolded this past summer, I saw many of them bemoaning the sort of viewer who had the gall to try and unravel each episode. Looking for meaning in a Lynch production was, apparently, watching it wrong. I find this view of Lynch so condescending. His symbols and imagery are primarily meant to evoke an intangible thought or feeling, but they are no more random than cousin Lil’s dance. Things may not have cogent explanations, but that isn’t the same as being meaningless.
It’s also worth mentioning that this is the only screen expression of Twin Peaks that lacks series co-creator Mark Frost. Frost is usually credited with the show’s more grounded elements, the “normal stuff” to contrast with Lynch’s flights of fancy. Fire Walk with Me reveals that this isn’t quite true. While it does contain the supernatural strangeness you’d expect from Lynch, it’s missing the mysticism and conspiracy that Frost brought to the proceedings. His book The Secret History of Twin Peaks really shines a light on what Frost brought to the series, and I recommend giving it a read if you’re a fan. Frost wasn’t involved with Fire Walk with Me at all due to conflicts with his directorial debut Storyville, as well as a somewhat strained relationship with Lynch following the show’s second season. The two reunited for The Return, and it’s interesting to think about a version of Fire Walk with Me with Frost’s involvement. I think it would suffer for being less of a character study, but I don’t want to spend too much time speculating.
The prologue culminates in a cameo by David Bowie as Agent Phillip Jeffries, who suddenly appears before Cole and Cooper after disappearing years prior. He describes a horrific experience with the spirits of the Black Lodge, including BOB, the Man From Another Place, and Jurgen Prochnow as an early version of The Return’s Woodsman. Their conversation is much less cryptic following The Return, which in its own way elaborates on the history of these beings. Much as I’ve loved the revival, I prefer this scene without that context. Phrases like “we have descended from pure air” and the terrifying chant of “eeeeeeeeelectricity” lose some of their power to unsettle when you know what they mean. Still, the editing of this scene gives it a raw terror that can’t be taken away. Lynch isn’t thought of as a horror director, but he’s composed some of the best scares in any film. People remember the creature behind the diner in Mulholland Drive in particular, and the emergence of the Woodsmen in the eighth episode of The Return is another terrifying highlight. This scene is still one of the scariest things Lynch ever shot, and it sets a disturbing stage for Laura Palmer’s final days.
The return to Twin Peaks following all of this is constructed as a comforting return to the familiar. We see beloved characters (though Donna is now played by Moira Brown) and recognizable locations. But there’s a dark irony to this sequence. Not only do we know about the violence to come, we’re still coming down from the terror and confusion of the prologue. Scenes of Laura interacting with her friends were always going to be sad. Lynch makes them stomach-churning. He’s just shown us the sinister forces that are coming for her, and the film only ratchets up the dread from there.
But Fire Walk with Me is more than a film about a young girl being tormented by malicious spirits. This is a film about sexual abuse, and it uses its fantastical elements to expand on the domestic horror Laura experienced. The real villain of the film isn’t BOB, but Laura’s father Leland. Just as terrifying as the convenience store scene is the moment where Leland grabs Laura’s hand and chastises her for not washing up for dinner. His wife, Sarah, nervously tells him to stop. It’s clear that this is a common occurrence in the Palmer household, a recurring emotional and physical assault by an unstable patriarch. There’s a long-running misconception that Leland was possessed by BOB, who used his body as a puppet to torment Laura. This is a severe misreading, and an important one because it absolves Leland of crimes he is very much guilty of. BOB doesn’t possess Leland, he just rides shotgun in his subconscious, amplifying his worst tendencies and feeding off the pain and suffering he causes. But those tendencies exist nevertheless. Leland still seeks out prostitutes who look like his daughter. Leland killed Teresa Banks to keep his secret safe. BOB seems to occasionally take over, but only in instances where Leland has already engaged in some monstrous action. He’s still a bad person.
The fact that this misreading is so common is an interesting parallel to the way society treats real perpetrators of domestic abuse, making excuses for their behavior and absolving them of guilt. It goes hand in hand with the running theme in negative reviews that Laura is whiny, cruel, and unsympathetic. Maybe, they seem to imply, she had it coming. This isn’t to say that Laura is depicted as saintly. It doesn’t matter. Lynch asks us to empathize with her anyway, because she’s the victim of forces she can’t even begin to understand. The poor reception of the film could be seen as the inability or refusal of viewers to do the same.
In Fire Walk with Me, Laura comes across as a terribly tragic figure, a young woman who seems resigned to her fate, not knowing that it’s imminent. The abuse she’s suffered has left her incapable of seeing goodness within herself. She miserably stumbles through acts of self-destruction, all the while trying to discover the intentions of the otherworldly beings who keep invading her life. In one of the film’s best scenes, Donna asks Laura, “Do you think if you were falling in space, that you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?”
“Faster and faster,” Laura replies. “And for a long time, you wouldn’t feel anything. And then you’d burst into fire, forever. And the angels wouldn’t help you, because they’ve all gone away.”
Of course, you can’t talk about Fire Walk with Me without talking about Sheryl Lee. The story goes that she was only meant to play Laura’s corpse in the pilot, but Lynch was enchanted by the brief footage of her that becomes a piece of evidence in the show. The character of Maddy Ferguson was created as an excuse to keep Lee on the show. I believe she gives one of the best screen performances ever in this film. I always think of the way her face trembles as she tells Harold the poem from which the film takes its name, or her panic after MIKE screams a warning at her at an intersection, or the way she says “Oh my god” between choking sobs when she sees Leland walk out of the house. These are the big, capital-A Acting moments, to be sure, but Lee gives them all a special energy. Laura’s mannerisms in these emotional outbursts are unique to Laura. It’s not all explosions of expression, though. Lee gives smaller moments the same treatment. During the aforementioned “faster and faster” line, Lynch holds tight on Lee’s face, the best sign of a director confident in their star’s capabilities. You can see the tide of misery wash over her face as she delivers the lines. It breaks my heart every time I watch it.
Since Fire Walk with Me was released, Lynch’s work has tended to resemble it more than the films that came before it. The Return owes far more to Fire Walk with Me than it does to the original series. I think this is why the film has been subject to a critical renaissance in recent years. People now have a better idea of what to expect from a Lynch project than they did coming off of the first two seasons of Twin Peaks. So many classic Lynch themes are here – evil concealed by small-town Americana, cycles of violence and abuse, empathy towards the victimized, personal duality – and he explores them all best in this film. Fire Walk with Me isn’t just the keystone to Twin Peaks as a franchise, it’s the fulcrum for Lynch’s whole career, his rawest and most heartfelt work, his masterpiece.
Featured Image: New Line Cinema