by Ashley Naftule
SPOILER WARNING: Plot details from both the film and the TV series will be discussed in this piece. If you haven’t watched either yet, bookmark this page, hit the back button NOW, and come back after you’ve watched it all (watch the series first, then the film — and yes, Season 2 is every bit as much of a trainwreck as people say it is but it’s worth sitting through “Little Nicky” and “James’ Noir Adventure” to get to the good stuff).
It can be hard to imagine, but there was a time when a David Lynch film was more likely to draw jeers than cheers. Revered these days as one of America’s greatest Surrealists, a master of transferring dreams and nightmares onto celluloid, he’s become the sort of filmmaker who’s earned a degree of faith and trust from his audience & critics. It wasn’t always like this – consider the initial critical reception in 1992 to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
When the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, not only was the film itself booed, but Lynch himself became the target of booing and hissing at a press conference held at Cannes. It wasn’t the first time he’d been booed at Cannes: festival critics and audience members alike brought their knives out for Wild at Heart in 1990, booing the film when it won the Palme d’Or.
The boos and hisses were nothing compared to the critical vitriol unleashed in the press when the film hit theaters in the U.S. Vincent Canby, writing for the New York Times, declared: “It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be.” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman said that the film was “like A Nightmare on Elm Street directed by Michelangelo Antonioni… a true folly.”
Even his fellow filmmakers couldn’t resist giving Fire Walk With Me a sharp elbow to the ribs. “After I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me at Cannes, 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,” Quentin Tarantino said. “And you know, I loved him. I loved him.”
It’s not hard to see WHY the reaction to the film was so severe. To be clear: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a fucking masterpiece. It’s not Lynch’s best film (to my mind, nothing beats Mulholland Drive), but it’s a close second. It’s a gorgeous and harrowing film. Gleiberman’s dismissal of it as a Freddy Krueger movie directed by Antonioni is quite apt – Fire Walk With Me is possibly the most artfully constructed, beautifully shot horror film ever made.
It’s an amazing film, but also the kind of film that no Twin Peaks fan in 1992 was expecting. Or even wanting, for that matter.
For one thing, you couldn’t be cheeky with it. Campy humor was a part of the show’s DNA, a counterbalance to its moments of surreal terror. You could do communal screenings with heaping servings of cherry pie and coffee and it wouldn’t feel wrong. Fire Walk With Me isn’t humorless (the first half of the film, the “Deer Meadow” section, has a healthy streak of loopy black humor in it), but it double-downs on the horror elements in the series, taking the seedy sexual trauma and incest in Laura’s backstory and pushing it to the forefront. There’s no Deputy Andy or Lucy to bumble along and make everything okay. And if you’re the kind of person that can watch this movie, choke down some cherry pie, and laugh at Laura’s suffering, you need to get yourself on a soul transplant waiting list ASAP.
It’s also a film that staunchly refuses to tie up all the loose ends dangling from the end of the series. Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost ended the TV show with one of the most uncompromising series finales in TV history, leaving enough unanswered questions to fill up The Great Northern Hotel: “What’s the deal with Dale/Bad Dale/Bob? Will Major Briggs rescue Dale? What’s Laura Palmer doing in The Red Room? What happened to Audrey and Pete? Is Ben Horne dead or in a coma after that beat-down Doc Hayward gave him? So is Josie like a ghost drawer knob forever or what? Will James ever NOT be insufferable? Annie, are you okay, are you okay, are you okay, Annie?”
Aside from offering a little bit of insight into Dale Cooper’s situation, the film doesn’t address any of these issues. Rather than answering questions, Fire Walk With Me dumps a truckload of new ones on its viewers. For fans hoping for some finality, some kind of resolution in 1992, a prequel/quasi-sequel surrealistic horror film was NOT what they were probably hoping for.
And even if you’re a Twin Peaks fanatic, the movie is still fairly inscrutable when you watch it for the first time. It’s every bit as baffling, strange, and hostile to analysis for super fans as it would be to people who couldn’t tell the difference between Norma and Nadine if you put a gun to their head.
If anything, people who HAVEN’T watched the show may be at more of an advantage because they don’t have any expectations going into it. The first time I watched it, I hadn’t actually seen the TV show. I went into it completely blind, without any context, and it was an overwhelming experience. Even on the first viewing, I was hooked — despite the fact that so much of it didn’t make sense to me. You can carve away David Bowie and Chet Desmond and the Teresa Banks investigation and you STILL have a powerful movie about one doomed girl being railroaded by fate to a grim end. You don’t need to know who or what is tightening the noose around her neck to appreciate her plight.
In some ways, it’s Lynch’s most inscrutable film BECAUSE of the film’s connections and history with the TV show. His other “Full Lynch” films like Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire are are all self-contained universes – they don’t presume or ask for prior knowledge. But because Twin Peaks has this huge, opaque mythology behind it, the film has to work within it.
Watching the movie is like reading a book and seeing notes written in the margins in some strange code: you don’t need to understand the code to enjoy the text, but decoding it definitely enhances the experience. His films can be “cracked”, but only to a point: Lynch has confessed in interviews that he follows Bunuel’s practice of inserting red herrings and tangents in his movies. Both men have said they do this to throw monkey wrenches into any comprehensive reading of their work. There’s always too many puzzle pieces in the box.
But to successfully break the encryption Fire Walk, you have to watch the show- it’s the decoder ring. And even if you can quote the whole show line for line and have every back issue of Wrapped In Plastic stacked up in your closet, there’s still those nagging extra puzzle pieces: “Judy”, the monkey, who the hell Jurgen Prochnow’s character is supposed to be, the fate of Bowie’s agent, Chet Desmond’s vanishing act, the “double Dale” on the FBI’s security camera, the true meaning of the ending (does the angel’s presence mean Laura’s in the White Lodge? Is she about to be saved, or is she still trapped there with Dale?).
It’s not all inscrutable, though. While picking up every nuance on the first viewing is damn near impossible (much like catching every joke in a Marx Brothers film is impossible, thanks to their vaudevillian machine gun delivery), even the weirdest of moments have a deliberate point to them.
Take “The Arm” in Laura’s dream, who makes a weird Indian-style “a-wah-wah-wah” noise in the middle of his backward-talking. It can seem like pure weird for weirdness’ sake… until the scene where the one-armed Mike accosts Leland and Laura while they’re on the road. Moments before Mike drives into frame, you can hear the soundtrack making electronic noises that mimic what The Arm was doing earlier. The sound he makes in the dream is the theme music for the rest of his body’s arrival into the film.
But let’s table the talk about code-breaking, because that does the movie an injustice. Like all of Lynch’s films, the nitpicking and symbol-hunting is dessert. The main course is the pair of powerful performances that anchor the film: Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise as Laura and Leland Palmer.
The fact that neither actor was nominated for an Academy Award for their work in this film is yet another in a long line of nails in the coffin of the Academy’s credibility. Lee’s performance in this film ranks as one of the finest performances any actress has achieved in film.
It’s the hardest role to play, by far: Laura the character is as much an actor as Sheryl Lee. Whether it’s playing the town’s golden girl or a cold-hearted vamp, Laura is constantly adjusting herself to both meet the needs of the people she interacts with and to protect herself from them. Even with her best friend Donna, the shield is up – look at how angrily she cracks when Donna tries to be her at the Bang-Bang Bar. The last thing she needs is a funhouse mirror of her lost innocence standing in front of her.
She also has to embody the sheer dread and horror of being terrorized by Bob/her father. The moment where she discovers who Bob really is is gut-wrenching. But what makes her such a powerful and tragic presence is that she doesn’t play Laura as a victim. Even until her last moments, she plays her character as someone who spites fate. She’s no saint – she vacillates between hope and fatalism, between praying to an angel on her wall and indulging in a myriad of sins. The way she laughs hysterically after Bobby kills a guy, or how she drugs Donna in the bar – Lee reveals the darkness inside Laura perfectly, showing us WHY Bob would be so attracted to her as both victim and future host body.
As for Bob/Leland: Wise does remarkable work. You can see so many different aspects to his character: the part of him that is genuinely unaware of what he’s doing and loves his family; the cold patriarch who DOES know what’s going on and gets off on it; and there’s Leland-As-Bob, a cold-blooded, delirious psychopath with eyes as dead as a shark’s.
When Palmer dies midway through Season 2, it seemed like the show tried to walk back his culpability, pinning all the blame on Bob. It’s what makes his final scene work, as Dale recites passages from the Tibetan Book Of The Dead as a confused and horrified Leland dies in the interrogation room. A final moment of redemption for a poor meat puppet.
This is something the film retcons. Note Leland’s chilling wails of “I always thought you knew it was me!” before killing Laura. The idea of Leland being an innocent vessel for a malign spirit gets muddied by that moment. It also makes you wonder about the murder of Teresa Banks: was that all Bob’s work, or was part of it motivated by Leland’s rage and disgust at almost sleeping with his own prostitute daughter (a dark callback to the dilemma Ben Horne almost faced with his daughter Audrey at One-Eyed Jack’s)?
Leland’s guilt isn’t the only retcon in the film. Bobby becomes a murderer; Donna turns out to be a whole lot less innocent than she seems; Laura’s mom seems to be much more clued in to what’s going on in her house than she ever did in the show; and we also get glimpses of the show’s future, when we see Dale in The Lodge in Laura’s dream & afterlife (and also in the Philip Jeffries scene: when Jeffries points at Dale and asks Gordon who he thinks that is, is Philip seeing the Bad Dale? Is he unstuck in time?).
It’s these elements that make Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me an unusual but effective prequel. For any work to succeed as a prequel, it has to accomplish two things:
#1. Provide new information that enriches and adds much-needed context to the work that inspired it;
#2. It needs to make us forget what we know and believe that things can change.
This is why the Star Wars prequels are terrible. They don’t really tell us anything new that vitally changes the meaning of the original films. And even worse – they don’t make us forget, not even for a moment, the fate of the characters onscreen. We never doubt Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side; we never for a moment believe that the Jedi can get the upper hand against Palpatine.
That’s what a GOOD prequel does: it makes us believe that the train can jump the rails of fate. The show Better Call Saul is a great example of this principle. Even though we know the fate of most of the main characters, it still creates moments of tension that make us believe that Gus or Mike or Hector can be killed. It creates a sense of danger for characters who are “safe” because of their involvement in the original show. It makes us forget.
Fire Walk With Me accomplishes both tasks. It adds new information that enriches our understanding of the original series. And while we KNOW Laura is doomed to die by the end of the film, there’s still a feeling that lingers throughout the film that MAYBE she can escape her destiny. Maybe she could get on James’ bike and drive away. She’s not the dumb teenager going down to the basement to get slaughtered – she may be preordained by the continuity of the series to die, but Lee and Lynch invest her character with so much personality and pathos that we WANT her to live. We want to see her escape Bob. And that’s what makes her last moments in the train car so awful… and it’s what gives her ending grace.
The final moments of Fire Walk With Me are my favorite ending to a Lynch movie (the only thing that comes close is the Nina Simone-soundtracked dance party at the end of Inland Empire). Most of Lynch’s protagonists are doomed to body switches and death. While Laura dies, she gets transcendence at the end. The screen fills with blue light (significant in that blue is a color rarely used in Twin Peaks: Lynch allegedly banned the use of blue props during the show) and the angel appears. The angel looks as fake and goofy as the bird at the end of Blue Velvet, or the deer that pokes its head through the window at the end of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.
Maybe that’s why the film ends with Laura laughing hysterically – she could be laughing with relief that she’s “saved”, or she could be cracking up over the Hallmark hokiness of the angel hovering overhead. The cynical, world-weary Laura Palmer, too hardened to fall for something as soft as a Christmas Tree angel coming to her rescue.
While making the film, Lynch called it “my cherry-pie present to the fans of the show – however, one that’s wrapped in barbed wire.” It’s why I keep coming back to it, viewing after viewing. Picking the sweet bits out of the sharp barbs lancing my gums. A film that draws you in with the promise of being something familiar and reassuring (“hey, it’s that gum I like! It’s back in style!”) and then stabs you for your trouble.
The show returns for a third season, 25 years later, this Sunday night. It will be interesting to see how the new episodes will impact and alter the meaning of Fire Walk With Me. If the rumors of the show’s darker tone are to be believed, the Showtime series may have more in common with the “Antonioni on Elm Street” feel of Fire Walk than the original TV show’s fish-in-the-percolator quirkiness. Which makes this prequel-sequel even more relevant in 2017 than it’s ever been before.
Who knows? Maybe in Season 3 we’ll finally find out who Judy is.