“It was a dream! We live in a dream!”
— Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Even among fans of the show, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is controversial.
If you read Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, you’ll discover that many members of the television show’s cast either didn’t want to be involved in the film or didn’t care much for it when it came out. Fearful of being typecast, Kyle MacLachlan only agreed to play Dale Cooper on the condition that his role be greatly reduced. (Was it that fear of being typecast as clean-cut Dale Cooper that led to MacLachlan later appearing in films like Showgirls?) Neither Lara Flynn Boyle nor Sherilyn Fenn could work the film into their schedules.
When Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me premiered at Cannes, it was reportedly booed by the same critics who previously applauded Lynch’s Wild at Heart and who, years later, would again applaud Mulholland Drive. When it was released in the United States, the film was savaged by critics and a notorious box office flop. Quentin Tarantino, previously a fan of Lynch’s, has been very outspoken about his hatred of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. When I first told people that we would be looking back at Twin Peaks for this site, quite a few replied with, “Even the movie?”
And yet, there are many people, like me, who consider Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me to be one of David Lynch’s most haunting films.
It’s also one of his most straight forward. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a prequel, dealing with the events leading up to the death of Laura Palmer. Going into the film, the viewer already knows that Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is full of secrets. They know that she is using drugs. They know that she is dating Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), while secretly seeing James (James Marshall). They know about her diary and her relationship with the reclusive Harold (Lenny Von Dohlen). They know that she is a friend to innocent Donna Hayward (Moria Kelly, somewhat awkwardly taking the place of Lara Flynn Boyle). Even more importantly, they know that she has spent the last six years of her life being abused by BOB (Frank Silva) and that BOB is her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise). The viewer starts the story knowing how it is going to end.
Things do get off to a somewhat shaky start with a nearly 20-minute prologue that basically plays like a prequel to the prequel. Theresa Banks, who was mentioned in the show’s pilot, has been murdered and FBI director Gordon Cole (David Lynch) assigns agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) to investigate. Chester and Sam’s investigation basically amounts to a quick reenactment of the first season of Twin Peaks, with the agents discovering that Theresa was involved in drugs and prostitution. When Chester vanishes, Dale Cooper is sent to investigate. Harry Dean Stanton shows up as the manager of a trailer park and David Bowie has an odd cameo as a Southern-accented FBI agent who has just returned from the Black Lodge but otherwise, the start of the film almost feels like a satire of Lynch’s style.
But then, finally, we hear the familiar theme music and the “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sign appears.
“And the angel’s wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.”
— Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
A year has passed since Theresa Banks was murdered. The rest of the film deals with the final few days of the life of doomed homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Laura smiles in public but cries in private. She is full of secrets that she feels that she has to hide from a town that has literally idolized her. She has visions of terrifying men creeping through her life and each day, she doesn’t know whether it will be BOB or her father waiting for her at home. She knows that the world considers her to be beautiful but she also know that, within human nature, there is a desire to both conquer and destroy beauty. When she sleeps, she has disturbing dreams that she cannot understand but that she knows are important. At a time when everyone says she should be happy to alive, all she can think about is death. Everywhere she goes, the male gaze follows and everything that should be liberating just feels her leaving more trapped. For all the complaints that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is somehow too strange to be understood, it’s not a strange film at all. This is David Lynch at his most straight forward. Anyone who thinks that Laura’s story is incomprehensible has never been a 17 year-old girl.
This is the bleakest of all of David Lynch’s films. There is none of broad humor or intentional camp that distinguished the TV show. After the show’s occasionally cartoonish second season, the film served as a trip into the heart of the darkness that was always beating right underneath the surface of Twin Peaks. It’s interesting how few of the show’s regulars actually show up in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. None of the characters who represented goodness are present. There’s no Doc Hayward. No Sheriff Truman. No Deputies Andy or Hawk. No Pete Martell. No Bookhouse Boys. Scenes were filmed for some of them but they didn’t make it into the final cut because their tone did not fit with the story that Lynch was seeking to tell. The Hornes, Dr. Jacoby, Josie, none of them are present either.
Instead, there’s just Larua and her father. As much as they try to deny it, Laura knows that she is going to die and Leland knows that he is going to kill her. Killer BOB and the denziens of the Black Lodge may be scary but what’s truly terrifying is the sight of a girl living in fear of her own father. Is Leland possessed by BOB or is BOB simply his way of excusing his own actions? If not for Leland’s sickness, would BOB even exist? When Laura shouts, “Who are you!?” at the spirit of BOB, she speaks for every victim of abuse who is still struggling to understand why it happened. For all the talk of the Black Lodge and all the surreal moments, the horror of this film is very much the horror of reality. Leland’s abuse of Laura is not terrifying because Leland is possessed by BOB. It’s terrifying because Leland is her father
David Lynch directs the film as if it where a living nightmare. This is especially evident in scenes like the one where, at the dinner table, Leland switches from being kindly to abusive while Laura recoils in fear and her mother (Grace Zabriskie) begs Leland to stop. It’s a hard scene to watch and yet, it’s a scene that is so brilliantly acted and directed that you can’t look away. As brilliant as Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie are, it’s Sheryl Lee who (rightly) dominates the scene and the rest of the film, giving a bravely vulnerable and emotionally raw performance. In Reflections, Sheryl Lee speaks candidly about the difficulty of letting go of Laura after filming had been completed. She became Laura and gave a performance that anchors this absolutely terrifying film.
“Mr. Lynch’s taste for brain-dead grotesque has lost its novelty.”
— Janet Maslin
“It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be”
— Vincent Canby
If you need proof that critics routinely don’t know what they’re talking about, just go read some of the original reviews of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
And yet, having just rewatched the show and now the movie, I can understand why critics and audiences were baffled by this film. This is not Twin Peaks the TV show. There is no light to be found here. There is no comic relief. (Even Bobby Briggs, who had become something of a goofy anti-hero by the time the series ended, is seen here shooting a man in the head.) There is no exit and there is no hope. In the end, the film’s only comfort comes from knowing that Laura was able to save one person before dying. It’s not easy to watch but, at the same time, it’s almost impossible to look away. The film ends on Laura’s spirit smiling and, for the first time, the smile feels real. Even if she’s now trapped in the Black Lodge, she’s still free from her father.
Since this was a prequel, it didn’t offer up any answers to the questions that were left up in the air by the show’s 2nd season finale. Fortunately, those questions will be answered (or, then again, they may not be) when the third season premieres on Showtime on May 21st.
Previous Entries in The TSL’s Look At Twin Peaks:
- Twin Peaks: In the Beginning by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.1 — The Pilot (dir by David Lynch) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.2 — Traces To Nowhere (directed by Duwayne Dunham) by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.3 — Zen, or the Skill To Catch A Killer (dir by David Lynch) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.4 “Rest in Pain” (dir by Tina Rathbone) by Leonard Wilson
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.5 “The One-Armed Man” (directed by Tim Hunter) by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.6 “Cooper’s Dreams” (directed by Lesli Linka Glatter) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.7 “Realization Time” (directed by Caleb Deschanel) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 1.8 “The Last Evening” (directed by Mark Frost) by Leonard Wilson
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.1 “May the Giant Be With You” (dir by David Lynch) by Leonard Wilson
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.2 “Coma” (directed by David Lynch) by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.3 “The Man Behind The Glass” (directed by Lesli Linka Glatter) by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.4 “Laura’s Secret Diary” (dir by Todd Holland) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.5 “The Orchid’s Curse” (dir by Graeme Clifford) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.6 “Demons” (dir by Lesli Linka Glatter) by Leonard Wilson
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.7 “Lonely Souls” (directed by David Lynch) by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.8 “Drive With A Dead Girl” (dir by Caleb Deschanel) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.9 “Arbitrary Law” (dir by Tim Hunter) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.10 “Dispute Between Brothers” (directed by Tina Rathbone) by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.11 “Masked Ball” (directed by Duwayne Dunham) by Leonard Wilson
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.12 “The Black Widow” (directed by Caleb Deschanel) by Leonard Wilson
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.13 “Checkmate” (directed by Todd Holland) by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.14 “Double Play” (directed by Uli Edel) by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.15 “Slaves and Masters” (directed by Diane Keaton) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.16 “The Condemned Woman” (directed by Lesli Linka Glatter) by Leonard Wilson
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.17 “Wounds and Scars” (directed by James Foley) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.18 “On The Wings of Love” (directed by Duwayne Dunham) by Jedadiah Leland
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.19 “Variations on Relations” (directed by Jonathan Sanger) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.20 “The Path to the Black Lodge” (directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal) by Lisa Marie Bowman
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 2.21 “Miss Twin Peaks” (directed by Tim Hunter) by Leonard Wilson
- TV Review: Twin Peaks 22.2 “Beyond Life and Death” (directed by David Lynch) by Lisa Marie Bowman