Film Discussion

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me – Throwback 30

One of my favourite jokes from The Simpsons‘ original golden era is that of Homer Simpson watching Twin Peaks when it first arrived on TV. The scene he watches has the infamous Giant dancing with a horse at night. A traffic light swings above them from a tree. There’s a remark about “damn fine coffee”. “Brilliant!” exclaims Homer, before confessing: “I have no idea what’s going on.”

That punchline is a solid rendition of how many felt about David Lynch and Mark Snow’s creation. A twisted portrait of melodramatic Americana submerged into one of the deeper levels of hell. Remarkable that any TV studio gave Lynch the reigns to make the show. But for many Lynch fans, it’s considered his masterpiece.

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A macabre soap opera which was wildly unlike anything on TV at the time, Twin Peaks’ legacy influenced modern TV as we know it. It advanced the look of television, with its high-end production values leaning more towards the cinematic than usual. Yet it was the show’s mischievous pushing against standard TV tropes which made it stand out. By Lynch’s admission, he never wanted the show’s main mystery to be wrapped up. That alone highlighted a drama that didn’t play by norms. It’s always a little fun when an artist has idle hands in a medium they’re not known for.

With the show often being played out of its usual time slot, declining ratings, and frustration at its general quirkiness, Twin Peaks went from massive acclaim before fizzling out to a more subdued cancellation. However, Lynch wasn’t over Twin Peaks yet. Not by a long shot.

Prequels today frequently feel like vacuous cash-ins by executives gleefully mining IP to fleece more brand loyalty from the appropriate fandom. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me came at a time when such spin-offs were not so predominant. Lynch also became more disengaged with Twin Peaks within the show’s second season. Fire Walk with Me had Lynch back in the familiar, freeing territory of cinema. Stripping the humour that littered the show, replacing it with a blunt-edged cynicism. Fire Walk with Me is not only focused on his most noted mistress in distress but there’s also a realisation that Laura Palmer is Lynch’s saddest protagonist. In the show, her death looms large over the picturesque town. Forming the cracks for everyone’s secrets to bleed through. In Fire Walk with Me, Laura is leading a double life, with her outward perfect appearance hiding a functioning drug habit caused by violent parental abuse.

© 1992 New Line Cinema.

Trauma is a word that in the advent of where we are in our social media circles, feels more than a little well-worn. However, trauma has been Lynch’s bread and butter for decades. From the overwhelming fear of childbirth in Eraserhead (1977) to the Hollywood dream gone wrong in Mulholland drive (2001). The abstract weirdness pulls things out of standard expectation. But at its core, Lynch has always excelled in mining primal distress and desires which hide behind the façade of civility. Often ignited through a deeply traumatic incident.

Fire Walk with Me is split into two distinct sections. At first, the film is an investigation into the murder of teenage drifter Teresa Banks. The second half of the movie focuses on the last seven days of Laura Palmer before her body is found wrapped in plastic on the riverbank just outside her hometown of Twin Peaks. While the film expects the viewer to have an amount of local knowledge of the TV series, with many proper introductions to characters truncated, the film is quick to the duality that bleeds through all of Twin Peaks. Both Banks and Palmer are connected not only by their unfortunate murders but also by how they utilise double lives to cope with their anguish. It is discovered early on that Banks was working as a waitress for a month before her death. Looking to juggle or leave the darker aspects of her life. When the narrative switches to Laura Palmer, we’re shown how easy it is for the homecoming queen to slip into a realm of drug-fuelled despair.

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Such themes feel no different from the often-noted gems of Lynch’s filmography. The split lives that exist in The Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Drive. The psychosexual noir Blue Velvet (1984) uses scuttling beetles burrowing under the cleanly cut suburban grass to symbolise the hidden darkness lying in small-town middle America. Twin Peaks is perhaps Lynch’s most fertile ground.

Within the TV show, the death of a prom queen allowed the town’s secrets to fester like an open wound. But it also allowed Lynch to toy with televisual melodrama. Fire Walk with Me feels much like the filmmaker being allowed to truly run rampant. The opening sequence in which a television switched on to crackling white noise is smashed by a (then) unknown assailant feels more than a little symbolic. Angelo Badalamenti replaces much of the familiar musical themes from the TV with a far more discomforting jazz score. More importantly, Fire Walk with Me allows a fuller portrait of Laura Palmer to be displayed.

© 1992 New Line Cinema.

Kyle MacLachlan’s FBI agent Dale Cooper was meant to play a larger role within the film. However, MacLachlan’s desire not to be typecast cause the role to be minimised. This is a small amount of good fortune. Cooper is so prominent within the world of Twin Peaks, that it’s easy to only think of Palmer as the McGuffin she was originally visualised as. Lynch allows Palmer to become the living, breathing, tragic heart of Twin Peaks she truly is. Loved by so many in the town, but too lost to realise. In Fire Walk with Me, she is no longer a ghostly spectre.

Sheryl Lee was originally hired simply to be Laura Palmer’s plastic-wrapped body. This debut role was never meant to be any more than a bit part. However, when capturing the prominent home video footage of Palmer and her best friend Donna for some scenes in the show, Lynch released that Lee was a quality performer. Lee then became a recurring character within the Twin Peaks universe. Yet it is here within Fire Walk with Me, you realise just how astonishing Lee is within the Laura Palmer role. Displaying Palmer with a profound sense of fragility. It’s a performance that doesn’t just dominate the movie, it dominates Lynch’s filmography from this point onwards. Be it Laura Dern’s Nikki Grace in Inland Empire (2006) or Naomi Watt’s superlative turn in Mulholland Drive. It’s Lee’s arresting performance that becomes the blueprint for Lynch’s distressed blondes. Whether it’s cowering in fear from her father, Leland; cruelly rejecting then protecting her best friend Donna from the predators she gleans attention from; or her final moments in which a prophetic talk about angels becomes something fully formed. Lee is simply bewitching to watch.

Ray Wise also shines as the abusive Leland. Already fantastic to watch within the TV show, and perhaps known to a younger audience as Robin’s dad in How I Met Your Mother, Leland is a disturbing beast. Unknowingly inhabited by a demonic spirit, Wise infuses his character with crackling intensity. Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, Lara Flynn Boyle is replaced by Moira Kelly as Donna. Kelly pales in comparison to Boyle’s rendition of the character yet maintains an amount of innocence that makes the character watchable.

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When Fire Walk with Me premiered at the Cannes film festival it was greeted with bafflement and jeers. Even the likes of Quentin Tarantino gave Lynch a battering for the film, in between shopping around his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs at the time. “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”, the filmmaker remarked. A rather brutal assessment of Lynch that was shared by many critics at the time. Despite this, Fire Walk with Me is filled with the trademark horror which makes Lynch such a formidable filmmaker. It’s difficult to find directors who use liminal space as threateningly as him. Seemingly empty rooms are filled with suffocating dread. Various compositions seem shot from a child’s eye view. This combined with the starting sound design consistently causes a deep sense of foreboding.

The feelings of befuddlement from some of the critics at the time seem to ignore Lynch’s true strengths. That his works are saturated in mood and emotion. That narrative has never been the reasoning behind his cinema. It’s fascinating to watch Fire Walk with Me now as it’s a film wholly wrapped up in feeling. Fire Walk with Me is more acclaimed now, as the realisation of the tragedy of Laura Palmer has come to fruition. While so many elements of Fire Walk with Me hold more than a tinge of the otherworldly and horrific, the sentiments surrounding it are all very grounded.  With tales of abuse bubbling up to the forefront in the media we consume, as well as our own lives, Fire Walk with Me doesn’t need dull procedural logic to resonate with its audience. The film’s grandiose final moments strobe neon blue light on Laura’s face as she cries tears of joy. The plot is meaningless. Emotion is everything. As the film draws to a close, I found the film to be brilliant. I had every idea of how to feel.

Fire Walk with Me was released in the UK on 20th November 1992.

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