Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Director: David Lynch
Screenplay: David Lynch & Robert Engels (based on the television series Twin Peaks created by David Lynch & Mark Frost)
Stars: Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer), Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Moira Kelly (Donna Hayward), Kyle MacLachlan (Special Agent Dale Cooper), Dana Ashbrook (Bobby Briggs), James Marshall (James Hurley), Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer), Chris Isaak (Special Agent Chester Desmond), Kiefer Sutherland (Sam Stanley), David Lynch (Gordon Cole), Harry Dean Stanton (Carl Rodd)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1992
Country: U.S.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Has there ever been a major American director who is better at confounding and perplexing audience expectations than David Lynch? Many of his films are consciously structured to draw viewers in one direction before suddenly revealing that there is an entirely different, and usually murkier, agenda—the sudden character shifts and refusal to solve mysteries in both Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) being the most obvious examples. The famed opening sequence of Blue Velvet (1986) is a compact visual metaphor for this tendency, starting as it does with overly glossy images of squeaky-clean small-town Americana before diving beneath a neatly manicured lawn and exposing hoards of viciously chomping insects. Just when you think you might be understanding a Lynch film, he pulls it out from under you.

When Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the “prequel” to Twin Peaks, the off-beat television series Lynch co-created with Mark Frost (Hill Street Blues) that was cancelled after two seasons by ABC, is no different. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, Lynch was at the height of his critical and commercial popularity, having been awarded the Palm d’Or two years earlier for Wild at Heart (1990) and won over mainstream viewers in a way no one could have expected with Twin Peaks. Yet, what he delivered on screen pleased virtually no one—mainstream fans of the TV series and longtime Lynch aficionados alike. At Cannes it was nearly booed off the screen, and the follow-up press conference was downright hostile; critics savaged it, as did the vast majority of American audiences, and it failed to find success at the box office. While such a scathing reception on both the critical and popular front is usually a sure sign that the film in question is troubled, in this case it was an excellent example of the vitriolic response that often accompanies shattered expectations, not a bad film. Many went into the theater expecting an extension of the television show, only to see what they had grown to love on the small screen blatantly subverted for something much darker, sinister, and ultimately despairing.

Lynch and co-screenwriter Robert Engels, who had written 10 episodes of the series (mostly from the less heralded second season), seem to be fully aware of this, as the opening act of Fire Walk With Me is done right in the spirit of the show’s quirky dark humor. With Angelo Badalamenti’s disarmingly casual bass tones thumping quietly on the soundtrack, we are introduced to two new FBI G-men, Special Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Special Agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland), who are investigating the murder of a 17-year-old girl named Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley). Desmond and Stanley are sent on the assignment by FBI director Gordon Cole, played in a highly effective and amusing cameo by Lynch himself as man who talks several decibels too loud because he’s going deaf and over-enunciates every word to levels of near absurdity.

This opening act is punctuated by some wonderfully oddball characters and surrealistic touches of Lynchian weirdness, including the intrusion of the alternate universe that is always threatening to rupture the surface of Twin Peaks. The story then jumps forward a year, and the soundtrack swells with the familiar cadence of the Twin Peaks theme music as we are (re)introduced to Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), whose dead body found floating in the river was the event that set the TV series in motion. Fire Walk With Me proceeds to show us the final week of Laura’s life in the small, titular Pacific Northwest town she calls home, in the process filling in many of the narrative gaps left when the series was cancelled and showing us once and for all who killed Laura Palmer.

It is here, though, that the film swerves off the well-oiled tracks along which it had glided for the first half-hour. Ironically, it is when the story shifts to the familiar location of Twin Peaks that the film completely separates from the tone of the TV show, veering off into a twisted social underbelly that is all-too reminiscent of Lynch’s exploration of barely concealed perversity in Blue Velvet. Laura turns out to be hardly the clean-cut prom queen whose seemingly inexplicable murder rocked the small town. Rather, she is a damaged, dangerous young woman leading a sordid double life. While she appears prim and proper at school in plaid skirts, cardigan sweaters, and sensible flats, flirting with boys and joking with her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly, filling the role played by Lara Flynn Boyle in the series), at night she trades sexual favors with skuzzy lumberjacks in a red-light French-Canadian bar for cocaine. She is pursued by numerous men, including her fellow high school students bad-bad boy Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and good-bad boy James (James Marshall), but her attention is always divided and driven to darker places than they can conceive. “You don’t know me,” she tells James at one point in a way that is pointedly sinister, essentially summarizing the film’s structural (and Lynch’s artistic) ethos of unknowability. Everything is a mystery, even when you have (or think you have) the answer.

Ultimately, comparing Fire Walk With Me with the TV series is futile, especially for those who complain that characters are either relegated to virtual walk-on cameos or left out completely. This misunderstands the fundamental differences between film and television narratives, as even a lengthy film (and Fire Walk With Me is not short at 135 minutes) cannot hope to cover the breadth of character storylines that are a given in a TV series designed for multiple episodes over a period of years. In the film, Lynch is essentially using the premise of the show to explore different themes in a more graphic manner, and it is probably this sense of the series being “used” for the film that most infuriated some viewers (although many fans of the show are also the film’s most ardent defenders—go figure).

Of course, much of Fire Walk With Me is painfully salacious, and it is hard to escape completely the feeling that Lynch is exploiting his characters, a sort of cinematic middle finger thrust at those who cut short his series. He takes the naughty cliché of teen sexuality and makes it truly dirty by showing it to be both tawdry and pathetic (it is, in this case, a result of five years of molestation). The scenes of Laura cavorting in the bar are both surreal and vaguely pornographic, wallowing as they do in sleaze and sadomasochist self-destruction.

In the role of the tragically doomed Laura, Sheryl Lee, in her first starring role, is put through both psychological and physical brutalizing, and it is a great credit to her performance that she draws sympathy and understanding for this victimized character. Considering that she spends most of the film either slinking like a coked-up vixen or breaking down into sobs, the power of her character is something of a miracle. Underneath the film’s melodramatic seediness, there is a strong current of sentimental affection for Laura Palmer, and this is more to Lee’s credit than to Lynch’s, although it recalls the success of the director’s The Elephant Man (1980) to invoke the deepest humanity beneath both deformed flesh and societal hypocrisy.

This is not to say, however, that Lynch does not have his moments. Always the consummate artist-as-provocateur, Lynch does not fail to twist your emotions and shock your sensibilities, as well as just plain confuse you. The grinding downward spiral of Fire Walk With Me allows him to wallow in some of his more sordid tendencies, but the artistry of his compositions and the skill with which he evokes the desperation of human beings pushed to the edge by terrors both real and fantastical is impossible to dismiss, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. The surface reality in Fire Walk With Me is both porous and fragile, and Lynch plays with multiple dimensions of existence is intriguing, especially given the way the film’s narrative is built on the exposure of double lives and deeply repressed secrets.

Of course, Lynch is also slippery in his ability to shift tones, moving smoothly from the darkly comical, to the utterly horrifying, to the simply inexplicable. Fire Walk With Me has a deeply ingrained internal logic that drags its narrative into a yawning abyss, so that by the end there is little hope for reverting to anything like the quirky humor of its opening passages. That we know Laura Palmer’s ultimate demise from the outset only makes her plight that much more tragic, as we watch her debasement, knowing it will all be over soon. In a strange way, Lynch actually makes her murder seem like a blessing.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • “The Missing Pieces,” 90 minutes of deleted and alternate takes from the film, assembled by Lynch
  • Interview from 2014 by Lynch with actors Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, and Grace Zabriskie
  • Video interview with Sheryl Lee
  • Video interview with composer Angelo Badalamenti
  • Trailers
  • Excerpts from an interview with Lynch from Lynch on Lynch, a 1997 book edited by filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 17, 2017

    Criterion’s much anticipated Blu-ray appears to use the same transfer that was included in Paramount’s 2014 “The Entire Mystery” boxset. The restored 4K digital transfer taken from the original 35mm camera negative under David Lynch’s supervision, and the disc is beautiful to view in motion, with great clarity, detail, and color saturation. (In typical Lynch fashion, the movie does not have chapter stops or Criterion’s usual timeline.) As noted in the review, the film features a wide array of tones, which is reflected in the film’s disparate visuals, which range from bright sunlight streets, to hellishly lit interiors, to murky night scenes in the forest. Everything looks top-notch, much better than the previously available snapper-case DVD, which at the time was pretty good (it was also supervised by Lynch). Criterion has also upgraded the DVD’s 5.1-channel soundtrack with a newly remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel surround soundtrack, also supervised by Lynch, that further opens up the soundscape and sense of immersion. The sound mix of Fire Walk With Me is one of its strongest assets in terms of both Angelo Badalamenti’s eclectic score and the barrage of vocal and sound effects that underscore some of the film’s most nightmarish scenes. The supplements on Criterion’s edition are a mix of the old and the new. From the 2014 boxset that included the first two seasons of the show and Fire Walk With Me, we get The Missing Pieces, Lynch’s 90-minute feature that is composed entirely of deleted and extended scenes from the film that, until a few years ago, had never been seen (there are 30 scenes total, some of which run several minutes and some of which are barely a minute in length). Some of us, of course, have been hoping that Lynch would edit all or most of that material back into the film for an extended edition (something he has hinted at in the past), but it looks like we’ll have to wait for that. Also from the boxset is “Between Two Worlds,” a half-hour discussion among Lynch and actors Ray Wise, Grace Zabrinskie, and Sheryl Lee. New to Criterion’s disc is a 22-minute interview with Lee and a 20-minute interview with Badalamenti. Also included are the U.S theatrical and international trailers for Fire Walk With Me and a trailer for The Missing Pieces.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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