Twin Peaks is a cultural touchstone, a harbinger of serial dramas on television that would inspire shows to embrace the dramatic and the bizarre. Despite slowly withering away in 1991 over the course of its second season, the series’ impact is ubiquitous, and David Lynch/Mark Frost’s small screen masterpiece earns every bit of praise it receives. Lynch’s decision to make his follow-up film a prequel, however, did not resonate well with critics or fans of the show. Perhaps in 1992, people wanted answers to the series finale’s cliffhangers, and were desperate for more of the retro-surrealist aesthetic. The disturbing, unpolished world seen in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me—a place of unrelenting physical, emotional, and sexual trauma—is about as far from audience expectations as Lynch could get.
Content warnings: first of all, I will probably spoil most of the series and much of the movie, so read at your own risk. But more importantly, there will be a lot of discussion of topics like sexual assault and child abuse.
Now that pop culture consumers have had time to gestate the once-maligned movie, it’s easier to see that Lynch stays true to the spirit of his series, even if he does so in a way that flies in the face of audiences wanting to know what happens to the likes of Dale Cooper and Audrey Horne. Laura’s (Sheryl Lee) life and death are at the heart of much of Twin Peaks, the guiding hand that allows Lynch to explore the horrors and trauma of child abuse and rape.The drugs, the prostitution, the incest, the sexual abuse of minors: all of these things are latent in the numerous plots of Twin Peaks, and Lynch decides to bring those qualities to the surface in Fire Walk with Me.
The value of that decision splits the show’s cult following. On the one hand, part of the series’ effect was its understatement; it evokes dark, challenging themes and tackles them in a way that can be easily digested by viewers. The lingering horror, mystery, and strangeness allow Lynch to use surrealism and incorporate other-worldly elements like the Black Lodge. To lose that subtlety is to lose the effect of the show. Yet, to use that horror while letting us ignore the daily horror Laura experienced denies her the right to be the subject of her own story. Fire Walk with Me gives Laura her chance to speak, rather than maintain her status as a device to talk about things like rape and abuse without having the audience confront them directly.
I think that this impulse to grant Laura subjectivity is the one that’s driving Lynch, for a few reasons. First of all, Lynch’s filmography becomes increasingly interested in stories of women in trouble over the next twenty years. Mulholland Drive (2001) is arguably the most extensive psychological portrait of a woman whose psyche is haunted by her actions and experiences. Lynch actually described Inland Empire (2006) as being “about a woman in trouble.” The shift from an ensemble story about a town to an intimate, extensive picture of an abused, traumatized young woman is consistent with Lynch’s interests as a filmmaker.
But Lynch himself indicates the changed focus with the opening sequence of the film, which follows the FBI’s investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks. Lynch uses two new detectives—Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) and Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak)—not only to set the tone for the film, but to have a conversation with the viewer. The conversation begins when Gordon Cole (Lynch himself) calls Desmond in to provide details about the murder of Teresa Banks. He has an agent do a cryptic dance that Desmond later deconstructs for Sam, explaining what each detail signifies. The puckered lips? A hostile sheriff’s office. The walking in place? A lot of legwork. The blue rose? Well…Desmond can’t reveal that. Lynch is toying with the audience, making light of the desire to read intensely into symbols to pick apart the mystery. The blue rose is the key, though: he’s telling us upfront that he won’t explain the whole story.
Further, Lynch sets up the narrative in contrast to the series itself. The relationship between the FBI agents and the sheriff’s office is in direct opposition to the immediately friendly dynamic of Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean) in the show’s pilot. On a deeper level, the depictions of small town life are substantially less idealized. The rural poverty seen in Teresa Banks’ trailer park feels more realistic than the stylized poverty of Leo and Shelley’s home. If these hints weren’t strong enough, Lynch uses the camera to dissect Teresa Banks’ shrieking corpse to contrast Laura’s peaceful body in Twin Peaks‘ famous opening. Each aspect of this frame narrative is the shadow-self of Twin Peaks—from the sheriff’s office with a mean-spirited, cackling assistant who contrasts the honest and hard-working Lucy, to the disheveled diner and “done-with-this-shit” waitress that contrast the Double R and impossibly kind Norma (Peggy Lipton). Because the opening sequence consists of confrontational locations and people, It’s hard not to think that Lynch is saying, “Here’s what’s gonna happen, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.”
Thus, when we get to Laura’s story, the stage has been set. This is not just a longer episode of Twin Peaks. This is the missing piece of the story, and while we might not want to see it, it’s something we need to experience if we want to see the whole picture. To say that Lynch succeeds in capturing the horror of Laura’s everyday life is similar to saying that the story-line with James and Evelyn is “kind of bad.” One of Lynch’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker is horror in non-horror films, and his use of repetitious sounds and mundane settings to contrast the never-ending terror of Laura’s life is in full force here. Even the quiet moments are potent; the viewer exhales and relaxes slightly, only to listen to Laura deliver cryptic messages to those around her. Sadly, those messages fall on deaf ears, and we see that even James—who acts as if his love will save her—has no problem forcing Laura to kiss him in the woods when she’s clearly drunk and coked up. Even the nice-guy puppy takes advantage of and sexually assaults her. No one really cared about Laura, not enough to actually try to help her, and that’s the story that Lynch shows us unflinchingly.
If it’s not obvious, Fire Walk with Me is an extremely unpleasant experience. The movie is challenging, but I think history has been kind to it. Its uncompromising nature has become a boon rather than a flaw, and as much as it’s a part of the story that no one wants to think about it, it’s the part that needs to be told. Still, that doesn’t mean Lynch’s depiction of the events are flawless. The scene where Laura and Donna (Moira Kelly) agree to be prostitutes borders the line between unrelenting and exploitative. Further, while it’s important to capture the continuous terror of Laura’s existence, it’s disappointing that she receives little other characterization in the movie’s 2 hour and 15 minute run-time. One deleted scene depicts a moment of tranquility and humor in the Palmer household, and that might have helped to balance not only the tone but Laura’s characterization. Without scenes like that, there is only constant horror and strangeness, which makes the shock and awe of the townsfolk toward her death a tinge less believable. Most importantly, though, I have to ask: is limiting her character to being the victim of endless abuse truly the solution to her absence from the series?
While Fire Walk with Me is flawed, it’s a great movie and powerful story, in line with the strengths Lynch has spent his career exhibiting. Further, Sheryl Lee’s performance bridges the soap opera style of the show and the psychological horror of the film. She’s rarely short of incredible, carrying a movie that’s about a character who was most famous for being dead. I was particularly impressed by the incorporation of mannerisms exhibited by Laura in the Black Lodge from various episodes in the series. Subtle touches like that round out the world’s cohesiveness.
The reception to Fire Walk with Me has started to shift toward the positive in recent years, and for a good reason. If you’ve seen the show and haven’t seen the movie, or wrote it off a long time ago, it might be time to (re)visit this prequel. With the announcement of the series’ return, it’s essential viewing. While it’s not a movie you’ll enjoy, per se, like the seminal television series, it’s one that will affect you. For fans of David Lynch, what else could you want?