Director: David Lynch
Stars: Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer), Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Kyle MacLachlan (Special Agent Dale Cooper), Michael Anderson (Man From Another Place), Chris Isaak (Special Agent Chester Desmond), Moira Kelly (Donna Hayward)
Genre: Drama / Mystery / Horror
Firstly, if you’ve not seen the whole of the Twin Peaks TV series and don’t want to have several key mysteries revealed, stop reading. If you’re still with me then here goes, but be warned, I’ve rambled even longer than usual. Believe it or not, this one is particularly dear to my heart. But where to start with why I think it should be regarded as a modern masterpiece? First of all, I suppose, by acknowledging why people disliked Fire Walk With Me on its release.
1) The series, having been cancelled, ended on a cliffhanger, a cliffhanger which the movie makes no attempt to address, being set before the beginning of the first season.
2) Most of the characters from the series are conspicuously absent from the film, which has a tighter focus on the Palmer family.
3) Where the series was warm and comedic, this movie – in part because of its focus – is relentlessly grim.
Fire Walk With Me is a grim, grim movie. Seemingly filmed beneath permanently overcast skies, the colour palette of the movie appears somewhat washed away, characters are costumed in earth-toned clothing, the facias of the picturesque houses seem dour and in decay. Where in the show Twin Peaks seemed like an idyllic country town, here it looks weathered and beaten, bleak and unforgiving.
This is entirely deliberate. David Lynch is, if nothing else, a master of tone, and at least half of his movies are far more concerned with how something feels than what it may actually mean. FWWM sees the director taking back control of the show he nearly abandoned during its second season, and, without the constraints of network censors, unflinchingly revealing the world beneath the facade of good housekeeping. It’s no coincidence that the movie begins with the destruction of the television. We’re in a different world here. Darker.
The film begins by throwing the show’s fanbase off balance; an opening half hour set in a different town with different characters, as (of all people) Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland portray FBI agents investigating the murder of waitress Teresa Banks in Deer Meadow. Not ten minutes in we’re confronted with a ghoulish autopsy sequence, the poor girl’s mouth hanging open like a fish, her hands tough to contort thanks to rigor mortis. Compared to Laura Palmer’s ice-queen corpse in the show, Teresa Banks is a brutal truth. In fact everything in the town of Deer Meadow is harsh in comparison to Twin Peaks. The local police force is awkward and belligerent. The local diner’s a dive. And instead of a pine resort like The Great Northern, there’s the Fat Trout Trailer Park, with Harry Dean Stanton looking like a man who’s never had a moment’s sleep in his life.
Their investigation abruptly ends with the disappearance of Chris Isaak’s character, in what appear to be supernatural circumstances. After a brief and baffling interlude at the FBI in Philadelphia (striking for the bizarre appearance of David Bowie) we jump forward to a year later, the town of Twin Peaks, and the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life. Roughly half of the television show was dedicated to solving the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer, the movie is now going to show us that final week of her life. On the surface it’s an unusual idea for a movie as, you’d think, at least half its audience are going to know the ending. The surprise has already been blown. But FWWM has other intentions. And they’re not pretty. They are gripping, however.
I’d make a strong case for FWWM being classed as a horror movie. Lynch’s ability to set a mood and then milk it for all it’s worth is extraordinary, and FWWM sucks me in like few others. As highschooler Laura Palmer’s life becomes unglued, as the downward spiral accelerates, it’s almost impossible to look away, and before you know it you’re hurtling down that claustrophobic, harrowing last half hour.
With its bizarre imagery – the child in the white mask, the disappearing angel wings – like a deck of tarot cards steeped in omens, FWWM concocts an atmosphere of uncertainty. Lynch’s obsession with faltering light fittings re-emerges at Hap’s Diner, noticeably increasing the unease. But more than that, throughout the film there is a sense of supernatural foreboding, as though Laura’s problems, all very human, are in some way a conspiracy against her by outside forces. It’s an unnerving idea.
This is, at the end of the day, a confrontational look at the devastating effects of incestuous rape. Having denied the truth of her father’s sexual assaults on her by remembering only the ‘killer BOB’ personality, by abandoning herself to a cocaine habit and probably prostitution, Laura (played by a fearless Sheryl Lee) degrades herself in order to continue hiding from the truth. She feels less than human and so she seeks self-destruction. The sequence in The Bang-Bang Bar when her and Donna pick up two far-older lumberjacks to the driving bluesy beat of an Angelo Badalamenti jam is far from erotic. It’s a sleazy, ugly debasement.
And as the film’s terrible climax occurs, and Laura is murdered, one can only wonder to what degree Laura instigated the whole thing. Her death is a release from suffering. This comes across magnificently in the film’s final scene, one of my favourite endings to any movie ever. Released from her life and sitting in ‘the red room’ – in this instance a sort of waiting room of the afterlife – Laura encounters an angel. Upon seeing the angel she breaks into tears. And she laughs. And cries. It’s a wonderfully ambiguous moment, mirrored perfectly in Badalamenti’s heartbreaking score.
Like I said, it’s not an easy film. I can understand why fans were appalled, and newcomers utterly bewildered. However, I would also argue that you can approach FWWM as an outsider and still get something from it. This was my introduction to Twin Peaks. I saw this way before I saw the series. I didn’t understand all of it, but it stayed with me, long, long after the credits rolled. Weeks, months, even years later I was still haunted by the film’s beguiling imagery. I bought the score in order to conjure those moments – that particular feeling – back into my mind.
There is also much to lament and debate about FWWM because of how much had to hit the cutting-room floor. It runs to roughly 130 minutes in the versions widely available on both sides of the pond. But Lynch has said in interviews that the first cut was as much as double that length. With this much missing it is inevitable that some of it simply doesn’t make as much sense as it could do. Hell, we blatantly join one of Sheryl Lee’s first scenes in the movie half way through, as Laura tells Bobby “It does matter.” …What? What ‘does matter’? We never find out. I long for this mass of missing footage to be restored. But part of me also likes the fact that there are holes. FWWM feels strangely like it’s supposed to be unfinished. That, like in life, you’re not supposed to know everything. And it’s dark and deadly tone comes from not knowing where its blind alleys lead.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me presents ugly things beautifully. It’s not a date movie. It’s not a disposable, indulgent spin-off of a soap parody. It’s a serious piece that is primed for reappraisal. It feels confrontational, like the best of all modern art pieces, and arguably of all of Lynch’s movies, it feels the least apologetic for its content. Here it is, the truth, warts and all, if you’re prepared to see it.