By Brad Sun. This is RETROGRADING, where the angels won’t help you, ’cause they’ve all gone away.
THE FILM: Fire Walk With Me
THE TIME: 1992, a year after the cancellation of Twin Peaks.
RECOLLECTIONS: By the end of Twin Peaks‘ two season run, just about everyone seemed burnt out on the series that once captivated the nation. Critics and viewers alike had turned on the ABC show’s uneven back half. Even the cast seemed to be losing interest in a series searching for a purpose after the corporate-mandated resolution of the show’s central premise, an investigation into the murder of small town homecoming queen Laura Palmer.
Only co-creator David Lynch, along with actress Sheryl Lee, seemed eager to take one more trip to the strange northwestern town, having fallen hard for the show’s enigmatic victim whose body was first discovered wrapped in plastic at the start of the series.
Fire Walk With Me was the culmination of Lynch’s infatuation, a challenging film that bookended the TV show’s narrative. It deepened the town’s otherworldly mythology and finally revealed the fateful days leading to Laura’s brutal murder. And, somehow, it managed to satisfy no one.
Unshackled from the limitations of broadcast TV (the film literally starts with a television being smashed), Lynch was free to portray all the sordid details only hinted at in the series, and he did as such with unflinching relish. Gone was the trademark humor and whimsy that served to balance out the darker elements of Twin Peaks‘ mystery. By focusing on the tormented high school teenager instead of pure-hearted Special Agent Dale Cooper, FWWM instead sought to overwhelm the audience in an unrelenting wave of dread, confusion, and horror.
The reaction was nearly unanimous. Fire Walk With Me was soundly rejected by audiences and critics as depraved self-indulgent schlock. It was booed at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, with attendee Quentin Tarantino famously referring to his love of Lynch’s films in the past tense. But to judge the film on its immediate reception is to miss the forest for the magnificent Douglas firs.
Loud jeering is, after all, a remarkably common occurrence at Cannes, but screening a movie based on a primetime TV show was decidedly not. With Twin Peaks and FWWM, Lynch had brought cinematic auteurship to the small screen, changing the face of mainstream entertainment in incalculable ways.
There are direct successors, such as the sadistically ceaseless mysteries of Lost or the existential cosmic musings of crime drama True Detective. But for every clear homage, there is a less obvious one. Director Takashi Tezuka credits Twin Peaks for influencing the bizarre, morally suspicious characters that inhabit the dream world of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
Without Twin Peaks, we would likely not have the absurdist humor of Louis C.K.’s Louie, which featured Lynch himself in a memorable guest appearance. Nor would we have the dreamy sadcore of pop queen Lana Del Rey. “He’s got fire and he walks with it,” she sings on “Sad Girl”. In short, Twin Peaks and David Lynch infused pop culture with a shot of art house experimentation, forever transforming it into something stranger, funnier, and far more interesting.
THE DIRECTOR: Lynch already had an impressive body of work before teaming with Mark Frost to create Twin Peaks. Eraserhead had become a cult phenomenon and his follow-up, The Elephant Man, was nominated for eight Academy Awards. From the beginning, Lynch’s style was distinctive — a merging of internal and external worlds that left the boundaries between the physical and psychological a fluid, even unimportant, distinction.
Fire Walk With Me saw this sensibility pushed even further. Though he was vehemently against revealing Laura’s killer, the decision allowed Lynch’s film to dive deep into her psyche, portraying her physical and emotional agony with an excruciating rawness. It’s a subject that would stick with Lynch, returning again in his most celebrated film (Mulholland Drive) and his most experimental (Inland Empire). Not coincidentally, both feature a distraught protagonist pushed to their psychological limits by the pressures of making a film, something Lynch no doubt drew from his own experiences.
THE CAST: Besides portraying Laura Palmer’s dead body, Sheryl Lee also appeared on Twin Peaks as her strangely identical cousin Maddy Ferguson. But neither of these performances came close to capturing the emotional depths she reached in Fire Walk With Me.
Faced with the daunting task of portraying a character that was often cruel, frightening, and depraved, yet still beloved by an entire town, Lee more than rose to the occasion. Her fearless performance brought the horror at the heart of Twin Peaks to an uncomfortable clarity, and the salacious mystery of her killer’s identity was forever recontextualized when she let out a primal, soul-crushing scream upon discovering the answer for herself.
Backing her up was the always reliable Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie as her parents, each trapped in nightmarish worlds of their own. Appearances by other Twin Peaks fan favorites, while charming, were wisely cut from the film, keeping the focus claustrophobically centered on Laura and her immediate friends and family.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? When viewed on its own, Fire Walk With Me is a harrowing and often brilliant examination of youthful angst and disturbing abuse, but one that feels incomplete. Yet taken alongside the show that birthed it, a fuller portrait emerges that elevates both the film and original series.
RETROGRADE: 7 out of 10