#7 in my definitive ranking of David Lynch’s films.
This movie exists in a weird little spot. It’s almost like a franchise film that can use shorthand to work with character relationships, but it’s a prequel to the television series that preceded it in production. Could you watch this before the show? Not at all, you’d be completely lost about who is who and what is what on a very basic level, and that’s before you even bring in David Lynch’s surrealism into the mix. Who’s James and why is he important before showing up for a single scene in the first ninety minutes of the movie? Who is Annie and why is she important before showing up in a dream sequence about halfway through? This functions as an extension of the show, but it also needs to work on its own, much like how Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country can mine the personal histories of the characters and the political background of the show and films that preceded it to inform smaller moments while telling a cohesive story within that framework at the same time.
That story is the last week of Laura Palmer’s life. Going into the movie, we know that she dies and we know who kills her, how he does it, and where. There’s little mystery to the film, and the film doesn’t really treat the final reveals in Laura’s final few days as huge twists to anyone but Laura. However, since so much of the movie is from her perspective, we do spend a lot of time with her as she reacts to these realizations. Her father being BOB is something we’ve known about since the middle of season 2, but Laura finds out about halfway through the film. Sheryl Lee plays Laura at the absolute end of her rope throughout the film, so when she finds these things out she’s nearly completely at her wits end, screaming at the new information.
And this points to another factor in the film: Lee’s performance. Normally this type of movie would start with her in an earlier stage of decline, not just days away from the end of years of abuse. That would entail a slower descent, but that’s not the story David Lynch is telling. He’s telling the story of a long abused girl acting out in her final days towards her inevitable death. What really saves Lee’s performance is the fact that Laura’s decline is multi-faceted depending on who she’s facing. When facing her father, she’s manic and terrified because he is the source of her abuse. Facing her best friend Donna she can be alternatively deeply wounded and callus, depending on the situation. To Jacques she’s a loose woman out for sensation in an attempt to numb herself from her own life. To James she can be both open and closed, seeing some comfort in him but also knowing that he’s too innocent to understand what she’s going through. To her boyfriend Bobby she’s completely manipulative, getting her drug fix through him. Laura doesn’t have an arc in this film, just a series of interconnected emotional stakes that culminate in the inevitable, and Lee plays them all to the hilt and very well.
That ending is horrifying, by the way. Using the freedom of storytelling outside of network television, Lynch was able to explicitly provide a more dangerous view of the world of Twin Peaks including direct depictions of drug use and nudity. However, the final confrontation in that train car outside of town is surprisingly discrete. Lynch must have felt that watching Laura descend was worth watching directly, but not her death. Her death is filmed primarily in shadow and with heavy use of montage to imply the violence invited upon her, and it’s extremely effective. There with Ronette Pulaski and set to the Requiem in C Minor by Luigi Cherubini, Laura’s vicious death at the hands of her own father is done through the kind of implied action that Hitchcock used in Psycho. That Laura’s ending has been built up to through the whole film strengthens the ending, making it feel like the fulfillment of a tragedy.
This being a David Lynch film there’s also a lot of surrealism. I haven’t even mentioned the first half hour of the film about two FBI agents who go to investigate the death of Teresa Banks, the girl that Agent Dale Cooper talked about who had died a year before the show’s first episode in the same way as Laura. There’s a heavy emphasis on Lynch’s brand of comedy here with odd encounters of unique characters as the two agents try to decode the earliest cryptic signs of the overall mystery, one of them eventually swallowed up whole by it. There’s also David Bowie briefly showing up in the Philadelphia FBI office as a long lost agent with a series of nonsensical things to say (which, from what I understand, all come to fruition in the show’s revival) and my favorite performance in all of Twin Peaks of David Lynch himself as Gordon Cole, the hard of hearing Deputy Chief.
I think all of the movie’s faults lie in the fact that it is one piece in a larger whole to a much greater degree than any normal franchise picture. As the prequel to the series, it relies heavily on previous audience knowledge for its characters. Much of its first half hour is designed around laying out elements that were intended to play out in greater detail in a planned pair of follow up films that never got made and assumedly morphed into the revival show. That makes the show’s mythos a greater emphasis than Laura’s story really needs, providing distraction rather than fulfillment. It’s all a relatively small part of the film, though, but it’s something that can feel overwhelming even to one immersed in the overall story.
I’ve seen an interview with Lynch where he describes his surrealistic elements in his films. He says that structure to the underlying is very important to him, but he doesn’t feel like having a story spoon-fed to the audience is terribly interesting to him, so he layers in abstract elements to make it more interesting and provide different sources of meaning and interpretation. I find it easy to watch a Lynch film and figure out the literal movement of characters with motivations within a plot, but it’s the abstract images that jump around the characters that are often the greater source of meaning. At the same time, I feel no real interesting in grabbing onto each image to discern what they could mean within the overall mythos of the story. I know there are communities out there that obsess over this stuff, but it’s not my bag, baby. However, I do actually really like his use of images. I don’t feel like I need to break down each one of them in order to understand the overall thematic point that Lynch is attempting. The images on their own, and their placement in the story, is enough to imbue interesting meaning to the story on its own. It also helps that the characters themselves are interesting on their own.
So, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is not going to go down as Lynch’s masterpiece. Its uncomfortable spot in the middle of the larger Twin Peaks story kind of prevents that. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not very good. And it is very good. The heart of this story is very much in the right place, looking steely-eyed at Laura Palmer’s final days and showing us a broken girl with no where to go but down.
Originally published here