Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 20 April 2006
Source stolen VHS
Features: A Guide to Twin Peaks
Reviews: Twin Peaks: Pilot
Reviews: Twin Peaks: Season 1
Reviews: Twin Peaks: Season 2
It’s easy to forget how deeply, passionately hated David Lynch’s Twin Peaks movie was on first release. There were walkouts at Cannes, where only two years previously Lynch had taken the Palme d’Or for Wild At Heart. The popular press reaction was one of intermingled shock and disdain—looking through the contemporary reviews online it’s hard to imagine how the film was released at all—”insipid and kooky,” “an absurd study in debauchery,” “nasty… inept,” “the ultimate vanity film.” The public stayed away, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was abandoned to the diehard fans.
It’s also easy, looking back, to forget how cosy Twin Peaks the TV series was becoming towards the end of its short life. The downward trajectory in both quality and shock value following the revelation of Laura’s killer midway through season 2 dovetailed neatly with a steady downturn in popularity, but there nevertheless remained a public perception of the series as funny and odd, water-cooler weird, with quirky characters like Deputy Andy and cherry-twisting Audrey Horne fresher in the public imagination than Leland Palmer or poor, tortured Laura herself.
Fire Walk With Me (full working title: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Teresa Banks and the Last Seven Days of Laura Palmer) was never going to be an easy film. It had to deal with child abuse and murder, drug dealing and addiction, demonic possession, domination and sadomasochistic sexual perversity, all the spicy underworld promiscuities the series had left to the imagination of the viewer. Anyone familiar with the series and with Lynch’s work must have known, to a certain extent, what to expect, but the sheer wilful brutality and apparent self-indulgence and impenetrability of the released film still managed to take many by surprise. Characters like Andy and Audrey are notable only by their absence, along with much of the TV cast, especially the funny ones—Pete Martell, Harry, Lucy, and the aptly named Dick. There’s no Sheriff’s station, no Great Northern, no damn fine coffee, with or without fish. Instead we’re treated to an unflinching portrait of innocence corrupted, a steady downward spiral into the darkest despair. It’s the most misunderstood of Lynch’s films, the bleakest and most unrelenting, but in many ways also the most human and understanding.
The opening of the film should perhaps have pointed the way. A peaceful flickering blue screen, simple white titles and Angelo Badalamenti’s soft, soothing jazz score lull the viewer into a false security, violently shattered by the image of an axe pummelling a TV set, sparks flying. The ensuing half hour could be regarded as Lynchian self-parody, or as a riposte to critics and those who didn’t ‘get’ Twin Peaks—you think that was weird and unpleasant? Try this: FBI Agents Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley find themselves in the town of Deer Meadow investigating a murder, and encounter various eccentric characters—a sheriff, his deputy and their secretary, the staff and patrons of a nearby diner. So far, so familiar. But something’s wrong—the sheriff and his staff are rude and unhelpful, their facilities medieval; the diner is run down, the waitress almost comically hideous. Instead of a wise old log lady there’s the gruesome, mangled crone who comes to Carl Rodd’s trailer and reduces him to unexplained tears, Harry Dean Stanton’s face cracking with despair as though the sheer hopeless misery of the entire town has overwhelmed him. Even the coffee tastes bad. This is Twin Peaks through the looking glass, the black lodge Peaks, a place where the darkness has taken over. It’s the place where Leland/Bob learns to kill, the place Laura and Bobby’s cocaine originates. Desmond investigates, finding vague hints of things we almost understand: Mrs. Tremond and her grandson, Teresa’s coke habit and the letter beneath her fingernail, the dwarf’s salutation, ‘Let’s Rock’ written in lipstick on a shattered windshield. Then he disappears.
Agent Cooper’s brief interruption is perhaps the most perplexing section of the film. The infamous David Bowie dream sequence is equal parts entertaining and ludicrous, the Thin White Duke mumbling obscurely about Judy in a mangled pseudo-Southern accent. It’s as wilful and pointless as Richard Pryor’s cameo in Lost Highway, a distorted display of counterculture namedropping. But as Bowie mumbles and Lynch’s Gordon Cole yells, the tone shifts and somehow the sequence becomes genuinely unsettling, the face of the monkey behind the mask an unexpected, nightmarish image. This blending of the absurd and the horrifying to dreamlike and disturbing effect has become Lynch’s hallmark, from the chickens in Eraserhead to the hobo behind the diner in Mulholland Drive. Nowhere else in his work does he use the technique as effectively as in Fire Walk With Me. Sudden tonal shifts from joy or security to overwhelming sadness, unease, terror and back again are perhaps the film’s most effective emotional weapons, and Lynch deploys them mercilessly.
It’s interesting to re-view the film in the light of Lynch’s recently revealed passion for Transcendental Meditation. Suddenly his willingness to relinquish rational thought and act instinctively becomes more understandable, as does the film’s incessant probing outside the bounds of the ordinary, delving into dream and parallel reality, crumbling internal universes, an “intercourse between two worlds,” as Jurgen Prochnow’s woodsman mutters, backwards. The film peels back the thin veneer of normality in much the same way as Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks uncovered the dark truth behind placid suburbia: “We live inside a dream” observes Bowie, before vanishing like Chet Desmond. This is Lynch ‘diving within’ as the transcendentalists put it, and coming up with both pearls and poison—exploration leads to understanding, but also to an inevitable loss of innocence, as our heroine is about to discover.
For those of us who lived with the series during and after its initial run, the return to Twin Peaks is like a homecoming. 33 minutes in we’re at last greeted by that familiar road sign, and Badalamenti’s iconic theme. But immediately things feel different—shot on location as opposed to within the confines of a Hollywood sound stage, the town feels more real somehow, more expansive. External shots in the series were increasingly limited to repeated shots of the outsides of houses, the hotel above the waterfall, and plenty of lurking about in forests. We never got the chance to explore the town, to really move within it. Now we can follow Laura and Donna to school along leafy suburban streets, see the space outside the Palmer house, around the diner and the roadhouse.
And we can see Laura move, too—she’s not just a symbol anymore, no longer confined to high school photos and brief video clips. Lynch has been repeatedly accused of misogyny, but in many ways his decision to go back and tell Laura’s story was a deeply responsible one—she becomes more than just a victim, a statistic, the metaphorical reflection of an entire town’s transgressions. She’s a living, breathing girl, and a complex, brutally honest character. For the first time we are allowed a glimpse of her strengths as well as her weaknesses, her loyalty and bravery even after all these years of abuse have twisted her into something she knows to be wrong and corrupt.
Because Fire Walk With Me, despite the metaphysical trimmings and admittedly indulgent detours into surrealist symbolism, is essentially a story of familial abuse and its repercussions, still a brave subject for American mainstream cinema in 1992. No one had told this story in such frank detail before, and arguably since (though Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin addressed the subject with great intelligence and humanity last year). The sheer horror of Laura’s situation is never avoided, never sanitised, the complexity of her inner struggle never simplified. She is shown to be cold and self-serving, promiscuous and uncaring, and eventually suicidal. But we are with her every step of the way, drawn into her nightmare world, sharing her fear, her desperation, her need to dominate others and drag them down to her level. We understand at each moment why she behaves the way she does, we know that she never had a choice. And therein lies the film’s heartrending power. Lynch never looks away, and never, ever does he trivialise his subject.
Perhaps it is this refusal to avert the camera’s gaze that offended so many critics and women’s groups. Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura is startling; sympathetic and honest, switching from ecstasy to fear, from power to submission in a heartbeat. But the depth of her humiliation is tough to take, and as the film progresses Lynch mercilessly strips away her dignity, leaving her vulnerable and naked, literally and figuratively. But what the film’s critics failed to understand is that for Lynch, the camera is not a voyeuristic instrument—it does not distance him from his subject, it brings them together, connecting him (and us) with Laura’s suffering in a very visceral, direct way. It’s no accident that so many key scenes are played wordlessly, or with mangled or inaudible dialogue—Cooper’s dream, Gerard’s appearance on the road, the ‘Paradise’ club sequence, the savage murder—how could words possibly begin to express these things, the horror of Laura’s life? It’s Leland who uses words; babbling unceasingly after their encounter with Gerard, or wielding them like a weapon to attack Laura at the dinner table. Lynch prefers to elicit understanding and empathy through images, often unsympathetic, obscure or distorted, but always honest. And it works—this is a film that can even turn the main character’s death into a victory, leaving the poisoned world behind, crossing over to find a lasting peace in the silence beyond.
Laura is not the only imperfect character to be treated with surprising sympathy—Grace Zabriskie’s Sarah, increasingly shrill and one-note in the TV series, is given unexpected depths here, the implicit understanding of the corruption within her family driving her to cigarettes, drink, and distraction, a woman desperate to ignore the horrors surrounding her and keep up a twisted semblance of normality. Ray Wise, too, gives an extraordinary performance as the schizophrenic Leland/Bob—there’s an image of his face at the moment of transition between the two sides of his personality, as the father comes to understand the full horror of his actions. The sorrow and regret he displays is heartbreaking. But later the sight of Laura hurrying to meet James on his motorbike induces an enraged expression of pure sexual jealousy—we are never allowed to be sure how complicit Leland is in Bob’s actions, how much he knows or wants to know (a far more ambiguous approach than that of the series, in which Leland’s awareness of his part in his daughter’s killing was explicitly denied, any implication of incest neatly avoided).
Laura’s peers also benefit, appropriately written closer to their characters at the beginning of the show, before lesser writers diluted Lynch and Frost’s original creations. So Bobby’s clownish tough-guy veneer once more hides a deep well of emptiness and insecurity, Donna’s desire to resemble her idol Laura is still yearningly unfulfilled. Perhaps the only weak link is James Hurley, the least rebellious rebel. His inability to help Laura when she needs him is frustrating, and James Marshall’s distant performance can only hint at the tragedy inherent in the character.
Once again, it’s Lynch’s incidental characters who threaten to steal the show—Harry Dean Stanton is majestically pitiful as Carl Rodd, the broken trailer park owner—no one shoots the deep ravines of Stanton’s weathered face quite like Lynch. Lenny Von Dohlen returns as housebound Harold Smith; fascinated, aroused and terrified, but helpless in the face of Laura’s steady decline. Walter Olkewicz once more dominates his scenes as the monstrous Jacques Renault, a grotesque, terrifyingly amoral presence, “as blank as a fart.” And perhaps most effectively, Catherine Coulson’s enigmatic Log Lady acts as one of the film’s few sympathetic voices, summing up Laura’s plight in a single sentence: “the tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises… then all goodness is in jeopardy.”
Fire Walk With Me has enjoyed something of a critical rebirth in recent years. It still plays second fiddle to Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive (in this reviewer’s opinion a far inferior film) in Lynch retrospectives, but with each successive DVD re-release the reviews seem to improve, and at least Badalamenti’s lush, enveloping score is now recognised as an all-time classic. Perhaps one day we’ll finally be treated to that holy grail for all Lynch/Peaks obsessives—the more than one hour of Fire Walk With Me outtakes. We’ll be able to see Harry play his guitar for Josie and explain why he never eats fish eyes, see the Palmer family learning Icelandic and Ben Horne seducing Laura at his son Johnny’s birthday party. Considering the increasing unlikelihood of Lynch ever returning to the town he created, the deleted scenes are all that remains unseen of Twin Peaks.
Let me end with a confession. At age 15 I wandered into my local video store, intending to ask if and when they’d be getting a copy of Fire Walk With Me. I approached the counter. The place seemed deserted. A door in back stood open, but I could hear nothing. I called out, no one answered. I leaned on the counter, looking around. Then I saw it. On a low shelf just behind the counter, a fresh, factory sealed copy of the film, in a beautiful full-size VHS rental case with gold embossed writing. Laura Palmer seemed to beckon to me from the cover, calling to me to go on, just take it, there’s no one around. Who’ll know? I looked up. I looked back down. I took it and ran, and never looked back.