How do we measure the success of a work of fiction? Do we gravitate towards anything, whether it be literature, cinema, or music, because it upends certain conventions to deliver an experience that tests the boundaries of what a particular medium can convey for an audience? Or do we embrace the imperfections of certain works because their merits can leave an indelible impression, one that lingers for an exceptionally long time, because we ourselves are imperfect creatures?
I’m not one to even begin answering these questions, nor do I believe any single person can answer them (criticism is a subjective profession, after all), yet I’ve nevertheless pored over these questions for quite some time after seeing David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Arguably the most divisive film in the director’s oeuvre, it has drawn intense scorn from it’s detractors as an indulgent, insane mess of a film. I cannot disagree with such dissension, not entirely anyway. It doesn’t work, either as a conclusion to the beloved series on which it was based, nor as a stand-alone feature film for those who never even heard of the once immensely popular television show. It’s not the best film David Lynch has directed, nor is it even by all accounts the best David Lynch film I saw this past year (that would be his 1999 Disney film The Straight Story). Yet it had the most profound impact on me and has haunted me since I saw it.
If you’re interested to hear the plot of this movie after that winning teaser of a paragraph, the film is a prequel of sorts to Twin Peaks. The first half hour or so of the film follows Special Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding the corpse of Teresa Banks, whose body was found floating down a river wrapped in plastic. The two men travel to Deer Meadow, the small town where Banks lived, in an effort to get some information out of the locals. They are not only not helpful but rude to the point of obstinacy. When our protagonists go to a small-town diner, the owner of the joint is a nasty woman with a cranky disposition towards anything with a pulse. “You wanna hear about our Specials? We don’t have any”, she tells the men with an insolent smile. Lynch has taken Norman Rockwell’s vision of Americana and given it his own subversive twist in the past, yet the first half of this film may be the closest he comes to just outright satire of an idealistic vision of America gone horribly wrong.
Yet the film doesn’t retain much of it’s humor for long after Agent Desmond meets Banks’ landlord Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton, in a brief yet memorable role) who points Desmond in the direction of a mysterious trailer. Desmond investigates, and… disappears, his role as protagonist ending abruptly. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) alerts his boss, Gordon Cole (David Lynch himself), to a ghastly premonition of something that will transpire later that day. Indeed Cooper’s dream comes to pass when, inexplicably, Agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie. Yes, that David Bowie) appears out of nowhere and begins to ramble about a secret meeting place, some sinister figures, and a woman named Judy. Some of what he tells Cole and Cooper, including the phantoms that appear in his vision, will be familiar to attentive fans of the series, while most of it will puzzle and confound the audience. Then Bowie himself disappears, never to be seen again save for a brief cameo near the film’s end as a talking monkey. I think.
A year passes, and we cut to the sleepy town of Twin Peaks, Washington. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is the town celebrity, the Homecoming Queen of her High School, and one of the most revered women from both her teenage and adult peers. Yet behind that beautiful, smiling mask is a young woman in trouble, like so many female protagonists in Lynch’s films. She snorts cocaine in the girls restroom, sleeps around with men twice her age, and is terrorized by a disturbing specter named BOB (Frank Silva) who has been sexually abusing her since the age of twelve. Who BOB is will come as no surprise to those who have watched the show, yet I won’t spoil his true identity for those who remain ignorant of one of the most famous revelations on a network television series. I am, however, not giving anything away by saying that Laura does not survive by the film’s end.
It is worth briefly explaining the context of the release of Fire Walk With Me in 1992. Twin Peaks, which concerned itself with the investigation of the murder of Laura Palmer, was immensely popular in it’s first season, sparking a nationwide conversation that precedes the water-cooler effect of serialized dramas like Lost or Breaking Bad. Audiences demanded a resolution to the investigation, which is exactly what they got halfway through the second season. Lynch left the show for a while, and the show’s writers scrambled to find something to replace the central mystery. Their desperation shows, and much of the second season is a pale imitation of what came before. ABC cancelled the show, not unjustly, but not before Lynch and fellow showrunner David Frost conjured up a final batch of episodes that culminated in one of the gutsiest, freakiest series finales to ever air. The fact that it ended in a cliffhanger over the fate of Agent Cooper only drove fans further into anguish.
So, with this feature film, Lynch had a chance to right the wrongs of the past season, to tie up loose ends and earn the redemption of critics and audiences. Yet what we got was a prequel that divulged in information many fans already knew, and only barely alluded to several loose ends. There’s one long, rather hypnotic dream sequence where Laura enters a painting given to her by a mysterious old woman, which leads to a vision of Cooper in the mysterious Red Room, warning her about a ring that’s played a crucial role before and will do so again. It culminates in a rather startling cameo from a woman that tries to give Laura a command. Who that woman is the uninitiated will have no clue, and while fans will recognize her they will still be frustrated at what significance, if any, her cameo in the film really has.
I can imagine my rather faint praise so far has led you to believe that this is, as so many have said before, a bad film. It is an uneven film, to be sure, with plot strands that go nowhere either because Lynch was naive enough to think he’d be able to make two more films in the Twin Peaks saga or because he deliberately keeps his trademark air of ambiguity. It will not satisfy hardcore fans, and it will understandably repulse most with it’s unrelentingly bleak tone once Laura enters the picture. Yet, against all odds, it is Laura Palmer herself who is the film’s saving grace. She is brought to savage, radiant life by Sheryl Lee, who was meant solely as an enigmatic catalyst that unveiled the secrets of her little town in the show. Here, she is a young woman who uses her sexual prowess as a weapon as well as a mask for the terror and torment eating inside of her every waking moment. In a crucial scene, she brutally mocks James (James Marshall), the sweet but dumb biker boy she’s seeing outside of her boyfriend Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), in an attempt to keep him safe from harm. This scene is recounted in the show, yet it retains a fresh urgency and painful immediacy thanks to Lee’s incredible performance. Lee has many scenes in this film where she has to adapt to different personae within a span of seconds, yet she never loses her footing, and she remains a captivating and heartbreaking heroine that gains our sympathy even when she can be cruel, or in one instance, actually horrifying.
What makes Fire Walk With Me worthy of merit, warts and all, is it’s core parable of a girl in the dark, throbbing heart of suburbia who believes she is beyond redemption, and whose story ends in violent tragedy. Though I knew where the film was going, I could not anticipate just how terrifying the final twenty minutes of this film would be. However, I did not expect just how powerful the conclusion would be either, and there is indeed salvation for Laura Palmer, and perhaps for Dale Cooper as well. It is not the ending of the show I would have wanted, but I have to admire the temerity of Lynch for ending his saga of small-town America with an operatic horror film that doubles as Sophoclean tragedy. Even with the talking monkey.