Listen, I love Twin Peaks. And I love David Lynch. So much so that I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on opening weekend. I saw it with my friend who also loved Twin Peaks, and I think there were only three of us in the whole theater, which usually makes everything better. You know, because it’s quiet and the theater is yours and you can just enjoy it. No such luck here. I hated Fire Walk With Me. So much so that I waited until just this past year to watch it again, despite re-watching the whole of Twin Peaks itself more than once, as part of my re-immersion for Twin Peaks: The Return (or, if you will, Season Three).
Now, I know some of you are clicking off or discounting my opinion for bias or are firing up the comments to let me have a piece of your mind, but let me just say this: not only is twenty-five years a long time to hold a grudge, but I don’t “hate watch” anything. I would never give a movie another spin without some genuine interest in seeing if I was wrong. Over the decades, I have heard many defenses of Fire Walk With Me, heard many a person tell me how much it terrified them, and I was interested in seeing what those people saw. I mean, I’m not twenty years old anymore, maybe the person I am now will find something completely different than he once had. Hell, the movie I watched right after this was Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, which I also hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years, and I didn’t like it as much now as I had when it was new. Anything is possible.
The funny thing is, I had pretty much the same reactions I had the first time, only softer. I partially credit Twin Peaks: The Return, which maybe has helped by elaborating on what would have been Lynch’s technique and intention here. Certainly these two elements connect to each other better than the actual series bridges the gap between. There’s also probably some managed expectations. When Fire Walk With Me first touched down in cinemas, my yen for it was high; spinning it again, I had a better idea of what to expect.
Here are the two main reasons I have trouble with Fire Walk With Me:
(1) It doesn’t work as an individual piece. As both a prequel to the Twin Peaks television show and the beginning of an intended film series about the Black Lodge mythology, it relies heavily on what you know while simultaneously withholding new information in anticipation of a later payoff. It’s merely a sliver.
(2) As a prequel, it doesn’t show us anything that we actually need to know. Fire Walk With Me does not enhance the mystery of Laura Palmer. There is nothing new to be gleaned from witnessing her final days, for seeing her realize the true identity of her tormentor. In fact, it may even detract from the mystique by putting too fine a point on some things. I’ve always felt that Twin Peaks was at its best when there were two potential explanations. Is Leland Palmer possessed by a man named Bob, or is Bob merely a dissociative coping mechanism? (Sorry if you see that as a spoiler, but then why are you reading a review of a prequel to a murder mystery?)
If the goal was to better know Laura Palmer, there was more to be gleaned from Jennifer Lynch’s book, Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, than there is in Fire Walk With Me. Lynch and co-writer Robert Engel don’t add any more to who she is. This is not a story of an innocent being ruined, but merely the last days of someone who has been victimized to the point of no return. And worse, there is a creepy aspect to how Lynch chooses to show the events, leering at Sheryl Lee’s naked body, that seems to dispel any condemnation of the abuse that got her here. The camera sweats and pants in her presence as much as Leland Palmer does, lingering on Laura’s exposed pain as if the suffering itself were art.
Which, let’s be real, if it’s art, it’s because Sheryl Lee elevates it. If there is any one reason for Fire Walk With Me to exist, it’s to show what a beast of a performer she is. Laura Palmer is no easy role. She’s simultaneously meant to embody the American cliché of the perfect “girl next door” and show all that is rotten behind that illusion--in other words, the culmination of Lynch’s oeuvre up to that point embodied in one character. At this time in her life, Laura doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going. Between the trauma she’s suffered and her self-medicating, her moods swing at the flick of a light switch. At the same time, she attempts to maintain a semblance of control by being all things to all people. Lee manages to hit every note--every feeling, every mask, every persona--while also maintaining a consistency that means Laura is never actually “out of character.” She’s always the same person underneath, she never deviates. It’s astonishing to watch. How Sheryl Lee wasn’t every famous director’s first choice for their next movie is beyond me. (And there still isn’t an actress whose scream can unnerve and curdle the blood as much as Lee’s, as evinced by her anguish at the end of The Return.)
The opposite can be said of Ray Wise in the Leland Palmer role. Whatever nuance and restraint he had in the television series is gone; Lynch has reduced him to a bug-eyed pervert who can barely use his words. It’s indicative of a cartoonishness that permeates Fire Walk With Me and the worst parts of The Return (Dougie Jones, anyone?). There’s a sense that Lynch finds this all disposable. It is just television, after all. How else to explain the chintzy slow-mo effects or his reliance on the jazzy posturing that seemed so hip and fun in the orginal series but just seems perfunctory here? Fire Walk With Me is paving the way for the near self-parody of Lost Highway.
Which isn’t to say there is nothing good. Were the first chunk of the movie, with Chris Isaak as Agent Desmond, shaved off and turned into its own thing, Lynch might have had the makings of an interesting modern crime flick. And while seeing Laura’s last days doesn’t shed any light on her character, we do see different sides of Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), James (James Marshall), and Donna (a miscast Moira Kelly), showing how at times they are nearly as close to the edge as their friend.
It’s not enough, though, and those that would contend that a longer director’s cut would maybe solve these problems need only look to The Missing Pieces to see that this would not be the case. It doesn’t take much to see that, with the exception of the portentous scene with Doc Hayward, there was nothing essential trimmed out, it’s just more of the same.
When I expressed disappointment over the conclusion of Twin Peaks: The Return, a friend pointed me to this excellent clip of Siskel and Ebert arguing over Blue Velvet back in the day. There is something to be said for Ebert’s reaction against how Lynch sometimes treats women, but also much that is right about Siskel’s contention that the director evoked from Roger exactly what he wanted, that he played him like a violin. While I believe that to be the case for the David Lynch they are debating, I’d contend that Fire Walk With Me marks the artist beginning to lose control of his instrument. I wonder if our willingness to fill in the gaps for him, to rationalize the missteps of The Return or even some of the unfinished threads of Mulholland Drive, is us giving the man too much credit (as I likely did in my review of Inland Empire), and by turn, his being lazy. I’ve heard arguments that the best thing about older Lynch is he doesn’t take the audience into consideration and just does what he wants, but at the same time, art is about communication, and even though it is the audience’s responsibility to do some interpretation, it shouldn’t be our job to do the actual writing or to build with tools that aren’t provided for us (no matter how much we may want to). Or invent meaning where there is none. If Fire Walk With Me is where David Lynch stopped giving us consideration, how is it that we still give so much to him? Particularly here, where the brilliant flashes we see in both Mulholland and Twin Peaks: The Return are absent.