AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 135 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole sends agents Chester Desmond and Sam Stanley to investigate the murder of waitress and teenage prostitute Teresa Banks in the town of Deer Meadow, Oregon. They notice that a ring is missing from her finger and a small piece of paper printed with the letter “T” has been inserted under one of her fingernails. Later, Desmond discovers Teresa’s missing ring under a trailer and inexplicably disappears. Agent Cooper is now sent to Deer Meadow to investigate Desmond’s disappearance. He finds no answers but is certain Teresa’s killer will strike again. One year later in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer is a troubled teenage girl with an addiction to cocaine, two very different boyfriends, and a possibly schizophrenic father….
With hindsight, the huge negative reception [there were boos and walkouts at the Cannes premiere] originally given to David Lynch’s prequel to Twin Peaks seems a little surprising. Sure, much of the whimsy and humour of the TV series was gone, but Lynch had already gotten himself a reputation for going dark and delivering the unexpected. On the other hand I can sympathise a little with those who say that the film didn’t really need to be made in the first place, because most of the things that happen in it are either described in the series or can be worked out with a little effort. Even the upsetting incest aspect that’s central to the film is mentioned, though you have to listen out for it. But I’m pleased that Fire Walk With Me exists. I only really got the Twin Peaks bug comparatively recently, and I can’t say I liked Fire Walk With Me very much after viewing the series – but then this could very well be Lynch’s most disturbing movie. My second watch truly revealed to me what a striking piece of work it is, and, while it does ‘kind of’ answer a few minor questions [The Man From Another Place is The One Armed Man’s arm – right thanks David, that makes sense], and makes links here and there [we even get a flash forward to Annie Blackburn who was in the last few episodes], oddly enough I think that it can be enjoyed [if that’s the right word] as much by someone who hasn’t seen the series [though it probably helps to have some idea of what it’s about] than by someone who has – and actually there are a few continuity errors between film and series which even I noticed – and I don’t usually tend to be very good at noticing things like that.
Apart from having a hand in the final episode, Lynch actually gave up on the series midway through Season 2 when ABC ordered that Laura’s killer be revealed, but didn’t lose his interest in its world, and he and co-writer Robert Engels conceived Fire Walk With Me as the first in a trilogy of films that would: “explore the mythology of the Black Lodge”, with many characters who appear in the movie intending to return in the sequels, though financed by French company CIBY-2000 as Lynch/Frost productions couldn’t get funding in the US. Some TV cast members returned, though Kyle MacLachlan initially turned it down before agreeing to reprise his role as long as it was reduced, Lara Flynn Boyle [who was replaced by Moira Kelly] and Sherilyn Fenn couldn’t do it because of scheduling conflicts, and Richard Beymer declined to participate due to a scene where his character Ben was to force Laura to kiss him in exchange for a bag of cocaine. Many other regulars filmed scenes for Lynch’s initial five hour cut but were removed, and Lynch had to battle red tape for decades to eventually get most of them released for home viewing. He couldn’t decide whether a scene where music drowns out the dialogue in a nightclub and moments when a character speaks backwards should be subtitled or not, and by the time he chose to include the subtitles the British distributors had already made all their prints without subtitles and couldn’t afford to make any more. Fire Walk With Me was a major flop, though its reputation seems to have improved over the years and I’ve even read that it’s Lynch’s masterpiece. I wouldn’t go quite as far as that.
The titles unfold over TV static to a typically icily beautiful Angelo Badalamenti theme which really does evoke the film, and Laura, musically: the saxophone and synthesiser piece is lovely, tragic, and a tad sexual and even sleazy. Then we see a baseball bat smash the TV, which I would have thought have thought would have been enough to warn critics at least that we could be getting the unexpected here. What humour there is exists largely in the first quarter and some of it’s typically wry. Lynch’s partially deaf FBI Chief shouts at all. Our two agents visit a town which is like a ugly, dirty parallel universe version of Twin Peaks where even a decent cup of black isn’t always easy to obtain [“Why don’t you have some coffee then, it was fresh about two days ago”]. Chester tells Sam that he’s deduced lots of clues from a girl standing there in a red dress but when Sam asks him the significance of a blue rose on her dress he gets the response “I can’t tell you about that”. God I love Lynchian humour. But the atmosphere is constantly unsettling and sinister, Badalamenti’s brooding music going even gloomier and darker than it did in Blue Velvet. When we get to a truly weird scene where the FBI headquarters is visited [though he can’t always be seen] by none other than David Bowie as a long-lost colleague, and those mysterious spirits who show up occasionally in the series turn up as the whole picture goes static again, the pervading feeling is of dread, and you can’t say that it doesn’t set things up for the rest of the film. God, even Agent Cooper in his few scenes isn’t his familiar [and hilariously] chipper self.
The Twin Peaks theme starts off the rest of the film, and we meet Laura, juggling two very different guys and constantly needing a sniff of coke. She finds pages missing from her diary, and gives the rest of it to her friend and agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith. Two spirits appear to warn her that the “man behind the mask” is in her bedroom. Laura runs home, where she sees Bob, the man who’s been raping her in her bedroom since she was 12. She rushes outside in terror and is startled to see her father leaving the house. Even if we haven’t seen the series, we’ve worked out what’s happening and Laura seems to be doing so too. She heads off to a bar to meet with some strangers for sex, her best friend Donna following, and, outside of perhaps the ending of The Elephant Man [which I personally found almost too depressing to watch], we get probably the saddest, most moving few minutes in all of Lynch [it’s totally untrue to say his film’s are cold – it’s just that he doesn’t tend to give in to sentimentality] when Laura enters the bar and, surrounded by blue lighting in a mostly red room [this film’s full of them], that ethereal-voiced singer Julee Cruise familiar from the series sings an especially beautiful song about love and anguish whose lyrics mirror Laura’s situation and state of mind. The music, the staging, the choice of shots all combine to make a scene which is incredibly emotional and full of barely contained anguish – though I reckon most fans probably prefer the following one in a red drenched, Hell-like nightclub set to strange and deafening rock where the main characters seem rooted to the floor.
Of course we know the ending, and we also get plenty of oddness: visions, dreams, and things, such as a ring which is passed around, that even on a second viewing I couldn’t work out – but then Lynch has often said he doesn’t think about what he writes and puts to film and probably can’t explain things any more than we can. More than anything else though, what we’re watching is a desperately sad tale of a victim of incest and child abuse trying to live with the torment and the guilt and the shame – and along the way the film somewhat tweaks the nature of the evil spirit Bob. In the series, he was exactly that – an evil spirit who was definitely real – which meant that David couldn’t really be blamed for his actions. The film, much more disturbingly, makes it more ambiguous, Bob being now more of a kind of alter ego for David similar to some later Lynch characters. The sight of the grinning Bob climbing in through Laura’s bedroom window and towards her bed is truly frightening, and proof, as if it were needed, how brilliant a horror director Lynch is even though he’d probably never call himself one. Meanwhile Laura’s habit and her wild and unpredictable sexuality is clearly because she’s overwhelmed and is trying to numb her pain by being ‘bad’. Revelations that the ‘prom queen with a lot of secrets’ slept with most of the male residents of Twin Peaks was kind of a joke in the series. Here, we feel incredibly sorry for her, even when she constantly brushes off the one guy who cares for her, and her actions aren’t judged, while her ‘good’ side still comes to the fore at times like when she whisks her friend Donnna away from an orgy and her sordid lifestyle [though Donna seems to rather enjoy her own walk on the wild side]. Lynch’s interest in ‘good and bad’ [and what’s one without the other?], and opposites/doubles seems to be especially evident throughout this film.
I didn’t think Sheryl Lee was that great in the series as Laura’s cousin Maddie, but here she delivers a powerhouse performance as Laura, exuding a pain that at times is quite hard to watch and which deserved an Oscar nomination. But Ray Wise is also very good when his character is clearly trying to battle his demons. Also worthy of note is the clever production design and use of colour from scene to scene, like when the two girls are in a room which is almost entirely white dressed in black. There’s so much that’s praiseworthy in this film that it really makes up for the inconsistencies, its scenes that have obviously been cut short, and its telling of a story that actually didn’t need to be told. It really does get under the skin quite nastily [the film was so much better for me the second time around, but I doubt I’ll ever love it]. And the fact that it does its job so well made me greatful for Lynch descending a bit into what some may call bathos for its conclusion, presenting us with a conclusion that gives its heroine – one of the greatest female movie characters of the 90’s – some peace and even happiness. Seeing her finally be this way almost brings a tear to my eye as I type.