Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
Is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me an unjustly maligned masterpiece? I well recall Kim Newman’s rave review in Sight and Sound at the time, and Mark Kermode has venerated it as “one of the greatest horror movies of modern times”. Both those guys love their horror, so they aren’t to be dismissed out of hand. I felt somewhere in between on first viewing; there were undoubted moments of brilliance in there – how could there not be, with David Lynch’s fingerprints on all over it – but it was telling a story that didn’t need telling and on top of that was staggeringly ungainly in narrative terms. Neither of those responses has changed very much 23 years later. It includes some of the most potent material the director has ever shot, but there’s little discipline to the surrounding vignettes (and, while the deleted scenes are fascinating, there was no danger their excision had denied us a four-hour epic of genius proportions).
In a way, it feels odd that I should come down a little against the picture. The Lynch-directed episodes of the series are among its very best simply because of the sheer inimitability he brings to the table. Surely FWWM would be a wholesale wallow in such delights? The truth is, though, it’s rather a mess. Lynch was unable to finesse his mammoth amount of material into a picture with a clear path (he was editing it right up to the wire). If that sounds like missing the point of what Lynch is about (he isn’t known for narrative rigour), it’s really to indicate that he is too reverent to the various (inconsequential) peripheries of the Twin Peaks universe and the picture suffers as a result.
I also have misgivings about his decision to return to the Laura Palmer well. It’s not like his prequel desecrated the mythos fans felt sacred (like the Star Wars prequels), but it offers very little that needed unearthing (like The Thing prequel). I come down on the marginally present Kyle MacLachlan’s side, who initially opted not to appear at all before relenting (Chester Desmond is the product of his reluctance). He may have been pissed off at the way Season Two went, but he we also correct (at that point) to feel the series had been done.
Sheryl Lee’s performance is extraordinary, utterly riveting and more frequently not highly distressing to watch, and Lynch does in deed achieve his aim to see her “live, move and talk”, but between the scenes of real power and terror there’s an awful lot of joining the dots and inessential dawdling. While the cinema canvas enables a much more adult and unrelenting vision, it also drains out the humour (mostly) from the town and without it the interludes become longueurs.
MacLachlan wasn’t the only one to baulk. Richard Beymer objected to a scene where he extorts a kiss from Laura in exchange for cocaine. Lara Flynn Boyle and Sherilyn Fenn passed entirely, the former replaced by Moira Kelly. Fenn was probably on to something, as it’s difficult to conceive how Audrey would have fitted in; she’d have probably ended up mostly on the cutting room floor. In contrast, Donna’s role is far more engaging than it ever was in the show. Or perhaps that’s just Kelly, who makes for a much more alive, empathic Donna than Boyle ever did.
Co-Peaks creator Mark Frost is also conspicuously absent (he was busy on Storyville, but it’s said he and Lynch became less enamoured of each other during the second season) and the director shares a writing credit with Robert Engels (whose name was on ten of the series’ scripts). That probably explains how little of the masonic subtext there is in the picture, and how the Black Lodge becomes less esoteric and more flat-out deranged.
It’s ironic that Lynch, who still opines ABC forcing him to reveal the murderer of Laura Palmer, should then base his solo Peaks feature, of all the possibilities he could have explored, around exactly that. It’s more than half and hour before we arrive in Twin Peaks, the prologue revolving around Chester Desmond investigating the murder of Teresa Banks (and some weird and wonderful FBI HQ goings-on).
Lynch and Engels take frequently great pains to trace out the map of all we know already of Laura’s last days, in a manner that is often needlessly entrenched. Coming off the back of rewatching the show, having to witness James’ dumb sincerity again is tantamount to torture, while bringing back Harold Smith, surely one of the show’s least wise additions, feels like a sick joke. Elsewhere, there are similarly redundant moments with Leo and Shelly.
In contrast, Dana Ashbrook is granted a whole chunk of screen time. He’s almost third lead, and he makes the most of it. He and Lee spark well off each other, and the characters’ drug fuelled dalliances, he wrapped around her finger and she ever more isolated from everyone she spends time with, exude a sense of broken despair. Lynch incorporates in a hitherto unreferenced scene where Bobby shoots and kills one of Jacques’ drug dealers, the deputy of the sheriff Chester Desmond visits in the opening section of the film (which doesn’t really explain why Bobby is such a dick for most of the show). Their relationship only becomes really twisted when Laura starts psyching him out, taunting him with “Bobby, you killed Mike”, suggesting he actually just offed his best pal.
And it’s the twisted stuff Lynch excels at. Bob and Leland no longer have the same delirious punch they did when the reveal first happened, but Ray Wise delivers a sterling scene of domestic dread when Leland, envious of Laura’s love heart necklace, instructs her they will not be eating until she has washed her filthy hands. For the first time, Laura has made the link between Bob and her father, and we can see a stunning snapshot of buried household horrors as the permanently in denial, or drugged or soused, Sarah Palmer (the ever-excellent Grace Zabriskie) pleads with Leland to stop it.
Later, Mike frantically pursues Leland in his van, making for an arresting and unnerving interlude of broad daylight hysteria.
The debauched cacophony of the Pink Room nearly equals this, as drugged-up tag-along Donna flies too close to the realm of self-destruction Laura has embraced. It’s the picture at once at its most titillating and simultaneously unsettling. Walter Olkewicz’ Jacques Renault (“I am the Great Went”) makes for a particularly repellent predator.
But the descent into the hell we already know (“He comes through my window at night” she tells Harold Smith, leading to the moment Bob is revealed as her father to her) is both harrowing and predictable as it re-enacts the final hours. It also includes rather awkward and unwieldy moments that attempt to organise the series’ reported timeline while adding others (Mike arriving at the carriage, then leaving empty handed – his repentance seen in the show is muddied here – Lelandleaving Ronette Pulaski without making sure she is dead).
The “hope” offered by the angels feels rather half-hearted (one appears before Ronette, symbolising that she will be saved; Laura doesn’t see hers until she resides with Coop in the Black Lodge), and considerably less potent than the one who disappears from the comforting childhood dinner scene on her bedroom wall. She echoes the good witch appearance of Sheryl Lee in Wild at Heart or the fake robin at the end of Blue Velvet; Lynch is much better at the sinister and solace is an easier pill when it carries those pictures’ self-mocking quality in such moments.
Lynch’s most palpably evocative moment of imagination comes from the painting given to Laura by Mrs Chalfont/Tremond, an image of an opened door that is a portal to the Red Room; reality and dreams merge and she becomes an image in the painting. It’s the stuff of childhood nightmares brought to life.
Lynch’s additional mythology is hit-and-miss or just plain obscure. The people-hopping ring carries the same symbol that appears in Owl Cave, and links Laura, Teresa Banks and Annie (and a thieving nurse at the end, who will learn crime doesn’t pay). The motives of Mrs Chalfont and her son are undefined (she presents Laura with a means to enter the Black Lodge, which doesn’t seem exactly benign, and they lived at the trailer park where Teresa Banks stayed; Chester Desmond finds a ring under their trailer).
How did Teresa get the ring? It’s unclear (possibly from Mike), but it’s quite a coincidence that she just happens to be visited by a patron who frequents the Black Lodge when she has, unbeknownst to him, a distinct connection of her own to it. Depending on the context, it appears to work as both a talisman and a harbinger of doom (one could interpret it that Laura wearing the ring Mike throws into the train carriage protects her from possession by Bob, just as it causes her death and delivers her as a dish of garmonbozia).
Ah yes, the garmbonzia (creamed corn/pain and sorrow), the substance Bob and The Man From Another Place (Mike’s arm) feed on; it’s revealed that Bob owes the stuff to the Man From… and Laura’s murder enables him to pay his debt. The sight of a suspended in mid-air is arresting, and there are also sporadic tableaux of antic activity (including a baffling Jürgen Prochnow in a fake beard, in the scene above the meeting above the convenience store). Little of this holds the same tantalising lure as Lodge-related scenes in the show. It’s hard to say quite why.
Perhaps it’s partly the use of Coop, who is wandering about there, post Season Two finale. Lynch blends cause-and-effect like he’s making a time travel movie (imprisoned post-Season Two Coop warning prequel Laura not to take the ring that spells doom), which is mildly intriguing. Of course, I wanted to see what happened post-Season Two as much as anyone who saw that cliffhanger ending, and it’s partly why FWWM seemed like a perverse slap in the face at the time, but what we have here adds very little, aside from emphasising the strangely overarching time that operates in the Lodges.
MacLachlan’s slender presence only emphasises the sense of a fractured DNA to the picture, but it’s not as if his appearing in the Chester Desmond segments would have really helped matters either. There are enticing moments; Annie appearing bloody in Laura’s bed instructing “Good Dale is in the Lodge, and he can’t leave. Write it in your diary”, Coop showing the kind of clairvoyance that would have enable him to solve the murder in double quick time (“She’s preparing a great abundance of food”).
Strangely, it’s the virtual non-sequitur opening thirty minutes that are most diverting, not because they’re great but because they’re a different milieu with different faces. There’s none of the core of what Lynch wanted to explore with the picture (following on from Blue Velvet, the hidden worlds of a small town, in particular with FWWM the incest that shatters a family unit), and as such it’s an extremely broke-backed way of beginning, giving no concessions to anyone and proving almost wilfully unsatisfying to everyone but the most ardent fan (and even then, how many were begging to see precisely how Teresa Banks snuffed it?), but this parallel world to Twin Peaks is still quite fascinating.
Chris Isaak’s the Coop-stand in Chester Desmond, and he’s not an especially nice guy; almost as a commentary on Coop’s abiding love of coffee, he makes poor goof Sam (Kiefer Sutherland, at the time branching out into his offbeat phase) spill the stuff all over himself as a cruel joke.
There’s a bizarre Fed arrest at a school bus, and living code Lil who delivers a message Marcel Marceau style. Harry Dean Stanton shows up in the trailer park and then Chester mysteriously disappears on locating the ring under the caravan (I wonder if Lynch has in mind to pick up any of the Isaak/Kiefer/Bowie threads in the revival?)
Perhaps my favourite slice of peculiar pie, up there with the painting for crazy linear trickery, is David Bowie’s appearance as “long-lost” Phillip Jefferies in FBI HQ Philadelphia. I know, I know, it’s generally cited that Bowie can’t act for toffee, but I dearly love his performances, even here where, as here, he is singularly failing to essay a Southern accent. We learn Jefferies has visited the Black Lodge and has been missing for two years (in the deleted scenes he arrives from and returns to a hotel in Buenos Aires). Most arresting is Coop’s obsession with the video camera in the hall, in response to a dream, and lo and behold it picking up Jefferies.
Jefferies keeps referring to Judy, and it’s said she’d have been revealed as Josie Packard’s twin sister if the movies had continued (Lynch had a three-picture deal). I somehow doubt Bowie could be tempted back to the 2016 revisit, but it would be nice to see him, and suitably random. I particularly liked his pre-recognition that something is wrong with Coop (“Who do you think that is there?”)
Which is how many of the non-last seven days of Laura Palmer choices appear here. Random. Not in terms of lacking discernible links, but in believing this in any way made for a structurally workable movie.
The Man from Another Place: From pure air we have descended. Intercourse between two worlds.
The deleted scenes are, unsurprisingly, more noteworthy for what they add to the Peaks “mythology” rather than the frequently uninspired devotion to servicing the regulars. There’s a cute moment of Coop talking to an off-camera Diane (hidden behind a door), a rather good fist fight between Chester and Gary Bullock’s odious Sheriff Cable, Coop being dismissive of Sam (poor Sam), more convenience store antics (teetering on the brink of turning into a Reeves and Mortimer sketch), some classic Albert snark in response to Jefferies’ gibberish (“How interesting. I thought we were going to leave Judy out of it”).
Phillip Jefferies: We live inside a dream.
Albert: And it’s raining Post Toasties.
Deleting Albert goodness is a cardinal sin, of course. We see the Log Lady on the night of the murder (her solitary scene in the released movie is a good one, however). There’s also a fine quirky scene where the bank manager (from the Season Two finale) requests a piece of 2×4 from Pete: a bit too light and frothy for FWWM perhaps.
Ed and Norma are there to give throw them a nugget, but there’s a touching scene between Doc Hayward and Laura, and a compelling moment where the latter is frozen on the stairs as she hears Bob’s voice (“I want to taste through your mouth”). The “speak Norwegian” scene provides an unlikely moment of Palmer household hilarity.
Mike sits amid a circle of candles, there’s business between Coop and the Man from… about the rings. Bobby and Laura take drugs in the basement while Major Briggs reads from the Book of Revelation upstairs.
There are also two post-Season Two nuggets. Annie is wearing the ring, only to have it thieved, granting her (apparently) surprising release, and we see doppleCooper in the Great Northern repeating “How’s Annie?” and then being taken back to bed by Harry and Doc Hayward. Interesting as these are, it’s difficult to see how they would have fitted in, adding to the sense of a strange and unwieldy patchwork. Perhaps Lynch would have used some them in the follow-ups. Perhaps he will use them in the revisit (if he has the rights to the footage).
I find Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me a curiosity, but I can’t see that it as a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. When it’s compelling, it really is, and Kermode is bang on when he says Lee should have been Oscar nominated. It is also blessed with an outstanding score from Angelo Badalamenti, very noirish and yet full of surprises (A Real Indication, The Black Dog Runs at Night, the Pink Room metal hue). Perhaps if Lynch had stripped the whole thing down and just concentrated on Laura’s last days, making the picture essentially self-contained, it would have worked better. But even then, it would still have the air of being superfluous, filling in blanks that didn’t need filling. It will be nice that this won’t be the end of the story (if they ever get started; fingers crossed).
The spectre of the movie would hang over the director for a while. It was booed at Cannes, made next to nothing and was generally seen as some kind of career nadir, barring the insightful few. Failed pilots (On the Air, Hotel Room, Mulholland Dr) and an uneven return to cinema (Lost Highway) followed before Lynch got his mojo back with The Straight Story and the feature of Mulholland Dr. It’s a shame that in fourteen years since he has directed only one further film and, despite his high-minded determination to do right by the show, it’s a decision that is surely as much to do with limited creative options as it is that tantalising “25 years later” hint he has seized on from all the way back at the start, with the European cut of the pilot.