The Revisit – Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

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The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, dir. David Lynch)

fire walk with me

1992. It was a year since the television series Twin Peaks had ended and fans were clamoring to see director David Lynch’s feature film follow-up. The reaction had the Cannes Film Festival months earlier had been remarkably negative though. When the picture finally opened in theaters, the fan reaction was overwhelming negative as well. Fire Walk With Me didn’t feature the cast of citizens they’d come to love from the show. Also, it didn’t follow up on the shocking series finale that left the show’s protagonist in peril. Fire Walk With Me was seen as a critical and box office failure, a somber final note for a show that helped redefine the cultural landscape of television. Twin Peaks’ small life continued as the topic of niche internet discussion boards, and that seemed to be that.

Fire Walk With Me is a pretty confounding film, especially if you come in with lots of preconceived expectations of what you want it to be. Lynch essentially telegraphs his feelings about working the series in the opening shot: a sledgehammer smashing down on a static-filled television set. There is a very clear-cut narrative division in the film: The first thirty minutes and the remaining two hours.

The Teresa Banks Case

It’s not Special Agent Dale Cooper who is our lead investigator when the film opens by Chet Desmond. He’s called in from Fargo by Director Gordon Cole to investigate the murder of a teenage drifter, Teresa Banks. Desmond is partnered with Sam Stanley, a forensics expert and the duo set out navigating the bleak small town of Deer Meadow, Washington. They have a confrontation with the local sheriff’s department, a conversation with the waitress at a seedy diner, and finally, end up touring the rundown trailer park run by misanthrope Carl Rodd. All of these seems familiar but in a different way. What Lynch has done is set up the nightmare version of Twin Peaks. The warmth and good nature of the familiar characters of the show are gone, and in exchange, we get an ugly, hateful shadow. This is intentionally done to prepare us for the drastic tone shift between the television series and the film.

This opening thirty minutes also shows us our first glimpse of Dale Cooper, albeit a full year before the events of the television show. He relates a dream to Gordon Cole, and their office is visited by a MIA agent, Phillip Jeffries. Jeffries seems to recognize Cooper despite Cooper never having met this man. Jeffries continues on to explain he’s witnessed a meeting between a cadre of entities. And with that, he vanishes. To say this opening segment is confusing would be an understatement. A lot of that does have to do with the editing of the sequence. A few years ago 90 minutes of deleted material from Fire Walk With Me was released, and it revealed the entire Jeffries sequence was two scenes poorly edited together. In the finished film they make little to sense, but as two separate scenes, you can pull meaning out of them that informs other parts of the movie.

The acting in this section of the film is pretty fun, and Lynch takes the opportunity to seed in lots of jokes and dark humor. The smug assholes that work in the Deer Meadow police department provide some very amusing laughs. Chet Desmond is a sort of anti-Cooper as well who messes with his partner and has no qualms about snapping the nose of the thuggish deputy. My personal favorite from this portion of the film has to be Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton), the manager of the Fat Trout Trailer who seems utter haggard and worn down by the responsibilities of his job. The purpose of this entire sequence seems to be addressing lore established by the series while setting up some visual and thematic elements that will reappear in the Laura Palmer portion of the movie. I have some sympathy for fans sitting through this piece because it is very unlike what they were getting in the latter half of Twin Peaks. Yet, it feels like the perfect example of Lynchian storytelling.

The Last Days of Laura Palmer

Here is where I think Fire Walk With Me really transcends much of Lynch’s other work. We cut to the road into Twin Peaks with that familiar theme playing and then to a medium shot of Laura Palmer walking down the sidewalk to school. The significance of this image may be lost on some people, but it should be emphasized that Laura Palmer had never been seen alive like this. The television show featured home video and a version of Laura appearing in a dream space, but we had never really met Laura herself. Actress Sheryl Lee spends the next two hours giving one of the most visceral, emotional performances I’ve ever seen. She leaves everything on the screen to tell the story of a young woman who is the victim of a lifetime of sexual abuse, yet consistently acts as the guardian to others and shows strength when facing the man who has torn her life apart and will eventually end it. Lee reveals layer upon layer of this young woman, and by the time the truly horrific murder scene occurs we ache for her. Lynch himself went through a profound experience working with Lee and telling the story of Laura Palmer. This film served as a wake for the character, a way for the director to acknowledge the soul that got lost in the hype and chaos of the television series.

Ray Wise as Leland Palmer is also giving his all throughout the picture. Wise has a remarkably difficult task, to play a man literally possessed by the embodiment of evil yet not bloviate and ham it up on screen (I’m looking at you, Windom Earle). Wise delivers the performance of his career as both a menacing animal stalking his prey and a father who is breaking down inside with the realization of what he is doing to his own child. Lynch is so masterful at bringing out complexity in all his characters, at challenging the concepts of “villain.” Leland is no innocent, but he was victimized and came out of that experience transformed into this monster. How thin the line is for us all, to experience that level of pain, how could we not all become monsters? And I think that fact is what makes Laura’s story all the more compelling and heart-shattering.

Angel imagery is used heavily throughout this two-hour sequence with a direct intent. Laura is acting as the guardian angel to so many, in particular, her best friend, Donna. While Laura is personally devaluing and degrading herself as a result of Leland’s actions, she still it trying to keep Donna away from the darkness. She does the same to James and Bobby, her lovers. She glimpses a painting of a cherub watching over a group of children near the end of the film, and the tiny angel fades. Earlier she remarks to Donna that if she were to fall into the darkness of space she would only burst into flames and even the angels would be unable to save her because they would be gone. In the final, operatic moments of the murder, we see an angel physically appear to save Ronette Pulaski, the poor young woman who happened to be with Laura at the wrong time. Mike, the one-armed man from the series, pops up a couple times to try and warn our protagonist about her father but his efforts seem for naught. Laura appears to give up whatever protections there are for her to ensure that the others, the people of Twin Peaks are safe. Laura is the only one with the strength to confront this evil and NOT be changed by it.

The final moment of the film completes this story of angels and victims. Sitting in the familiar dreamscape of the Red Room, Laura feels the pressure of Dale Cooper’s hand resting on her shoulder. She looks up at him, and he smiles back. Then off screen, we see the bright blue flash of something, much like the static on the television screen at the opening of the picture. Whatever it is, Laura watches it, and a smile grows across her face, tears pool in her eyes, and she is full of joy, full of hope. High above, in the corner of the room, an angel finally appears. I would like to believe that Cooper is showing Laura a television series called Twin Peaks. One of Lynch’s greatest frustrations with the latter half of Twin Peaks’ second season was its loss of focus on Laura Palmer. He even caps the final episode with the familiar image of her homecoming photo while the credits roll. In the Red Room, Laura finds peace by watching the show we all know so well, but to her, she is free of the nightmare. She can see how beautiful and wonderful this place and particularly these people are. More importantly, for all her self-destruction and sense of having no worth, she finds the loss of her changes everyone whose life she touched upon.

At the end of The Elephant Man, John Merrick chooses to end his life because he has experienced such a perfect day. He knows he is dying and his life will never be the normal one he believes he wants. At that moment of death he chooses to accept love rather than hate. And we see his spirit float across a cascading sea of stars while the voice of his mother tells him that nothing ever dies, that souls continue on forever. While, Laura Palmer’s ended in such a violent and tragic manner, the hate spills away after. She did not burn up while falling through those same stars as Merrick. In the Red Room, she is safe with her angel, Dale Cooper. Rest in peace, Laura Palmer.

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