Cinematic Pleasures: Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me
by j.d. lafrance
The year is 1992. David Lynch has just come off of, arguably, two of the most successful years in his career. For the most part, Twin Peaks was revered as one of the most groundbreaking TV shows of all time. Concurrently, Wild at Heart (1990) received the coveted Palme D'Or at Cannes. Then, things started to go wrong. ABC cancelled the show and the movie, Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me (1992), debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992 to a hostile reaction from the audience. It went on to commercial and critical failure in the United States. How did Lynch go from media darling to media pariah with overwhelming negative reaction towards Fire Walk With Me from even fans of the show?
Lynch ended the TV show with multiple cliff hangers-most significantly, Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) possessed by the evil spirit, BOB (Frank Silva), while his good self was trapped in a supernatural realm known as the Black Lodge. Instead of resolving this storyline (and many others), Lynch decided to make a prequel to the series. The filmmaker remembers, "At the end of the series, I felt sad. I couldn't get myself to leave the world of Twin Peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move and talk." Fire Walk With Me focuses on the murder investigation of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), who was killer BOB's first victim, and with most of the emphasis on the last seven days of Laura Palmer's life.
Right from the opening credits sequence, Lynch makes it perfectly clear that this movie will not be like the TV series. A television is set to an abstract, white noise image only to have an axe come crashing through it. This feels like Lynch's statement on the unfair cancellation of his show. The opening sequence also establishes the dark, foreboding mood that will permeate throughout the entire movie.
It is easy to see why the movie was a shock to some fans of the show. The first third of the movie sets up a sharp contrast to the show. FBI Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) go to Deer Meadow which is the antithesis of Twin Peaks. The sheriff and his deputy constantly give the agents a hard time and try to obstruct their investigation whenever possible. The locals either, don't know "shit from shinola" as one man puts it, or are difficult. It was a far cry from the upstanding Sheriff Truman and the friendly townsfolk of Twin Peaks.
One of the criticisms of Fire Walk With Me is its lack of humor. However, the first third of the movie is one of the best examples of Lynch's wry, absurdist comedic sensibilities. The first appearance of Agent Desmond has him and several other agents busting a school bus full of crying kids. It is a classic, surreal Lynchian image. Other examples of his dry sense of humor are Sam's estimation of how much the sheriff's office furniture is worth and how Desmond deals with the belligerent deputy. It is not what they say, rather how they say it that makes these moments funny.
Donna: Do you think if you were falling in space that you'd slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?
Laura: Faster and faster, and for a long time you wouldn't feel anything, then you'd burst into fire, forever. And the angels wouldn't help you because they've all gone away.
Once the film goes back to Twin Peaks, the mood becomes noticeably darker and foreboding as the last week of Laura Palmer's life plays out. Lynch shows an unflinching depiction of a young woman consumed by drugs, sex and, most harrowing and disturbing of all, a victim of incest by her father (Ray Wise) under the guise of being possessed by a malevolent supernatural force known only as BOB.
Laura Palmer is arguably one of Lynch's most complex and fully realized characterizations. He shows the duality that exists in her - the good side when she is with James Hurley (James Marshall) and the bad side that is immersed in all of these vices. They distract from the painful incestuous relationship with her father and BOB's desire to possess her. The push and pull of these opposing forces are too much for her and this only increases her self-destructive impulses.
Sheryl Lee does an incredible job conveying Laura's overwhelming sadness at the realization that the sweet girl she once was is rapidly disappearing and try as she might there is nothing she can do to stop it. Lee is able to show the different sides of her character. There is the confident, aggressive side that picks up strangers and has sex with them. There is the scared little girl that is dominated by her father. And there is the sweet high school girl whose reserves of inner strength - that she uses to fight off BOB - are gradually being depleted. It is an intricate portrayal that requires Lee to display a staggering range of emotion.
There are some truly frightening and unsettling set pieces in Fire Walk With Me. Laura comes home for dinner and her father scolds her for not washing her hands. The scene goes from being one of typical domestic strife to something more frightening when he starts questioning her about her necklace with scary intensity. This is not the sweet Leland Palmer we know and love from the series. It is an uncomfortable scene that is beautifully played by Ray Wise who never goes over the top with his performance. The next scene shows Leland getting ready for bed with a menacing look on his face - he is clearly under the thrall of BOB. Then, something happens. It is like something washes over him as his expression shifts to one of sadness and he starts to cry. BOB has left him temporarily and Leland is back in control again but with the knowledge of how badly he treated Laura at dinner. He goes into her room and tells her how much he loves her. It is a touching moment, one of love and compassion, in an otherwise bleak and cruel film. Wise does an incredible job at conveying the subtle shifts of personalities, from the menacing BOB to the sweet Leland and the inner turmoil that exists in his character.
The film's most impressive, show-stopping sequence is Laura and Donna's trip to the night club in Canada. It is an audio-visual assault on the senses. The entire frame is saturated by a hellish red color scheme, punctuated by a pulsating white strobe light. Over the soundtrack is a deafening bass-heavy song with a rockabilly guitar twang cranked up so loud that the characters have to yell over top of it. This powerful audio-visual combination fully immerses the viewer in an unpredictable setting that echoes the scene at Ben's in Blue Velvet (1986) and the introduction of Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart.
Even the birth of the movie was beset by problems. The TV show had only been cancelled for a month when it was announced that Lynch would be making a Twin Peaks movie. On July 11, 1991, Ken Scherer, CEO of Lynch/Frost Productions, said that the film was off because Kyle MacLachlan did not want to reprise his role as Agent Cooper. A month later, the actor changed his mind and the film was back on - albeit without cast members Lara Flynn Boyle and Sherilyn Fenn due to scheduling conflicts.
In a 1995 interview, Fenn revealed why she really opted out of the movie. "I was extremely disappointed in the way the second season got off track. As far as Fire Walk With Me, it was something that I chose not be part of." As a result, her character was cut from the script and Boyle was recast with Moira Kelly (Without Honors). MacLachlan also resented what had happened during the second season. "David and Mark were only around for the first series...I think we all felt a little abandoned. So I was fairly resentful when the film, Fire Walk With Me came round." Even though MacLachlan agreed to be in the film, he wanted a smaller role (he only worked for five days on the movie), forcing Lynch and co-writer Robert Engels to re-write the screenplay so that Agent Desmond investigated the murder of Teresa Banks instead of Agent Cooper.
To make matters worse, Lynch's creative partner in the series, Mark Frost opted out of the movie as well. The relationship between the two men had become strained during the second season when Lynch went off to make Wild at Heart; leaving Frost with what he felt was most of the work on the show. Frost was busy with his directorial debut, Storyville (1992), but one can read between the lines. His absence on Fire Walk With Me was his way of voicing his displeasure with Lynch.
Principal photography began on September 5, 1991 and lasted three months with location shooting in Snoqualmie, Washington with interiors shot in Los Angeles. It debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992 to a hostile reaction from audiences and critics. Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, "Mr. Lynch's taste for brain-dead grotesque has lost its novelty." The film's editor, Mary Sweeney, commented on why it was on the receiving end of such hostility. "They so badly wanted it to be like the TV show, and it wasn't. It was a David Lynch feature. And people were very angry about it. They felt betrayed." Kim Newman gave it a thoughtful, perceptive review in the November 1992 issue of Sight and Sound magazine. He wrote, "The film's many moments of horror…demonstrate just how tidy, conventional and domesticated the generic horror movie of the 1980s and 1990s has become." While Fire Walk With Me only grossed $4.16 million at the U.S. box office, it did extremely well in Japan where the show was taking off in a big way.
To this day, Fire Walk With Me remains Lynch's most maligned and under-appreciated film. Fans of the show missed the folksy humor of the show but that is not what the movie is about - it is Laura's last dark days. Fire Walk With Me is more consistent with Lynch's feature films which are much darker in tone. It has aged well and is starting to enjoy reappraisal of its merits. Sheryl Lee is very proud of the movie. "I have had so many people, victims of incest, approach me since the film was released, so glad that it had been made because it helped them to release a lot." To his credit, Lynch looks back on his movie with no regrets. "I feel bad that Fire Walk With Me did no business and that a lot of people hate the film. I really like the film. But it had a lot of baggage with it.