25 Years On: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me Reassessed

The third Twin Peaks UK Festival takes place at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith today. Events include an anniversary screening of the iconic TV series' big screen prequel, which Petra Davis analyses in-depth here

(NB: to avoid long exposition of a complex and sometimes contradictory narrative, this piece at times assumes familiarity with the Twin Peaks mythos. The world of Twin Peaks is sprawling; for those who might need them, I have provided endnotes below. Warning: spoilers.)

"We live inside a dream." Agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie)

"Life is full of mysteries, Donna." Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee)

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the original release of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch’s lengthy prequel to the earlier TV series anatomising small-town corruption, sexual abuse and murder. Twin Peaks‘ referential mix of surrealism, melodrama, horror and screwball humour (1) had won critical and popular acclaim, and though the second season had faltered following news of its network cancellation, expectations for the film were high. The show had ended mid-arc, with its white knight, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), possessed by an evil spirit, and many characters in mortal peril (2). Fans were anticipating a resolution Lynch was apparently in no mood to provide. The film begins with an axe buried eloquently in a TV set. It takes a full half-hour of backstory elsewhere before relocating to the familiar setting of Twin Peaks (3). It abandons some characters completely and underserves others. It replaces a lead with a relatively unknown actor (4). Most stubbornly of all, it largely deserts knowing humour for sheer horror. A forensic investigation of trauma, Fire Walk With Me is one of the most harrowing films you’ll ever see. Despite its early unpopularity, it stands with Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive as a dislocated masterpiece of the Lynchian canon.

At the time of the film’s premiere at Cannes, Lynch had recently been much fêted, receiving the Palme d’Or for the relatively flimsy Wild At Heart two years earlier. The festival assembled an eager audience of jurors, directors and critics for the May 1992 premiere of Fire Walk With Me. The response was unparalleled in Lynch’s career. "It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be," proclaimed Vincent Canby in The New York Times. "Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree." Critics largely hated Fire Walk With Me: Canby’s vitriol was matched almost everywhere it was reviewed. The Cannes audience booed the film, not just at the end, but regularly throughout, and some audience members left the theatre in disgust. A youthful Quentin Tarantino – making his directorial debut that same year – was filmed leaving the screening saying mournfully, "I loved him. I loved him," and declaring that he’d never watch another Lynch vehicle.

Well, I loved Lynch too, in fact never more so than in his work on Twin Peaks‘ various manifestations: the series, the books, the tapes (5), and the sprawling online fanworld (6) that accompanied them. At the time the series was first screened in the UK, I was a teenager living in a small seaside town notorious for drug abuse, sexual exploitation and suicide. The show’s thesis – that acts of violence have consequences far beyond the immediate – was a useful fiction. In the rape and murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) I found an analogue for what I saw in my indigent hometown. I knew plenty of adults who were violent to children, in their various ways; I knew plenty more who rationalised that violence. I knew desperate teenagers by the busload. In Twin Peaks, I was grateful to see the complex consequences of abuse conveyed well: the gallows humour of survivors, their toughness, their intense sweetness and their terrible fear; the corruption of those who collude, their awful habit of denial. At its best, the series acknowledged a kind of violence mainstream discourses were loath to admit. At its worst, with its narrative tricksiness and doubt, it ran the risk of trivialising it.

Twin Peaks offered both moral and metaphysical grounds for violence. It seemed to see evil as both present and ambient. The reveal of Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Laura’s father, as her murderer, came in a violent set piece mid-second season. Leland is shown seeing the face of BOB (Frank De Silva), an evil spirit who inhabits a transdimensional space called the Black Lodge, in the mirror. He then beats his niece Maddy (also played by Sheryl Lee) to death in his living room. The scene’s graphic violence is offset by domestic detail: a record player skipping, Maddy’s attempts to hide behind chairs and lamps. The balance between the moral and the metaphysical readings is careful; both Leland and BOB are implicated. Compare, however, Leland’s death scene shortly after. Here, BOB is the problem, the metaphysical reading dominates, and Leland’s absolution comes at the cost of any responsibility for murdering his daughter and niece.

(Trigger warning: extreme violence)

Exonerating Leland is a mistake not repeated in Fire Walk With Me. Widely criticised for misogyny at the time of the TV series (Roger Ebert had eviscerated Blue Velvet for the humiliation and violence doled out to Isabella Rossellini’s character, and contemporary feminists from Suzanne Moore to riot grrrl zinesters had taken issue with Lynch’s portrayal of rape and murder as originating from Elsewhere rather than from patriarchy), Lynch steps away from the cognitive dissonance of those around her (7) and chooses to focus Fire Walk With Me on Laura’s experiences, presenting events from her perspective. Here, Laura’s absence in the series is replaced with a searing presence. Headshots predominate – Lee’s giant, defiant blue eyes occupy the screen – and Laura carries the vast majority of lines. We’re finally offered a Laura who speaks for herself, tries to protect those around her, and faces her ordeal with considerable courage, a Laura played by Lee with astonishing range, empathy and depth. In Laura’s attempts to reconcile her conflicting perceptions of what’s happening to her, we once again see balance between the worldly and the otherworldly: she experiences both her father’s abuse and BOB’s intrusions as real. She describes them herself with the language available to her: angels, fire, falling. She insists on the validity of her own reading, and the film concurs: it presents her view as absolutely real and absolutely perilous. This becomes more clearly legible as radical when we consider how commonly trauma survivors, particularly young women, are disbelieved and pathologised. Need we really imagine a psychological reading would serve Laura better?

Lynch takes considerable technical care with maintaining his two worlds. Editor Mary Sweeney uses abnormally long overlaps to fade between scenes, creating a liminal space where other kinds of action become possible. Light and sound from outside her world overcome Laura in moments of gnosis. Moments from the Black Lodge and from the future of the narrative interpolate themselves. Ever conscious of the psychotropic sonic, Lynch, here in the sound designer’s seat, mixes white noise, treated vocals and tape loops to imply the quotidian intrusion of the metaphysical world into this. It’s a technique that’s both mystical ("Is it true?" Laura asks tearfully of her childhood painting of angels at the table, as white noise encroaches and the world swings away – "Is it true?") and solidly rooted in slasher horror’s use of sound to as a clue to the villain’s hidden presence.

Here, however, Lynch’s laden sound design does not simply aim itself at the audience: it’s almost constantly audible to characters, through performance (Julee Cruise’s gorgeous ‘Questions In A World Of Blue’ marks the moment Laura’s best friend Donna (Moira Kelly) watches her tearfully consent to sex work (8)) or otherwise. The gurgling laugh of a hostile police receptionist (Elizabeth Ann Macarthy) in Deer Meadow (9) reappears in a dream sequence, slowed and treated. The whooping of the Man From Another Place (Michael J Anderson)(10) in Cooper’s dream (11) carries static along overhead wires to threaten a wary Agent Desmond (Chris Isaak). A masked child from the Black Lodge (Jonathan J Leppell) whispers clues to Laura from feet away as she stands mesmerised in the street. Agent Jeffries (David Bowie) brings the electric confusion of Elsewhere to the F.B.I. headquarters, emerging like a thundercloud from a lift. MIKE (Al Strobel), BOB’s former accomplice, runs down Leland and Laura as they drive from Donna’s house, generating a storm of treated sound that overwhelms them both. These moments have their parallels elsewhere in Lynch, particularly in Lost Highway‘s terrifying Mystery Man scene. The characters’ vulnerability to sound usually reserved for the audience is a sonic fourth wall breach with consequences for us too: how porous are the boundaries around our own realities? We are not permitted the reassurance of distance, no vantage point is offered. In the overlapping worlds of Fire Walk With Me, our externality as viewers is under threat.

Fire Walk With Me has been re-released a number of times on various formats, usually with the promise of deleted scenes appended (Lynch shot over five hours of usable footage before editing down to a judicious 2 hours 14 minutes) but, despite an enormous appetite for further exposition among Twin Peaks fans, these scenes have never appeared. The film was originally intended to be the first of three Twin Peaks features, but Lynch refuses to be drawn on how he would have proceeded with the idea. Despite innumerable conventions, interviews and Q&As, none of the cast or crew seem willing to fill in lost sections of the story. But to require resolution of Fire Walk With Me is to mistake its intent. At one and the same time a compelling portrait of sexual abuse and a meditation on the metaphysics of evil, the film remains an honourable account of an intractable problem, a stubbornly inaudible last word.

  1. Twin Peaks draws heavily on film noir, soap and cop show conventions. Though often credited with innovating lengthy story arcs and metanarrative on the small screen, in fact it has some provenance in the surreal British TV of the 1960s, The Prisoner especially.
  1. In Twin Peaks‘ second season finale, Cooper (Kyle MacLachan) emerges from a lengthy sojourn in the Black Lodge, a transdimensional sacred site, possessed by BOB (Frank De Silva), the same evil spirit whose possession of Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) had led him to rape and murder his daughter Laura (Sheryl Lee). At the same time, several characters are caught in an explosion in a bank vault, another lies comatose after being attacked by the man he cuckolded, and yet another is hospitalised after being kidnapped, taken to the Black Lodge and viciously beaten. Footage inside the Black Lodge, featuring its iconic Red Room and inverted speech, here and here.
  1. Though its sense of place – the giant, brooding forests and mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest – was one of the strongest elements of Twin Peaks, in fact the series was largely filmed on a soundstage, intercut with stock location shots. By contrast, much of Fire Walk With Me was filmed on location in Snoqualmie, Washington, and the woods assume their proper mystique. See two scenes of Laura in trouble among the Douglas firs, here and here.
  1. Lara Flynn Boyle, at the time a very high-profile young actor, declined to reprise her two seasons in the role of Donna Hayward, Laura Palmer’s best friend, in Fire Walk With Me, and was replaced by Moira Kelly, later of Chaplin. Kelly does well with Donna, to whose clueless sweetness she adds a little jealousy and competitiveness, tenderness and sexual curiosity.
  1. See this list of Twin Peaks books.
  1. See Spectrum Magazine and alt.tv.twin-peaks for genuinely disturbing levels of geekery.
  1. Lynch’s portrayal of collusion has much to teach us at this particular cultural moment: the simultaneous knowing and not knowing seems genuinely characteristic of those complicit in abuse, as has once again become clear with the Jimmy Savile allegations.
  1. "We all knew she was in trouble," bellows Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), Laura’s cokehead boyfriend, at her funeral early in the series, "and we didn’t do anything! Save your prayers, man. She would have laughed at them anyway." Although the series is often criticised for underselling sexual abuse, in Fire Walk With Me and elsewhere in the Twin Peaks canon the complicity of the community in sexually exploiting Laura is far more clearly shown. At one point in The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (written for authenticity by Lynch’s daughter Jennifer), Laura lists the people she’s slept with since her abuse began, aged 12. The list runs into the mid-60s; the vast majority are men decades her senior.
  1. Deer Meadow: a small town near Twin Peaks, scene of the murder of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), a teenage sex worker, by Leland Palmer in the first moments of Fire Walk With Me, and the murder’s subsequent investigation by Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland).
  1. The Man From Another Place: the dismembered arm of BOB’s murderous accomplice MIKE (Al Strobel), represented by a dancing, whooping Michael J Anderson in a red suit. Fan of formica tables and creamed corn (‘garmonbozia’, a form of sorrow consumed by residents of the Black Lodge), owner of a ring capable of conveying humans Elsewhere.
  1. Throughout the series, Agent Cooper is shown using dreams to solve the mystery of Laura’s murder. Here, in his first dream, we are introduced to the Man From Another Place, to MIKE and BOB, and to the Red Room:

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