In spite of his standing as a widely respected pop surrealist, David Lynch’s relationship with critics and audiences has always been complicated, if not downright contentious. More than a few of his films have flopped and critical opinion has often been divided. He’s been accused of getting off on misogynistic violence, being diffuse, and, later in his career, having lost his touch. His 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune was such a notorious failure that it still hasn’t received anything resembling a critical reappraisal — remarkable, given how fashionable it’s become to give even cinema’s most reviled works some sort of reevaluation. More than once, he has sought refuge in TV — even his loopy neo-noir classic Mulholland Drive started life as a TV pilot, before being reworked into a film — and by the time he unleashed the gonzo digitalism of Inland Empire in 2006, it seemed like he had become entirely disinterested in pleasing anyone but himself. Debates about the differences between cinema and television in the age of streaming notwithstanding, it remains his last work made for the silver screen.
It’s perhaps a fitting irony that, for all of his iconic, oft-referenced cinematic works, it might be Twin Peaks that stands as Lynch’s most famous and enduring creation — a bona fide cultural landmark that is often credited with revolutionizing television in the early ’90s and paving the way for the new golden age of TV, as well directly influencing a wide variety of shows like The X-Files, Atlanta, and Riverdale. Co-created by novelist and screenwriter Mark Frost, Twin Peaks focused on the aftermath of the murder of high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), and the ensuing investigation led by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). The show stood out for its unique amalgamation of thriller elements, surrealism, bizarre humor, and tropes sourced from detective fiction and horror. Rose-tinted glasses, nerd culture, and a shallow obsession with “aesthetics,” have unfortunately also contributed to its legacy, flattening it into what amounts to a quirky, weird, and sometimes spooky skewering of the then-ubiquitous soap opera format. Lynch’s oeuvre, however, has always occupied a different space, and the superficial readings of his work have all but ignored its emotional and thematic complexity. Even as the claim has been repeated again and again over the years, Twin Peaks wasn’t a broadside against small-town America, nor was it mainly concerned with tearing down its wholesome facade. It was never intended as a righteous indignation of American hypocrisy — nor, as has also been claimed, a cautionary tale of an innocent community under attack by nefarious outside forces — but instead as a study of both the light and dark, the beauty and the ugliness, found in the uncanny funhouse mirror version of daytime TV.
After being pressured by ABC into solving the series’ central mystery (“Who killed Laura Palmer?”), Lynch departed halfway through the second season, after which Twin Peaks struggled to maintain viewers’ interest. The show would get so off-course that Lynch was moved to return and direct the season finale himself. The episode’s climax ended the show on a cliffhanger that would remain unresolved — at least until The Return began airing in 2017 — after being canceled in response to declining ratings. So when Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was first announced mere months after the cancellation, fans had high hopes for a neat resolution to what was widely seen as an unsatisfying series finale. Predictably, Lynch had other plans, and he and Frost disagreed over how to continue the saga of the fictional Washington town. Lynch’s insistence on making it a prequel focused on the last days of Laura Palmer, prompted Frost to bow out of the project, and effectively ended their working relationship until their reunion, more than two decades later.
The film opens in 1988, when the body of teenage drifter Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) is found floating in a river, wrapped in plastic. FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (David Lynch) sends agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) to the town of Deer Meadow, Washington to investigate the mysterious killing. While scouring the trailer park where Teresa lived for clues, Desmond mysteriously disappears without a trace, leaving the killer at large, and Dale Cooper, who’s been having foreboding dreams, is convinced that the perpetrator will strike again. A year later, in the town of Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer is struggling to keep her life together: the popular high schooler is not only cheating on her boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) with James Hurley (James Marshall), but is also abusing cocaine and has begun consorting in the town’s lowlife milieu as a sex worker. Plagued by horrible visions and tormented by the sadistic supernatural entity BOB (Frank Silva), her life appears to be heading toward a tragic conclusion as she gets lost in a hellish spiral of addiction, exploitation, and abuse.
Originally conceived as the first part of a trilogy, Fire Walk with Me bombed at the box office, and audiences were unhappy with the darker tone, the lack of closure, and the fact that the film expected them to be familiar with its TV precursor. Many felt alienated by the perceived turn toward hard-nosed cynicism, which obliterated whatever twee cachet Twin Peaks and its peculiar cast of characters had. Lynch’s refusal to pander to entitled fans was so startling, in fact, that even critics were offended — an instance of the toxic culture of fan entitlement rearing its ugly head, well before the social media age – and dismissed the film as “nauseating” and “self-indulgent,” willfully ignorant of its careful and deliberate pulling apart of the mythos not only of the town of Twin Peaks, but also its famous homecoming queen. Although some critics once again accused Lynch of reveling in the pain of his female characters, Fire Walk with Me‘s pastiche of psychological horror, crime thriller, and Old Hollywood melodrama — the soap opera element was, for the most part, completely gone — wasn’t interested in merely making its main character suffer, but rather attempted to finally make her visible as a complete and complex human being — a mythical, angel-faced idea, shattered to reveal the messy humanity lurking underneath. No longer just a catalyst for a supernatural crime plot, her pain became a real, tangible, and vicious thing, portrayed with ferocious, operatic intensity by Sheryl Lee in a woefully underrated performance that, frankly, should’ve made her the most sought-after actress in Hollywood for years to come.
Twin Peaks, the TV show, drew viewers in with a classic murder mystery setup — presented with several eccentric flourishes, but classic nonetheless — and revelations about the town’s sins conveniently mirrored the dark revelations about Laura Palmer’s double life, without ever treating her as much more than an object to be grieved and obsessed over. In an interview, Lynch said, “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.” With Fire Walk with Me, the director approached Laura — and by extension, Twin Peaks itself — with a willingness to not only leave those contradictions unresolved, but to deepen them even further. In season two, Leland (Ray Wise), Laura’s grief-stricken father, was revealed to be his daughter’s rapist and murderer, acting under the influence of BOB, and Fire Walk with Me throws the audience into Leland’s anguish as well — “the war within him,” as Lynch described it. It’s unclear where exactly Leland ends and BOB begins, but like many of Lynch’s characters that undergo radical transformations — in Eraserhead, the pusillanimous Henry Spencer ends the film as a baby killer, while in Lost Highway, the wife-murdering Fred Madison wakes up as the seemingly innocent mechanic Pete Dayton — he never fully transforms. Evil inhabits these characters but they always retain something of their former selves. This is what Fire Walk with Me is most interested in: Laura is both an innocent teenager and a deranged vixen, a girl next door and a drug addict. By the same token, Leland is both a heinous monster and a traumatized victim in his own right, BOB having haunted and sexually abused him since childhood. Even the town embodies this: at once an idyllic haven, filled with kitschy diners, cherry pie, and “damn fine” coffee, and a hotbed for all manner of wretched activity, including sex and drug trafficking, child abuse, and murder. In Lynch’s bizarro world, good and evil might be black and white, but the characters that inhabit it rarely are.
Lynch has always understood human beings’ capacity for evil — Fire Walk with Me‘s tagline reads, “In a town like Twin Peaks no one is innocent” — and the fact that they are made up of both light and dark. As such, there is nothing sinister “hidden” beneath the surface of Twin Peaks, because evil permeates this world just as much as goodness does, and his characters are often subject to these forces far beyond their control. What Laura’s pain and suffering reveal is just how deep the evil really goes, hinting at a cosmic scope that would be explored to even more delirious results in the elliptical The Return. And when death seems to finally bring an end to her agony, the angels return to her, and she finds a fleeting moment of peace and a friendly hand on her shoulder before tears start running down her face in what is either deep, glorious relief or a bitter realization that her soul will never be able to truly rest.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.