Considering his cemented status in film culture as one of the great American directors, David Lynch has had a far more divisive, controversial reception from film to film, often for good reason. The cinephiles who mostly know him from his three most popular films Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive (though even Eraserhead doesn’t fit neatly into the “most popular” designation) would likely be shocked to see the fragmentation of Lynch’s oeuvre, a nervy bundle of obsessions, hang-ups, and looming iconography that infects everything from the immensely straightforward (The Straight Story) to the near-abstract (Inland Empire). Speaking as an avowed Lynch fanatic, his movies always conjure an ineffable mix of pity, fear, and absolute awe within, but perhaps no film in his filmography illustrates that more hauntingly than Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
It is difficult to designate one film in such a contentious oeuvre in this manner, but it seems more and more apparent with each passing year that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is David Lynch’s ultimate film maudit. Infamously, it was booed viciously during its premiere at Cannes, and Quentin Tarantino declared that Lynch had “disappeared so far up his own ass”, a statement echoed by many during its initial release. It had sunk to the bottom of Lynch’s filmography, long regarded as the least of Lynch’s “uncompromised” works (which only leaves out his even more misunderstood adaptation of Dune) until recently, when it underwent a drastic reappraisal and is regarded by a small but vocal contingent as one of the legendary director’s finest works.
[SPOILERS FOR THE TWIN PEAKS SHOW FOLLOW]
It is not entirely difficult to understand why the reaction to Fire Walk With Me was so hostile at the time of the film’s release. Coming a year after the immensely confusing finale of the ABC show, which ended on a cliffhanger regarding the fate of Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and his apparent possession by the villainous demon Bob (Frank Silva). In one of the more unconsciously perverse moves of Lynch’s career, Fire Walk With Me almost totally ignores the events of the latter half of the long, frustratingly odd second season and functions almost wholly as a prequel (though there are elements that act as a sequel). As practically its sole subject, the film horrifyingly portrays the final week in the life of Laura Palmer, up to the moment when her corpse is discovered, indelibly wrapped in plastic.
Of course, things are rarely this simple in the land of Lynch, and the film begins—as yet another perceived middle-finger to the still thriving fanbase of the show at the time—with a lengthy, half-hour long side-trip to a town in Oregon where another teenage girl, Teresa Banks, was murdered (a year before Laura’s death). This time around, the investigation is helmed by Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland), and this digression acts as both prelude and subversion. The town of Deer Meadow is, as many have noted, a practically one-to-one inverse of the town of Twin Peaks, where the sheriffs are unfriendly and cynical, the locals are unhelpful, and the surreal soap-opera mood of the show is swapped for something rather more outwardly sinister. This section arguably functions more as a creator of atmosphere and context than any sort of narrative significance: Teresa Banks and Agent Desmond aren’t mentioned again, and for viewers of the show there is of course far more power to the precursive elements (the letter under the nail, the hints at the Red Room where Desmond apparently disappears to) than to those going in blind.
After an immensely haunting sequence at FBI headquarters featuring David Bowie, Fire Walk With Me finally enters the town of Twin Peaks to the iconic theme music, but there is a fundamental sadness and darkness that was usually only hinted at during the show. Lynch seems to have been freed to a certain extent by his liberty from the constraints of commercial television, and he uses sex, violence, and drugs to a surprising extent. Each character is a little more ambiguous and morally compromised, but none is more changed than the tragic figure herself, Laura Palmer. She is a living, breathing being a far cry from her framed homecoming picture, and Sheryl Lee turns in what can be described without a trace of hyperbole as one of the greatest performances in the history of film.
This arises as much from Lee’s willingness to plumb the depths of Laura’s fear and her attempts to resist the evil that tries to ensnare her as it does from the horrifying darkness that Lynch portrays. This evil is personified in the sinister figure of her father, Leland (Ray Wise). He is essentially transformed here from the conflicted, troubled but noble man in the series to an abusive, violent monster; Bob almost seems to be a part of Leland’s personality rather than a demonic spirit. Fire Walk With Me, however, is no mere wallow in evil and pity: it contains some of Lynch’s most confident direction, elliptically telling a story that the viewer (presumably) already knows the ending to with as much abstruse symbolism, as much sorrow as in any of his films.
Fire Walk With Me is, to put it bluntly, an extraordinarily visceral and upsetting film. Nowhere else (except maybe in the most abstract sections of Inland Empire) has Lynch evoked the intrusion of violence—physical, mental, and especially sexual— with such sympathy and such fear. Lee must be given the lion’s share of this credit, though the willingness of much of the cast to twist their well-known characters into something more somber and less soap-operaesque is key.
At the end of the day, the reasons for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me‘s alternating praise and denigration are clear, but just as clear to me is this simple truth: this is the apotheosis of the Lynchian. Lacking both the Hollywood myth aspect of Mulholland Drive and the noir inflections of Blue Velvet, this film has the straightest path to the bottomless well of emotions that nearly every viewer possesses, if they are willing to surrender to this magnificent, horrifying vision of the darkest inclinations of the human soul.