David Lynch’s 1992 prequel film ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ turns thirty this year. Critics notably rejected this excellent, devastating film at the time. But after thirty years, the consensus has changed, and many people now consider it a ‘masterpiece’. What do we see when we look back at ‘Fire Walk With Me’ now?
‘Fire Walk With Me’ is a prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s TV series ‘Twin Peaks’, which was canceled in 1991. It’s directed by Lynch and co-written with Robert Engels, and shows the final days of Laura Palmer, who is found murdered in the pilot of ‘Twin Peaks’. It explores who she was as a person and how what happened to her affected her.
‘Fire Walk With Me’ premiered at Cannes in 1992. When it got a wide release in August, it was almost universally panned by critics, who thought it was too bleak, dark, and surrealist. The Tamba Bay Times described it as “dark, pointless and tortuously boring to watch”, while The New York Times said that “it’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be.” Thirty years on, it’s clear that ‘Fire Walk With Me’ was misunderstood. Yes, it’s bleak, but if you’ve seen ‘Twin Peaks’, then you know what happened to Laura, and you know that this film could never be light and upbeat.
Similarly, just because a film is tough watch doesn’t mean it’s a badly-made film. ‘Fire Walk With Me’ is a profoundly disturbing and affecting film. Sheryl Lee gives an incredible performance as Laura – in particular, the scene where she realizes that it is in fact her father who has been abusing and tormenting her for years is truly haunting. ‘Fire Walk With Me’ ensures that the viewer has an emotional experience while watching it – and isn’t that what art should do?
Lynch was arguably ahead of his time when he made ‘Fire Walk With Me’. He chose aspects of the story to focus on that may not have been well-received at the time but have since lived on. For one, he dived deep into one of the most interesting and original aspects of ‘Twin Peaks’: the mythology. He expanded upon the idea of the Black Lodge – the place where evil comes from – by introducing the idea of Black Lodge entities, these manifestations of evil in our world. One of the most haunting chapters of ‘Fire Walk With Me’ is undoubtedly the one where we see several Black Lodge entities convening in a room above a convenience store.
This addition to the ‘Twin Peaks’ story, which comes across as Lynch experimenting with the facts of this universe, becomes crucial to the 2017 series ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’. The importance of the ‘Fire Walk With Me’ mythology to ‘The Return’ – a series that received almost universal acclaim – is a marker of Lynch’s confidence in himself and his storytelling, even in the face of critical rejection. He, too, understood that he was ahead of his time in 1992 – he just had to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.
In this film, Lynch does what he does best – he subverts audience expectations, giving them something they never even knew they wanted. In 1992, ‘Twin Peaks’ fans hoped they would learn more about what happened to Dale Cooper after the dark cliffhanger ending of Season 2. While we don’t see any scenes that take place post-Season 2, Lynch still tells the audience how they should remember Dale in a more creative way. In one scene, Laura has a vision of Annie, who was taken into the Black Lodge in Season 2. Annie says that she is trapped in the Black Lodge with Dale Cooper – information that means nothing to Laura but confirms to the audience that what we think happened at the end of Season 2 did truly happen, that our beloved protagonist is now lost (seemingly) forever.
Lynch also deliberately plays with the audience’s expectations in the film. He is known for creating images, scenes, and stories that seem meaningless and frivolous, leaving for us to wonder what it was all really about. In this vein, the ‘Blue Rose’ scene in ‘Fire Walk With Me’ may seem deliberately obtuse and incomprehensible. However, we can interpret it as Lynch understanding this attitude towards his work and making fun of it – especially since it is almost all explained in the very next scene. And after all, he even brings it back around in ‘The Return’, wherein the Blue Rose mythology becomes another crucial part of the plot.
To me, one of the best parts of ‘Fire Walk With Me’, and why it’s still a fascinating, successful film today, is how it both commits to the strange mythology and surrealism and grounds it in reality. In the final days of her life, Laura is surrounded by terrifying glimpses into this other world, including a mysterious old woman and her creepy, mask-wearing grandson. We, the audience, also see this dark underworld in the sections of the film without Laura – we see FBI Agent Chet Desmond go missing while investigating the murder of Teresa Banks (and we never hear from or about him again, which makes it even creepier). We see Dale Cooper have a puzzling, eerie experience with Agent Philip Jeffries (played by David Bowie), who appears out of nowhere, shouts about his experience with the Black Lodge entities, and disappears, with no evidence that he was ever there in the first place.
But we also see the reality of what happened to Teresa and Laura – they are young women who were murdered, no matter what evil forces had a hand in it. The Black Lodge and the entities within mean nothing to Laura. She doesn’t know or care that the demon BOB possesses her abusive father – it’s her father that has continually abused her and murdered her, no matter whether he was in control or not. Thus, ‘Fire Walk With Me’ brings the mythology of BOB, which became increasingly supernatural in late Season 2, back to how he was understood after Laura’s killer was discovered – “the evil that men do”. And that’s a lot more powerful than anything surreal or supernatural could ever be.
Thirty years later, ‘Fire Walk With Me’ has achieved true cult classic status, especially after the success of ‘The Return’. It’s even been described as “the key to the entire Twin Peaks universe”. The emotional moments of this film are some of the strongest in the entire series. It also laid the foundation for some of the best and most memorable moments in ‘The Return’. Without the psychic connection between Laura and Dale across time and space established in this film, there couldn’t have been the shocking ending of ‘The Return’, where Dale realizes that no matter what he does or how hard he tries, he can never save Laura.
But, of course, ‘Fire Walk With Me’ is an incredible piece of art on its own terms. For twenty-five years, it was the final word in the ‘Twin Peaks’ saga. The film ends with Laura in the Black Lodge, where she’ll be for eternity, as she cries tears of joy. She may be dead, but now she’s free from the torment inflicted upon her in life – it’s a devastating but still a cathartic ending for the character who was never given one in the series. It ended with the girl who started it all and changed how audiences saw her – as a person, not an object.
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