“A morbidly joyless affair.” “Mr. Lynch’s taste for brain-dead grotesque has lost its novelty.” “Laura Palmer, after all the talk, is not a very interesting or compelling character and long before the climax has become a tiresome teenager.” Fire Walk With Me is my favorite film by David Lynch, which can be hard to swallow, as demonstrated by these aggressively negative reactions from its initial release in 1992. The bleak, uninviting feel of this movie only comes as a shock if you take everything the show presents you without question, not stopping to investigate the nauseating realizations that lurk just under the surface. And what lies underneath is a story of the suffering that emerges from the unknowable chaos of the universe, and Fire Walk With Me condenses this into a feature-length portrait of torment and abuse.
The original two seasons of Twin Peaks at best may be remembered for their more surreal, shocking moments — the arm dancing in the red room, Maddie’s death, and more – but many forget that the bulk of the show actually plays out more like an easily watchable soap opera. Unlike Lynch’s earlier works( Eraserhead and Dune,) the bulk of the show is fairly coherent, with numerous plotlines having little to no supernatural or unexplained elements. This could be for a variety of reasons; TV producers likely didn’t want the show to be too confusing for a general audience, and lots of the plotlines were tempered by Mark Frost, the unfairly ignored co-creator. So while you do have moments of murder, abuse, and pure insanity, this is all served with a large amount of levity – for every 15 minutes of oddness in an episode, there’s likely half an hour of romantic subplots or sleuth work. Fire Walk With Me, as a feature film, almost entirely does away with this. This isn’t a movie that sets out to check on the wacky antics of the inhabitants of Twin Peaks – it has a more specific, grim purpose in mind, and dives into the realm of psychological horror to achieve it.
But who is Twin Peaks about? While the most straightforward answer is Laura Palmer, her murder being the catalyst for the show, I’d argue that this answers the question of what the show is about. Because in the TV series, Laura Palmer isn’t a character – she’s a mythological figure, representing the doubled nature of the town itself. Like Dale Cooper, we are learning more information about her, but struggling to reach her. This changes abruptly in Fire Walk With Me, when all of a sudden, Laura is a real girl, and the disturbing realities of her fate can no longer be shrouded by implication and surrealist imagery. The cocaine running through her system is no longer suggested by traces in her diary; we watch as she enters the school bathroom, inhaling it to endure the stress of her double life. As one of the most frightening scenes in any one of Lynch’s unsettling works, the moment where Laura is violently confronted by the identity of her perpetrator destabilizes you entirely, leaving you feeling as desperate and upset as her.
Since the 90s, the word ‘Lynchian’ has been tossed around with some reckless abandon, usually used to label any film with a minor key soundtrack or any trace of the unsettling absurd. Fire Walk With Me provides perhaps the clearest example of this style, as well as a resolute reason for its employment. Though we know we’re being shown the last week of Laura Palmer’s short life, giving a sense of inevitability to the narrative structure, Lynch warps the sense of time, creating a disjointed, unreal account of her life that seems to reflect the bizarre agony of her experiences. As well as representing the cruel world she’s forced to navigate, the anxiety-inducing tone replicates Laura’s subjectivity, with Angelo Badalamenti’s droning, wrenching score serving as a perfect representation of her distant yet paranoid mental state.
But eventually, at the end of this relentless parade of misery, you’re presented with one of the most moving, exorcising ending sequences in cinema. In the red room – or perhaps the white lodge – we see Laura finally at peace, weeping as she watches an angelic version of herself ascend to the beyond. Sheryl Lee’s stirring performance reaches a peak here, as she smiles almost maniacally as tears cascade down her face. This is a side of the character that we weren’t permitted to see in the series – ironically, she’s real, living and breathing, no longer wrapped in plastic.
Fire Walk With Me is an unwavering exploration of the psychological horror created by abuse, especially from the perspective of a young woman who has never known another reality. Using his trademark aesthetic to create a tangible sense of dread, Lynch crafted a film that places you in the position of Laura Palmer — generating an incomparably tense, uncomfortable, and strangely cathartic atmosphere — unmatched by the original series.