by Gareth Negus
Before its release in 1992, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was possibly David Lynch’s most eagerly-anticipated film yet. When it was released, it immediately became the most bitterly criticised work in his filmography. It has subsequently been re-evaluated by many, and now occupies a rather peculiar place in his body of work. A prequel to the TV series that Lynch co-created with Mark Frost, it was accepted at the time as forming part of the series’ narrative; but anyone thinking about watching the film for the first time in 2012 may never have seen a single episode of the TV show. If that includes you, please note that this article contains major spoilers. And also that the entire series is available on DVD.
The series was ostensibly about an FBI agent, Dale Cooper (Kyle MachLachlan) who is sent to the town of Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of a teenage girl, Laura Palmer; yet the whodunit element was only ever intended to act as a backdrop to the story of the town’s variously eccentric and/or sinister inhabitants. As the series went on, elements of outright fantasy were introduced, heralded by a much-spoofed dream sequence featuring a dancing, backwards-talking dwarf:
At first, the series was a phenomenon, but ratings took a nose-dive mid-way through the second season. Having revealed the identity of the killer, at the network’s insistence, the series floundered in a run of tedious episodes. The series found its feet again toward the end of the season, but too late to escape cancellation.
Like a lot of Twin Peaks fans, I was initially disappointed with the news that the film was to be a prequel rather than a continuation. We already knew what had happened to Laura Palmer; we wanted to find out what happened next, after the cliffhanger that closed the second and final season. But any new Peaks was better than no Peaks at all, so of course I went to see it.
It was baffling. Bits were brilliant. It was not an easy watch, which was appropriate – a film about a girl being abused and murdered by her own father shouldn’t be anything else. But large chunks of it just felt wrong; wholly different to the Twin Peaks we knew. The first quarter of the film seemed engineered to cause confusion, setting up characters and plotlines which then disappeared. Even the sections set in the familiar town felt different; favourite characters either made fleeting appearances, or were absent entirely. Parts of the film lent themselves to one interpretation, which other parts flatly contradicted.
It was pretty much impossible for me then to free the film from the weight of my expectation as a viewer of the series. But that was a long time ago. What can a new viewer, possibly one who has come to Lynch through later works like Mulholland Dr, expect to make of the film?
The film’s status as a prequel might suggest it could be watched without having seen the series. In fact, the assumption appears to be that the viewer is familiar with the characters – in our crucial first sight of Leland Palmer, which leads Laura to suspect he is Bob’s true face, he is not identified as her father. The first time viewer might infer that, but it isn’t confirmed until later. In addition, Lynch weaves threads – the Red Room and its inhabitants, a fleeting appearance by Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) – that developed later in the series’ run. It effectively turns the Peaks narrative into a loop.
Like the series, the film starts with an FBI agent – Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) – being charged with investigating the murder of a young woman. The victim is not Laura Palmer but Teresa Banks of Deer Meadow, a town that feels like an antithesis to Twin Peaks itself: the sheriff is hostile and unco-operative, the coffee at the local diner is horrible. The series’ propensity for bizarre clues and images is spoofed by having a character called Lil deliver an official FBI report to Desmond and his boss Gordon Cole (Lynch himself) by dancing erratically and pulling faces. Still, there does appear to be a relatively comprehensible plot to follow, as Desmond and his fellow agent (Kiefer Sutherland) attempt to follow the clues to Teresa’s killer.
But then, 25 minutes in, Desmond – the apparent lead – vanishes from the film. Literally. We move to Philadelphia, where FBI Agent Dale Cooper and Cole are almost as surprised as the audience by the sudden appearance of David Bowie, sporting a barely comprehensible accent, whose brief appearance is interrupted by static-obscured visions of strange characters familiar from the TV series.
The film then shifts to safer ground, with a ‘one year later’ caption. The scene moves to Twin Peaks, the comforting theme tune is heard on the soundtrack, and we begin the last week of Laura Palmer’s life.
The film comes burdened with the mythology built up during the TV run. The Red Room, the little man, and Killer Bob (Frank Silva) – the demonic being who possessed Leland Palmer – are all featured. Whether this is to the film’s detriment or not is an open question. Viewers of the series will recognise Bob as having an identity separate from that of Leland, but those coming first to the film could read him as being a creation of Laura’s subconscious – a face she has given her abuser to avoid the fact that he is actually her father.
Had Lynch opted to angle the film more toward this interpretation, it may well have been better received at the time. Much of the film works exceptionally well as a psychological horror about the effect on Laura of her father’s abuse (while virtually all of Lynch’s films contain unsettling or outright terrifying scenes, Fire Walk With Me is the one which can most straightforwardly be labelled a horror movie). But, arguably, Fire Walk with Me is a fascinating example of a film’s final form being determined by circumstances largely outside its creators’ control. It only exists due to the cancellation of the TV series. The appearance, or not, of some characters was dictated by the cast’s willingness to take part: Kyle MacLachlan’s reluctance to commit to the film resulted in reduced screentime for Cooper, and the creation of the Desmond character. The key role of Donna Hayward, Laura’s best friend, was recast when Lara Flynn Boyle decided she was unhappy about the amount of nudity required (though Moira Kelly is a fine replacement as a slightly younger version of the same character). And the lead role went by default to Sheryl Lee, an actress who had originally been hired to make a brief appearance as a corpse. Had the film been produced in isolation from the series, would Lee – who is in fact excellent in the film – even have gained an audition for such a major part?
There are valid reasons, then, why the film was regarded as a disappointment at the time, by many Peaks fans, by critics, and – most of all – by any members of the general audience who hadn’t kept up with the show but went to see the movie anyway.
But now, Fire Walk with Me can be seen as part of a thematic trilogy, along with Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. Lost Highway shares Fire Walk With Me’s fractured narrative (the look of the pale-faced Mystery Man character is also reminiscent of the make-up used on Leland and Laura when under Bob’s influence) and, like Mulholland Dr. after it, also shares Peaks’ fascination with dual identities. Mulholland Dr. also has its roots in television, being an expansion of a rejected pilot. That film brought Lynch some of his best reviews to date, as well as an Oscar nomination. While it may not be the best place to start watching Twin Peaks, or Lynch, Fire Walk with Me can clearly be seen as an essential part of his body of work.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is showing in the BFI’s David Lynch season on 26 February. The complete TV Twin Peaks is available on DVD.