The opening of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me serves as a warning to the audience. Credits play over a staticky TV, promising us appearances by a host of names familiar from “Twin Peaks”… then that TV is smashed in a shower of sparks as a woman’s voice screams in the background. This nasty little vignette frames the ensuing story. The film relies upon the viewer’s familiarity with the cozy-quirky world of the TV series, but even as it employs the mythology and grammar of the show’s world, the movie viciously rejects the comforts we found in the drowsy little town of Twin Peaks.
Then comes the most damning scene, an example of the kind of over-the-top quirkiness that sank the movie. FBI Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (David Lynch reprising his role from the series) meets with his field agents (Chris Isaak and Keifer Sutherland) to give them notes on their upcoming case. But rather than simply speaking or writing, Cole transmits his “notes” via Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole), a red-clad orange-bewigged woman who performs a coded dance of exaggerated movements and expressions. For a lot of viewers, this chapter points out everything that’s wrong with the movie, and I ain’t arguing. Lil’s dance feels like an asinine self-parody, a ham-fisted caricature of the show’s whimsy.
This moment is an affront; it’s garish and silly and clumsy, but it serves a purpose. Like the smashed TV, Lil’s dance gives us a flash of warning: forget what you think you know about this story. The message you’re about to receive is not what you expect.
We’re about to enter Deer Meadow, the shadowy opposite of Twin Peaks. Deer Meadow boasts no pleasant Double R Diner, no outstanding cherry pie, no quietly competent and welcoming sheriff, no damn fine coffee, no Special Agent Dale Cooper, and no beloved Homecoming Queen with a mysterious secret. The victim here is Teresa Banks, whom you may remember from the TV series: she was evidently murdered by the same killer who claimed Laura Palmer’s life.
But Teresa is no golden girl: she’s a short-time night-shift waitress in a seedy diner, her home is a shabby trailer, and no one seems to know much about her — or to care. As dim and dismal as this is and as sorry as we are to dig into Teresa Banks’ squalid life and death, it’s only priming us for the deeper sorrow of witnessing — of becoming complicit in — the last days of Laura Palmer’s short life.
In the TV series, Laura is a distant dream, a lovely portrait gazing out passively from the school’s trophy case or from her parents’ mantel, a brief snip of footage innocently cavorting with Donna on a mountaintop. She’s safely contained in memories and images. In Fire Walk with Me, Laura is unsettlingly tangible and willful. Her actuality and her agency undermine all the romanticized memories and projections that the series fueled. We’re forced to confront Laura’s despair and to face the sordid grotesqueries of her young life, the denial and culpability of her loved ones, and the terrible choices her trauma has led her to make.
That’s not to say that Fire Walk with Me is a great film; it’s deeply flawed, marred by terrible diversions into the absurd and the surreal, and by Lynch’s stubborn insistence upon his own inventions and argot. But it has its moments and they’re terrifically effective, in part thanks to Sheryl Lee’s bravura acting. Her Laura is dizzyingly mercurial, one moment passionate and the next cold and numb. Lee also gives Laura a subtle and unnerving trait: she never maintains eye contact. Laura always seems to look slightly askance, gazing at her companion’s chest or above his head even when she’s proclaiming her devotion. The gives her scenes a strangely potent aura of deep disconnection from her friends and family.
But those laughable diversions of Lynch’s have their own ineluctable power. Just between you and me and the whole internet, after watching FWWM, I spent a night shuddering awake from creeping nightmares, clutching the blankets to me and shrinking from noises in the dark. Even as I scorned and derided them, the images of this ridiculous movie got under my skin like few films can… maybe because it wrought such violent changes upon familiar characters and places, just as a dream does. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me divorces itself from the cozy comforts of “Twin Peaks” the series even as it exploits our familiarity with it. It’s as if “Twin Peaks” itself has entered The Black Lodge and transformed to its dark, dismal alter-ego, taking us with it on a ghastly adventure.