David Lynch’s 1992 magnum opus Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is the director’s most fascinating experiment with cinematic time and shape – which is really saying something given the elaborate structures of later mindbenders like Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. A prequel to Lynch’s beloved 1989 television series, it’s a movie that’s superficially all about looking back, to the point that most critics of the time dismissed it as a cynical and cheap ploy to exploit the TV show’s popularity after the fact. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me how the relentlessly harrowing and intellectually demanding film Lynch made could be anyone’s idea of a commercial cash grab, but I think the problem isn’t that he was revisiting old territory – it’s that he was striking out in so many new directions that no one was really ready for it. While Fire Walk With Me might be essentially one 135-minute flashback, it’s also a film that looks forward to the themes and stylistic conceits that would preoccupy Lynch for the rest of his career (save for the delightful detour into narrative simplicity and clarity that was The Straight Story in 1999). Audiences and critics weren’t ready for what Lynch had to give them in 1992, or even in 1997 when Lost Highway came out, but by the time Mulholland Dr. rolled around in 2001 people had caught up with the director’s innovations to the point that he was nominated for an Oscar. (Of course, Lynch was still too ahead of the curve to actually win the award – the bald swordsman went home with Ron Howard and A Beautiful Mind.)
The very act of making Fire Walk With Me a prequel was a bit perverse on Lynch’s part; it’s as though he wanted to alienate a huge swath of his audience right off the bat. Twin Peaks ended its second season with a cliffhanger finale that left many viewers wanting answers, and the logical approach to a feature film would have been to pick up where the series left off. Instead, Lynch and cowriter Robert Engels chose to follow the events leading up to the murder of high school beauty queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) that took place just before the series began – events which had already been referred to either obliquely or explicitly over the course of the television show. Fire Walk With Me brings back most of the ensemble cast from the series but eschews the show’s ensemble structure – many of the actors are relegated to cameos, as the movie belongs almost entirely to Lee in one of the most extraordinary (and extraordinarily underrated) performances of the 1990s. Stripping the series of most of its humor and eccentricities, Lynch goes for the throat with an all-out horror film, and not the superficial kind of horror practiced by most other directors in the genre. Fire Walk With Me’s tale of pedophilia, incest, and small-town repression has a number of parallels with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but none of that film’s distancing techniques (the comic one-liners of the killer, the clearly supernatural milieu, etc.). Fire Walk With Me is a descent into pure torment without a safety valve, a look at the tragic final days of a young woman reduced to a shell by the cruelty of men.
Structurally, Fire Walk With Me is a little more straightforward than Lynch’s subsequent films but seems more difficult to follow for a number of reasons. The first of these is simply the set of expectations set up by the TV show; viewers used to the rhythms established over the course of Twin Peaks’ two seasons can’t help but find the harsher, more somber tone of Fire Walk With Me to be a little jarring. (Then again, Lynch announces his intentions as clearly as possible in the opening shot of the film, which consists of a television set being destroyed.) The other odd disjunction in Fire Walk With Me is the fact that it takes place before the events of the TV show, yet the actors all look older – considerably so, in some cases. This discordance is probably part of why the movie was so poorly received at the time, since it does admittedly give a sense of Lynch going back to the well one time too many; it doesn’t help that some of the actors clearly don’t care much for the proceedings and sleepwalk through their roles with the contemptuous condescension of true Hollywood hacks.
Yet both the incongruity of the actors’ ages and even the laziness of some of the performances work for the tone Lynch is trying to establish – unlike the series, this is not a story of energy and wit but of despondency and pain. It’s about a girl who suffers horrible abuse at the hands of a variety of men including her own father, and whose response to this abuse is to slide into a drug-addled state of suicidal apathy and isolation. This may not be everyone’s idea of “entertainment,” but it is the stuff of great art in Lynch’s hands, especially with Lee’s collaboration. Her work here is as good as any actor in any film in any period in movie history, as she takes a movie cliché – the loss of innocence – and plays it with utter conviction, authenticity, and nuance. Lynch calls upon her to play every emotional note on the scale, and she’s pitch-perfect from beginning to end, allowing the audience to see Laura Palmer as something no one else in her life does: a human being.
Lynch’s distinctive way of looking at the world has, in some ways, led him to be a bit underrated in spite of all his accolades – I think that in some circles he’s still thought of as an interesting formalist, a director who’s all about style and intellect. Yet Lynch is every bit as much a humanist filmmaker as Renoir or Ozu, a director whose love for his fellow men and women is what drives him to ask such profound questions about why and how they are capable of such desperate and sadistic acts of evil. Some directors feel deeply, or have a great eye, or have a sharp intellect; Lynch is one of the best filmmakers alive because he has all three. Like any truly great artist, he’s often been ahead of his audience, particularly since he’s so insistent on always going in the opposite direction from which he just came; he followed the cool blue palette and sexual repression of Blue Velvet (1986) with the hot pinks and reds and erotic abandon of Wild at Heart (1990), and the looping time frame and grim urban nihilism of Lost Highway gave way to the straightforwardly classical and peacefully Midwestern The Straight Story. Creating a cinematic companion piece to the quirkily funny Twin Peaks by shedding all of the pleasures that made the TV series a cultural touchstone may have lost Lynch his audience for a time, but it also led to one of the most poignant and terrifying films of his career – and laid the groundwork for the masterpieces to come.
Jim Hemphill is the award-winning screenwriter and director of The Trouble with the Truth. His writings on cinema have appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer, and Film Quarterly, and he is the author of a regular column on directing for Filmmaker Magazine.