Content note: This article discusses sexual assault and incest
Unreal people are well-represented in Twin-Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Of course, there’s the explicitly fantastical residents of the Black and White Lodges: the White Horse, the Arm, the Tremonds (nee Chalfont), BOB, and MIKE. And Fire Walk With Me expands the world of the Lodges introduced in the series: the strange, birdlike Jumping Man, a rough draft of The Return’s Woodsmen wearing the kind of fake beard that’d be more appropriate for a school play, and, most pivotally, the Angel.
But even the mortal residents of Fire Walk With Me’s world are oddly unreal. I’ve talked about the effect of the Uncanny something like a hundred times now. But Lynch is one of the few filmmakers who applies it not just to his imagery, but his dialogue and performances too. He always sits right on the razor’s edge dividing comedy from horror. Fire Walk With Me’s first half hour would need just a little nudge to push it into over-the-top parody of cop shows and film noir. Chris Isaak (who had already worked with Lynch on an alternate music video for his biggest hit, “Wicked Game”) is unnervingly stiff as FBI Agent Chester Desmond, a perfect robocop. In every way, he’s the opposite of Kyle McLachlan, briefly returning as series protagonist Agent Dale Cooper. McLachlan gets equally improbable lines (“She is preparing a great abundance of food”), but he delivers them disarming earnestness and warmth. A Facebook friend was right to describe him as “a weird person cosplaying as a normal person” — his strangeness is inherent to him, not the world he lives in.
I won’t shock you by saying Deer Meadow, the town where Desmond goes manhunting, is just as much the opposite of Twin Peaks as Desmond is the opposite of Cooper. But it’s instructive to look at how and why Lynch frames it that way. The pieces are all there, but in the wrong order: The sheriff’s office, the diner, the low-rent homes. But where Twin Peaks was the (apparently) idyllic community where no one is a stranger, in Deer Meadows, everyone’s a stranger, and therefore suspicious. And if Deer Meadows’ citizens are hostile, Desmond responds in kind, with a violence the pacifistic boy scout Dale would never dream of. Even the coffee is worse.
This section, beginning as it does with a long, slow zoom away from a static-covered TV screen that Leland Palmer abruptly smashes in the course of another murder, reads as Lynch doing his best to get away from the legacy of the small-screen Peaks. It was, after all, a huge mainstream success from a filmmaker who never cared about the mainstream. And that audience didn’t want Fire Walk With Me any more than it wanted them. They expected solutions to the mysteries raised in the final episode, not what Carrie so eloquently described as a deeper look into the humanity behind the mystery. Fire Walk With Me got booed out of Cannes and didn’t even break even at the box office, which, ironically, may have been the reason fans had to wait so long to finally get their answers in The Return.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is not Twin Peaks the TV show, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s nothing but good news. I watched the original series straight through to prepare myself for The Return way back when that revival came out, and I ran hot and cold on it. There were flashes of that unique, Lynchian weirdness, either from the man himself or collaborators creating perfect forgeries. But that sensibility felt like some burrowing creature, trying and failing to break through the surface of TV convention. With all respect to everyone who loved Twin Peaks’ sprawling cast of characters and all their subplots, to me, keeping track of them all was more homework than entertainment.
And yet, when I got to Fire Walk With Me, I loved it without reservation. Here was that pure, uncut nightmare that the series had denied me, in massive, massive quantities that even Lynch’s other films rarely deliver. I feel a little weird saying it’s one of my favorites when I can’t recommend it without also assigning hours and hours of “background reading” watching a show I only recommend about half as much, but here we are.
One way Fire Walk With Me alienated fans was casting Moira Kelly instead of the series’ Lara Flynn Boyle as Laura’s best friend Donna. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the bad blood that led to the change. All I know is Lynch made the right decision. By the end of the series, Donna was almost as worldly as Laura. Here, she’s Laura’s last tether to her lost innocence, and Kelly’s doe-eyed, childish performance sells that aspect of her character in a way I don’t think Boyle had in her. And while we love knocking on Hollywood for getting actors who’ve probably half forgotten their high school years to play teenagers, that was also the right choice. Even though she’s younger than Kelly in real life, Lee plays Laura far older, as if she’s already packed a lifetime of suffering into her seventeen years.
I think Carrie’s right that audiences may have rejected Fire Walk With Me not just for its uninhibited unreality, but also for the reality it confronts and that network TV was too skittish to. Laura Palmer’s pain and sorrow is so all-pervasive it’s easy to see why death would be better. And more than the imagery, that comes down to Sheryl Lee’s towering performance, which in a better world would have generated Oscar buzz and a ticket to instant stardom. What struck me most on rewatch was the physicality of her performance — whenever she’s not dulling the pain with drugs and sex, she’s literally vibrating with it.
Lee gets the same stylized dialogue as everyone else, but her performance never loses its naturalism, and that creates a whole different kind of frisson. Some of her first words onscreen are ridiculous on paper — during a tryst with James, she describes herself like the old song, “Long gone like a turkey through the corn.” James doesn’t get it: “You’re not a turkey. A turkey is one of the dumbest birds on earth,” and Laura softly, sadly, whispers, “gobble gobble.” Hilarious, right? Not the way Lee reads it.
She and Lynch are walking that razor edge here, and throughout the film. David Bowie saying, “We’re not gonna talk about Judy. In fact, we’re not gonna talk about Judy at all,” in a country accent even Tom Hanks would call “a little much,” should be hilarious, but it’s horrible. A close-up of a monkey in dim blue light lipsynched to a human voice whispering “Judy” sounds silly, but it’s bonechilling for reasons I can’t explain.
I can explain why the glimpses of the Black Lodge are so chilling. What Lynch has accomplished here is a constructed mythology with a new pantheon, something hundreds of writers have tried without half as much success. Most attempts at similar goals are either stuck in the centuries-old imagery of ancient mythology, dressing it up in futuristic clothes, or some combination of the two. But most of the old myths weren’t about the ancient world — it was still modern then. Lynch recognizes that, and what makes the Black Lodge, and so many of Fire Walk with Me’s locations, so terrifying is their total mundanity. The Room Above the Convenience Store could actually be lurking above any convenience store. The rundown cabin where BOB captures Laura and the abandoned train car where he kills her could be in any small town. Then there’s the Palmer home, a kitschy but comfortable suburban home that Lynch turns into a vision of hell.
Instead of subtracting from the sense of cosmic horror, that multiplies it. The same is true of the inhabitants — the Arm is just a dwarf in a sharp suit, and BOB could be standing in front of you in line at any hardware store. But Frank Silva’s inhuman, feral performance and Lynch’s presentation turn him into something not of this world. I know that the first time I watched this, when we see the Lodge through Laura’s eyes and Cooper begs her not to take the ring, I felt like I, personally, was in danger.
But in the end, all this supernatural color is just the backdrop for Laura’s real, overwhelming hopelessness. In interviews, Lynch seems like such a sweet, optimistic guy, but the world of his films is almost universally grim. But every once in a while, that optimism peeks through the darkness. It’s not always successful — I remember his baffling claim that Eraserhead had a happy ending, or the conventionally happy ending of Blue Velvet, so abrupt and over-the-top it’s hard to take it as anything but a joke.
And Lynch lays on the hopelessnes thick in Fire Walk With Me. Imagining falling through space, but really describing her own life, Laura says, “You’d burst into fire. Forever…And the angels wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.” And lo and behold, the angel in the kitschy painting in Laura’s bedroom disappears just as everything goes bad. I’ve written endlessly about the necessity of darkness to make a happy ending land. “It’s not enough to make a movie where everything is alright for two hours — it’s the fact that everything turns out alright when hope seems lost that gives it its power.” Lynch tries something much more difficult. He creates a world where hope doesn’t just seem futile but impossible. Even apart from the relentless bleakness of Fire Walk With Me, we already know how Laura’s story ends. Don’t we?
But in the end, we learn the angels haven’t gone away. One appears, wings and all, in the train car to untie Laura’s friend Ronnette Pulaski and deliver her into the waiting hand of MIKE: an honest-to-God, according-to-Hoyle miracle. It shouldn’t work. But it does. And isn’t that as good a definition of “miracle” as any?
Laura still dies, but death is not the end. Carrie’s already said more than I could about that wonderful coda, so all I can add is my own personal reaction. Lynch had so effectively banished any hope from his film that for a long time, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The Angel visits Laura in the Lodge, and she bursts into tears of joy, the movie ending in a freeze frame of her blissful face. It’s hard not to think of the Psalmist. If I make my bed in the Black Lodge, behold, Thou art there.
This had to be more Blue Velvet-style postmodern irony, right? But as Laura kept smiling all through the credits, I realized Lynch meant every word of it. In this heaven, everything really is fine. I don’t know if I cried my own tears of joy, but I was close. Laura’s catharsis becomes all of ours.