Needless to say, this article contains spoilers for the Twin Peaks TV series as well as the film.
When Twin Peaks ended in 1991, it went out on 50 of the strangest, most wonderfully obtuse minutes of television ever broadcast. Unfortunately, not all that many people saw it, especially compared with the viewing figures and level of obsession that surrounded the show’s early episodes. The pressure to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer halfway into the second series, followed by a subsequent lack of focus and direction due to the series creators having other directorial commitments, led to viewers abandoning Twin Peaks in droves. By the time David Lynch returned to helm the last few episodes, the series was due to be axed.
The final episode, in typical Lynch fashion, frustrated many viewers by raising more new questions than it answered, so when a feature length film, Fire Walk with Me, was announced for 1992, many hoped those answers would be revealed. Obviously, David Lynch being David Lynch, they weren’t, and the film was roundly torn to shreds by all but a few critics and quickly forgotten about. In the intervening 20-odd years, however, the blind fury directed towards this oftentimes brick wall of Lynchian storytelling has dissipated somewhat, and Fire Walk with Me is increasingly regarded as a masterpiece.
One of the most noticeable differences between the original TV show and Fire Walk with Me is that the quirky offbeat humour that was weaved throughout the show is almost entirely lacking in the film; another factor that surely contributed to the negative reception on release. Other than a truly bizarre moment wherein Lynch’s character, FBI chief Gordon Cole, delivers a coded message through the medium of a gurning woman performing an elaborate dance, and a quite literally in-and-out cameo appearance from David Bowie in a white suit and Hawaiian shirt, there’s little in the way of the trademark surreal humour of the series.
The Special Agent Dale Cooper of the original show, a charming oddball but still a consummate professional, is replaced with a much more serious and sombre version of the character. In fact, his is an almost incidental role, far from the central protagonist as he is in the series. This is mostly due to the fact that Fire Walk with Me takes place before the events of the TV series, focusing instead on the movements of Laura Palmer in the days leading up to her murder.
Originally, Sheryl Lee was only supposed to have a few brief scenes as Laura Palmer on the show in a handful of flashbacks, but Lynch was so impressed by her that he created the role of Laura’s cousin Maddie, purely so Lee could have more screen time. Her shockingly memorable final scene as Maddie more than proved he was right to have such faith in her as an actress, so it was only fitting he should dedicate the majority of the runtime of Fire Walk with Me to further showcasing Lee’s talents.
It’s quite honestly criminal that Sheryl Lee received almost no recognition for her turn in this film. Her performance is one of the most harrowing, gripping and powerful ever committed to film, and by the end you can feel her exhaustion, as the physical and emotional strain she puts herself through is extraordinary. The central mystery of the series was never really “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, but rather “Who was Laura Palmer?” She was the beautiful prom queen, seemingly perfect in every way, above and beyond a model citizen. But as Agent Cooper’s investigation rolled on the perfect character crumbled; her secret double life full of sex and drugs was incrementally revealed. Of course, in the show this was all dredged up after Laura’s death – in Fire Walk with Me, we see this double life as it spirals out of control, played out in graphic, tragic detail by a dazzlingly broken Sheryl Lee.
Ray Wise also gives an incredible performance as the tortured Leland Palmer. Lynch has admitted that originally he didn’t know himself who killed Laura Palmer and had no plans to reveal who did, as it was beside the point of what he wanted to explore with the series. When the pressure to reveal the killer became too great, however, he chose Leland as the murderer. It may have originally been an almost throwaway decision, but Lynch certainly took the opportunity that Fire Walk with Me afforded to further explore Leland’s tortured soul.
Lynch doesn’t go out of his way to shine any more light on whether Leland is genuinely possessed by the spirit of the murderous Bob, or if he is simply a deeply disturbed and troubled man who abuses and murders his own daughter. You can certainly read the film as being purely the latter, and assume that Leland invented the persona of Bob to cope with the horror of his own actions. Alternatively, you can accept the mystical, supernatural elements as real and read it as Leland tragically being an unwilling vessel for a psychotic killer, as unbelievable as that may seem. After all, as Dale Cooper asks in the series, is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter? Is that any more comforting?
If you’re approaching any David Lynch work expecting everything to be neatly tied up in a bow by the end, you’re inevitably going to be frustrated. But that is, of course, what makes him so unique. Sure, lots of directors refuse to explain everything in their films and leave you wanting answers, and many conjure up bizarre, surrealistic imagery, but none of them do so in quite the way Lynch does. Disturbing and absurd, comic and horrific, the catalogue of David Lynch’s work is quite unlike that of any director that has come before or since. With the new season of Twin Peaks finally arriving after 25 years (or thereabouts), as promised by the spirit of Laura Palmer in the series finale, it’s well worth grabbing a slice of cherry pie, a cup of damn fine coffee and revisiting the most underappreciated of all of Lynch’s films. Let’s rock.