Suspicion of Safety: Learning to Get Along With Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

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In 1998, a positive review of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me meant swimming against the current; against the ocean of long-time series viewers, and, for once, die-hard fans. A positive analysis from novelist Steve Erickson (the only American critic at the time with any love for the film) was labeled “brave.” Though David Lynch’s prequel film to the runaway success of Twin Peaks was scolded upon release, time has allowed it to linger for longer than any theater would have.

Chock it up to the craft, or the now-certain long game Lynch was playing with the IP, or perhaps the arrival of his next film, the somehow more ludicrous (and strangely beloved) Lost Highway. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me got the chance to be re-examined not only for its exploration of loneliness, rape, incest, suburbia, and fear, but for the surrounding films that quietly nudged it into the spotlight.

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David Lynch was an outlier before Fire Walk With Me. In 1977, he released his first feature, a product of seven years’ work, endless production, and cigarettes. Eraserhead still plays like a late-career passion project, perhaps because Lynch chose not to rush it out despite personal and budgetary concerns; which leads to a personal affectation of his: No matter what project he’s worked on, Lynch has never been known to cut and run because he thought it was doomed. In fact, he’s a textbook perfectionist, down to the piling on of jobs that bare no relevance to his current situation. In between directing and writing for Twin Peaks’ first season in 1990, he found time to direct his boldest and wildest film to that point.

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Wild at Heart was a forebear of Fire Walk With Me, arriving two years prior and sporting a similar ultra-violent sex-crazed nightmare setting. Yet it earned something Fire Walk With Me never could: The Palme d’Or. On a Cannes jury consisting of Anjelica Huston, Bernardo Bertolucci and the writer of Dangerous Liaisons, Wild at Heart won the top prize, surprising and infuriating many. Lynch’s previous film, 1986’s Blue Velvet, took its time ingratiating the audience in a sense of small-town safety before jumping off the rails. Wild At Heart (to put in plainy) does not do that.

Though it has its supporters, the Nicolas Cage/Laura Dern affair is Lynch’s most divisive film, and due to its accolades, one of his most distracting. Infused with hyper-violent deaths and frequent sexual abuse, it bears a similar aesthetic to Fire Walk With Me, which improved on the former’s ideas, adding a through-line of emotion Wild At Heart practically ignored. Wild At Heart didn’t top many end-of-year lists, but recognition from Cannes (good or bad) speaks loud enough for the world to hear. When Fire Walk With Me arrived two years later, it couldn’t help but live in the shadow of its predecessor, written off as another difficult-to-watch indulgence.

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Calling Fire Walk With Me another Wild At Heart would be doing it a disservice. As season two of Twin Peaks went from OK to awful, Lynch plotted how to set the series in another direction, the original mystery forever soiled. His solution was a film without the input of co-creator Mark Frost, who’s tenure on the series lasted about as long as Lynch’s attention. It’s one of the great mysteries of Lynch’s career: Why abandon a series on the cusp of attaining the longevity he desired? Trust in Frost is the likely answer, seeing as it was both of their efforts that brought the series its signature charisma: Benjamin Horne would likely never have existed had it not been for Frost, but the intervention of studios, the Disney-owned ABC; there was never a real chance Twin Peaks the TV series could exist exactly as Lynch intended, not without a personal Bob Iger to fight for it (which he did to get the series on air). If time has taught us anything, it’s that Twin Peaks is far too broad a story for Lynch to tell over a couple seasons of muted network television.

Even Fire Walk With Me failed to wrap up the story, as Lynch contemplated and eventually executed a revival with 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return. If you only watched the content and never read the headlines, this would all appear a bit too effortless: First Lynch and Frost concoct a crowd-challenging, critic-shirking mystery, then follow it up with enough filler to rival the worst network television of the 90s, then abandon the project altogether to work on a film, only to reunite in 2017 (exactly twenty five years after the foreshadowing series finale in 1992) for a return-to-form third season. Love or hate him, Lynch is a divisive figure, which means he’ll never achieve world-renowned legacy status for any one of his creations.

Yet, Fire Walk With Me is one of the strongest candidates for solo-evaluation, despite its prequel nature. It’s not fast, but revelations arrive more frequently than in any episode of the series, even The Return’s. With the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer firmly behind him, Lynch reveled in his other oddballs, leading to numerous excellent moments outside of Palmer’s main arc.

The film spends a large chunk of time establishing Chester Desmond, the FBI officer called to investigate the disappearance of Dale Cooper. Kyle MacLachlan, who briefly reprises the role in Fire Walk With Me, initially resisted the film after the truncated storytelling in season two took hold, and even as the finale (directed by Lynch) attempted to shore up as many plot holes as possible, there was no erasing the filler that had come before. Thus, he was replaced, and eventually convinced to return for a brief scene that makes almost no sense outside of The Return. This need to emphasize new characters is one of Fire Walk With Me’s strongest traits, pushing the audience to surrender to new ideas, as nearly everything occurring around fan-favorites defies logic.

The Blue Rose cases, Kiefer Sutherland, the little boy in the pinocchio mask: One reason fans were turned off to Fire Walk With Me was the lack of returning characters. Lovelorn James Hurley and obliviously evil Leland Palmer reprise their roles, but heroine Laura is practically a new introduction. The same goes for Cooper, who’s brief time in the spotlight is upstaged by a Southern-accented David Bowie. Fire Walk With Me isn’t so much about nostalgia as it is erasing the past; as correcting the place where things began to go wrong, in often ridiculous ways.

Rather than storyboard around a new mystery, Lynch dives into a focus on related abuse. It’s a remarkably racy movie, even by Lynch standards, precisely because every sexual encounter means something. We know Laura needs to end the film wrapped in plastic, but after seeing the emotional turmoil she went through to avoid death, her final moments take on an eerie, preordained hopelessness.

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The first 30 minutes of Lost Highway are some of the most directly horror-inspired in Lynch’s catalogue. An urban setting, a defaulting marriage, someone without eyebrows; he sets the stage for tension. The suburban setting of Fire Walk With Me prepares the audience for a tranquil, banal experience, certainly free from inside threats. Like Lost Highway, the first third of the film is dedicated to a story that never returns to the limelight, suggesting that there is something going on just outside Twin Peaks. The opposite is true: Cooper’s disappearance and Chester Desmond’s travels distance the audience from Laura Palmer, providing a sense of relief in the fact that the story could always cut back to the comparatively lower-stakes scenario playing out across the state. It never does.

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There were plenty of slasher films before Fire Walk With Me, which invite the idea that there may not be safety in cookie-cutter numbers, but Lynch wields the trope like a concealed knife. Shots like this encourage suspicion of safety:

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If that doesn’t do it for you, then maybe the prolonged Roadhouse sequence will confirm the fact that Twin Peaks is not an innocent town. Laura Palmer’s greatest threat isn’t a monster, or some outside force that’s out of her control (well, it’s partly that, but we’ll get there). It’s those closest to her, worsened by fear.

Fear comes from within, from the darkest corners of one’s life. BOB, Laura’s tormentor, could be explained away through the small-town magic that seems to flow through Twin Peaks, allowing for places like The Red Room; but as in many of Lynch’s works, magic is a mask for the truth; a coping device for characters who have stared into their fears and been unable to look away. Fire Walk With Me’s monster is a psychological presence, not eyebrow-less men or senior citizens who crawl out of paper bags.

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Fire Walk With Me remains David Lynch’s greatest achievement in emotional storytelling. By throwing a wrench into the setting his audience had come to predict, Lynch hit refresh; a clean slate that allowed him to recolor Laura, Cooper, Donna, and introduce several new elements that only enriched the series’ lore. With network television restrictions removed, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me can be a difficult film to stomach, especially following the benign drama of season two. But with horror, sex, and drugs used as concealants for the issues worming their way into Laura’s brain, it moves beyond the “movie finale for a series that was abruptly cancelled” cliché. It stands alone, a necessary watch for anyone interested in how victims deal with abusers who are close to home.

Today, a positive take on Fire Walk With Me is met with general nods, maybe the occasional glance from Ebert fanatics who still claim Lynch is a hack; opinions change, lives move on, but the tragic fact remains that as critics and audiences panned a haunting portrayal of abuse, a message was sent to Hollywood that people want less of that story, or so told in a way that removes personality. That should never have happened, and even as Lynch seems remarkably neutral to the perception of his work, audiences are eager to pretend he never took the risk of being hated for telling a story about abuse with colors other than black and white.