Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me resembles Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in some regards. Both movies are movie spinoffs of a TV show that in some superficial way seem to betray their respective shows (Khan takes a piece of sci-fi utopianism and turns it into a naval war film, while Fire Walk With Me takes some soap opera vaudeville and turns it into nightmarish surrealism). Both movies could conceivably work fine as a standalone piece, although they’re more emotionally resonant if you’re familiar with the show. Both movies are extremely excellent.
But aside from those points they’re quite different, even down to their reception. Fire Walk With Me was vilified upon release and still seems to be in the process of getting a rehabilitation. Having seen it recently for the first time, I find that I’m among the movie’s defenders and would without hesitation call it one of David Lynch’s best works. But I can also understand why someone could be quite salty about it. Lynch was obviously unhappy about the direction that the TV show went in, and the movie represents an attempt to reinterpret the show in a very confrontational manner.
Anyway, the first scene of the show’s pilot episode shows how troubled teenager Laura Palmer is found dead one morning, and the rest of the show is about how her death impacts the small American town of Twin Peaks. Fire Walk With Me is a prequel about how she died.
I wasn’t sold on the idea for a couple of reasons: first and foremost was that, as a prequel, this wasn’t a story strictly necessary to tell, and one which risks damaging the show by showing us too much of a key character whose mystique largely comes from the audience largely knowing her in a second-hand fashion (see: Anakin Skywalker). The second was that, absent TV standards and practices, the sordid details would risk overwhelming everything else: In the TV show we’re made to understand that Laura’s last days were a hell on earth, involving sexual abuse, drugs, and even quasi-demonic supernatural elements. I can’t say that I was entirely sure Lynch would handle this sort of material properly (see: Lost Highway).
But while Fire Walk With Me does go into some uncomfortable, R rated territory that the show only hinted at, it doesn’t tip over into exploitation. And, while it’s true that there’s nothing here you have to see in order to understand the story of Twin Peaks, it succeeds in humanizing Laura (Sheryl Lee), turning her into one of Lynch’s most sympathetic protagonists. Or, perhaps, that it succeeds in turning Laura into a real person you care about is what makes it important to Twin Peaks. It’s an emotionally devastating movie about the suffering caused by sexual abuse that never dissolves into the sort of misery porn that wins lots of awards.
It takes a while to reach that point, though. The movie features an extended prologue segment about Special Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) investigating the killer’s first victim in the town of Deer Meadow. The entire affair plays out like a relentless parody of an episode of Twin Peaks until a half-hour in when the plot thread is dropped and the movie suddenly reboots into the Laura Palmer scenario. At first glance it shouldn’t work, but it does: the prologue explodes the structure and tropes we associate with Twin Peaks so that it can pull us into its emotional core – it disarms us for the tragedy we’re about to witness (but again I can also see how you could see this as the movie teasing you about the Twin Peaks movie you’re not getting).
Fire Walk With Me is far more aggressive in its surrealism than I was expecting, coming very close to Eraserhead territory. But whereas that movie took place in an expressionistic, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-esque setting, Fire is more uncanny for taking place in a rather mundane locale. More to the point: it’s using the setting and characters of a (relatively) more straightforward show and is pushing them into more formally strange territory, which is even more unsettling than if they were entirely original. Again I understand the salt, but to me it feels like I’m staring more directly into the tragic, haunted soul of Twin Peaks and its denizens.
Which, given the woman-in-distress plotline, also makes the movie into a neat little bridge between Eraserhead and Inland Empire. And like Inland Empire, so much of it is anchored in the performance of its lead: Lee is just phenomenal, to the point where you can kinda notice how some of the returning TV cast is, uh, less than phenomenal.
So it’s the rare prequel which, in addition to being a great work in its own right, also makes me care about the characters and world of the original all the more. But I haven’t even written a proper Twin Peaks post yet, which means that this post is without context on this blog and hence likely ill-advised.