When Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, director David Lynch had been experiencing a period of mainstream cultural interest in his art. This was a strange position for a surrealist such as himself to be in, but then again, his career never followed a predictable trajectory. After his independent film Eraserhead (1977) took off on the midnight movie circuit, he was brought over to Hollywood with Mel Brooks as his personal cheerleader and producer. He was then Oscar nominated for The Elephant Man in 1980, and was offered the gig of directing the third Star Wars film, which he turned down to direct Dune (1984), which proved to be a critical and commercial failure. Lynch believed Dune taught him an important lesson about filmmaking — he realized he didn’t want to make big movies, and the mainstream was never going to afford him the complete creative control he so cherished when making Eraserhead.
But the mainstream wasn’t finished with Lynch, and fate would have it that he’d fall in love with Isabella Rossellini on his next film, Blue Velvet (1986), where she stars. Lynch was suddenly of tabloid interest, because Rossellini was Hollywood royalty — the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. Their coupling wasn’t meant to last, but during their relationship, Lynch became a mainstream phenomenon and a household name when his television pilot for Twin Peaks exploded in popularity. He and co-creator Mark Frost captured lightning in a bottle, but the show’s mass appeal burned out like a falling star, vanishing almost as soon as it appeared. With pressure from ABC executives to reveal who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Lynch and Frost acquiesced, and in doing so the audience left in the wake of that revelation.
Even with the audience disappearing, Lynch wasn’t finished with Twin Peaks, and at the conclusion of season 2, and with news that the series wasn’t going to be picked up, he sought about making a prequel film chronicling the final week of Laura Palmer’s life. He was so bewitched by the idea of seeing her walking, smiling, and living that he was overwhelmed with a creative urge to return. The same could not be said of the wider film industry at the time. His stars were frustrated that he left during season 2 to film Wild at Heart (1990), and the critical establishment was growing tired of his creative tendencies. Only a couple years prior, Lynch was on the talk show circuit, spearheading the most exciting show on television, and winning the Palme d’Or for Wild at Heart. By 1992, the world had changed, and all of these factors collided in on one another at the Cannes film festival press conference for Fire Walk With Me.
In Lynch’s experimental memoir, Room to Dream, he describes the experience of Fire Walk With Me at Cannes as a “death.” Fire Walk With Me was pelted with hissing and boos, which isn’t strange for an audience at Cannes, but the questions directed at him after the screening were hostile. Lynch was asked by a French reporter if his intentions to return to Twin Peaks were honorable or were the result of an “obvious lack of inspiration.” Another reporter began his query by suggesting that many find Lynch to be a perverse filmmaker, and followed up by asking him if he agreed. Quentin Tarantino was the hottest name in all of moviemaking at the time and had perhaps the harshest criticism leveled during the festival when he argued that Lynch had “disappeared so far up his own ass” and said he had “no desire to see another Lynch movie again.” In Room to Dream Sheryl Lee said she had intended to go to the festival, but felt fortunate she missed it, because she didn’t know if her skin would have been thick enough to deal with the criticism.
When Fire Walk With Me was reviewed by American critics, they also refused to mince words. Numerous archival television review clips available on YouTube have critics reaching for witticism by slinging phrases like “the only walking to be seen in Fire Walk With Me will be the audience leaving before the film is over.” The worst of the lot was Vincent Canby’s victim-blaming review for the New York Times, in which he suggested Fire Walk With Me seemed like the worst film he’d ever seen and concluded his negative assessment with the sentence, “Poor cocaine-sniffing Laura never learned how to just say no.”
Not everyone of prominence hated the film, as French director and critic Jacques Rivette said he had “no idea what [he] saw” but “left the theater floating six feet above the ground.” For the better part of the next two decades, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was considered David Lynch’s worst film alongside Dune. But in the past 10 years the film has undergone a reassessment, and it is as beloved as anything the director has ever made. It has been a long, hard road for this movie, but it now sits alongside other classics in the Criterion Collection, and has found its way onto aggregated critical lists like They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? and Sight & Sound’s Greatest Film Poll with some level of support.
In its own deeply beguiling way, Fire Walk With Me is David Lynch’s greatest work. Throughout his career Lynch has been pulled to bear witness to evil and let his camera empathize with those struggling. The darkness at the center of Fire Walk With Me is a manifestation of Lynch’s most severe interpretation of the way patriarchal violence damages women. Many of Lynch’s films are about a “woman in trouble,” but never has a character of his ever been as doomed, or afforded more grace in spite of what she has experienced, as Laura Palmer. It is that particular emotional contrast that makes Fire Walk With Me a troubling, beautiful film.
Laura Palmer was conceived of in the third person for the original run of Twin Peaks instead of having her own point of view. When she washed up on the cold shores of her hometown wrapped in plastic, everyone had a visceral, emotional reaction to the news that she had been murdered, but they were not mourning all her complexities and contradictions, just the version of her they interpreted. They were mourning a symbol that they imposed upon her of perfect small-town Americana, and Lynch and Frost were actively welcoming such a reading by presenting her first as a prom queen and then later revealing more about the character, such as her drug habits and numerous sexual partners. When watching Twin Peaks with the full context of everything that happened to Laura, the result is a melodrama about a teenage girl suffering at the hands of incest from her father, but without the chance to tell her side of the story.
This worked for the initial run of the series because that element was kept a secret, and it instead focused on the nuts and bolts of Special Agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) serial murder investigation, and his ongoing meet-cute with the eccentricities of the little logging town he’d come to love. By keeping the monster in the closet, it allowed for the series to grow, and Lynch and Frost never even revealed to the actors who the murderer was, which allowed for anyone and everyone on the series to believe that they were innocent. When ABC forced the hands of Lynch and Frost in the middle of season 2 to reveal the murderer, it was essentially the end of the first incarnation of Twin Peaks, but it was also a strange gift, because it gave the series a context it could wrap itself around going forward or backward. Laura Palmer was the soul of Twin Peaks, and the trauma that she experienced throughout her adolescence gave the story an emotional foundation that was so sturdy it meant Lynch could experiment as much as he liked, as long as all roads led back to this teenage girl begging for help.
When Fire Walk With Me was released, many were confused and downright frustrated by the first 40 minutes of the film, which play out like vignettes of a Twin Peaks that has been robbed of its beauty. The film opens with an ax being plunged into an analog television emitting fuzzy static, and off screen, Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) can be heard screaming as she is murdered viciously. Like much of this section, Banks is someone meant to reflect a dual opposite of who she is meant to symbolize — in this case, Laura. Unlike Laura, there is no one there to mourn her passing, and she is left in the morgue to rot. Her death is an unfathomably sad one, and it is one in a string of brutally horrific moments of violence spread throughout this film.
Lynch’s application of violence can sometimes be misinterpreted by those looking for morals, because he is not a moralist director. If anything, his baseline empathy for his characters stretches out to those committing the acts of violence as well. In an interview with Chris Rodley in the book Lynch on Lynch, the director discusses Leland in particular: “He’s a victim. Everybody that has done bad things is not all bad. It’s just that one problem which becomes a little too great. People are always saying, ‘He was such a nice neighbor. I can’t believe he could do that to those children and to his wife!’ It’s always the way.”
This was always the intent for Lynch and Frost, and Fire Walk With Me is uncomfortable because the pain of Laura and Leland is tied together and treated equally. In one particular scene, Lynch uses a match cut to evoke the generational trauma within the Palmer household when Laura is seen crying after a confrontation with her father, only for that scene to be followed with a close-up of Ray Wise breaking down piece by piece into a quiet sob. In Room to Dream, editor Mary Sweeney hypothesizes that it was this particular element that left people angry at Fire Walk With Me. She believes that audiences were expecting Twin Peaks, but were instead given a David Lynch film that it is “dark,” “unrelenting,” and not the series they had come to love.
In addition to its difficult, unbridled portrait of a family caught in the turbines of incestual abuse, Fire Walk With Me seemed obtuse for the sake of it on face value, due to its opening sections. Many expected Dale Cooper to fight for control over his soul after the cliffhanger conclusion of the second season, but this was not a linear picture. This proved to be a calling card for the series going forward, as it reached further into a circular pattern of storytelling in the third season.
The rehabilitation of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was well underway when it was announced that Showtime was bankrolling a new season of Twin Peaks, but it was that third season (subtitled The Return) that crystallized the greatness of the prequel film for many. The complaints that the vignettes were nothing more than loose threads was proven to be a hasty declaration when they finally connected and were given stitching in The Return. Certain aspects like the disappearance of agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) were never touched upon again, but a cameo appearance featuring David Bowie as FBI Agent Phillip Jeffries in Fire Walk With Me acted like a Rosetta Stone for the 2017 reintroduction. In that scene, Lynch shows a group of dirty, bearded men, BOB (Frank Silva) and the Arm (Michael Anderson) gathering around a Formica table above a gas station convenience store. Initially these supernatural beings of evil gathered in the Black Lodge, but suddenly they were congregating in a space that resembled a Francis Bacon painting, and mentioning important fragments of dialogue that tied the series into a nuclear concern that is illuminated fully in the eighth episode of the third season, which may be Lynch’s finest-ever achievement. By suggesting it was trauma and violence that gave way to the worst that humanity had to offer, the abstractions and darker hues Lynch wanted to paint with in the third season were made ever more prominent in the shadows of Laura Palmer’s pain in Fire Walk With Me. The Log Lady (Catherine Coulson, in a final, heartbreaking appearance) told us that “Laura is the one,” which stands to reason that Fire Walk With Me is the central parable at the heart of Twin Peaks, and perhaps Lynch’s entire oeuvre.
It is initially very strange to see Laura Palmer in the flesh walking off to school when she is introduced. Previously, she had been an object of fascination, and a symbol to whom any and all meaning could be attached, and now here she was, with her own subjectivity dominant, but altogether hidden by the secrets locked away inside her family home. She is filmed in long takes with the sun beating down on her, when she is around others, and she seems altogether normal. It is disorienting and a great gambit on the part of Lynch to suddenly pump life into someone who was initially characterized as a corpse, because it forces the audience to reckon with who she really was deep down and the violence she experienced. The dramatic pull for audiences in those earliest episodes of Twin Peaks was one of potential seduction, and the possibility of sin, but nothing so blatant as to rip off the Band-Aid and expose the open wound.
Thematically it was familiar territory for Lynch, whose Blue Velvet also criticized the white picket fence of American communities, and opened closed doors that were hiding dark, difficult secrets about human behavior. David Foster Wallace surmises in his own essay on the series that audiences expected a balancing of sowing and reaping when looking at the actions of the people who lived in Twin Peaks. He argues, like Sweeney, they were left angry with the film, because it broke that moral ruling by offering something explicit and far more complicated. Sheryl Lee is asked to do the impossible in containing all the multitudes of a girl who is dead, yet lives, and is experiencing an extreme emotional and physical volatility juggling the way she is perceived. It’s an exaggerated but familiar brush stroke for any adolescent teenage girl to want to control her image, but in the case of Laura Palmer, the polarity of the abuse she is experiencing meddles with the beauty queen persona she has accumulated through genetics.
Lee is so complex in her performance, and is put into some incredibly difficult scenarios due to the nature of the content in the script and through Lynch’s form, which prioritized longer, mundane takes with the actress in isolation. Often it feels as though she is an exposed nerve, raising ever higher in stress, until she erupts. This is contrasted with the copious drug use of the character, which she uses to survive the day-to-day pain of the abuse she is experiencing. In those scenes Laura finally seems more relaxed, as the drugs do what they’re supposed to, but she can only obliterate herself for so long before it catches up with her.
The finest of Lee’s moments in Fire Walk With Me comes in her subtler notes of evoking either loneliness or masked pain. The best of these is a scene where her best friend, Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly), asks her if she were falling in space, would she slow down or go faster? In an extreme cantered close-up, Lee makes the decision to gulp gently before beginning, because she knows this scene is both an admission of the abuse Laura has experienced and a cry for help. For Laura Palmer, this is as close as she ever comes to saying out loud what is torturing her. In a muted tone she answers directly, “Faster and faster, and for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything.” She then pauses and says, “And burst into fire.” Lynch then cuts back to Donna looking downward at Laura when she utters those words. It’s an admission from her friend that she knows something is wrong. Lynch cuts back to Laura, who looks as though she can see her own death. Lee’s close-up is so complex, because while it is an admittance, it is also disarming, and the all-encompassing root emotion of her pain is hidden just below the surface. It is very visible in the eyes — crystal, longing, but gone. She pauses on that emotion before telling her friend the angels wouldn’t help, because they’ve all gone away. Angels are important for Laura. They’re clean and offer salvation, which she covets. It’s in this scene where Laura most closely resembles the corpse she would become. She is gone. She knows it, and Donna knows it. It is a marvel that Lynch asked viewers to step in her shoes, and force viewers to confront all the discomfort of what Twin Peaks was hiding all along.
In an interview with the Criterion Channel, Sheryl Lee talks about the intensity of portraying this character, and being haunted by Laura after production wrapped. She states that it took her weeks to begin feeling like she was experiencing her own thoughts again. In the time since, she has said Laura has continued to haunt her, such as in her prologue for Laura’s Ghost: Women Speak About Twin Peaks. She said she is haunted in a good way when people feel comfortable enough to tell her their stories of experiencing abuse, and how the character helped them in times of great difficulty. In that same interview with Criterion, Lee says she has a different feeling watching the film now as a mother. She sees all the warning signs and wonders how things might have turned out had anyone asked Laura what was wrong. There is a beautiful, heart-rending scene of clarity that very nearly gets to that place when the Log Lady places her hand on the forehead of a weary Laura outside the Roadhouse. She tells her that a fire like this is hard to put out. She holds her hand for an eerily long time, and it is a moment of understanding. It is the only time in the film that Lee is allowed to unclench without her character using drugs. She is bathed in the amber lights of the the Roadhouse bar, and Laura looks innocent, gentle, and so very young. For a moment, she has an angel in the Log Lady. Fire Walk With Me is a film composed of so many opportunistic moments where Laura is crying out for help, but none are as heartbreaking as her speech about bursting into flames or this scene outside the Roadhouse.
David Lynch was also haunted by Laura Palmer. When recollecting on his thought process in Room to Dream ahead of Fire Walk With Me, Lynch stated, “I don’t know why I loved Laura Palmer, but I just loved her, and I wanted to go back and see what she was going through during those days before she died.” The curiosity Lynch displayed in that sentence is also why Fire Walk With Me’s emotional palette is so nuanced and expertly understood.
For as cryptic as Lynch can be in terms of narrative, mysteries, riddles, and clue-making, he is very obvious about emotional intent in any given scene. He never hides how he wants his audience to feel, and he never intellectualizes something as blunt as an emotional reaction. Fire Walk With Me proved too difficult at the time for a multitude of factors, and all of them only barely scraped the surface. Making a movie that deals directly with incest in the family home is an uncomfortable proposition, and because Lynch is so adept at pulling from the larger-than-life emotions associated with melodrama, watching Fire Walk With Me can almost be too much to bear. But in making this film, he, Sheryl Lee, and Jennifer Lynch (who wrote The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer in 1990, which gave Laura her voice) created a character suspended in time, and who is so evocative, complex, and understood that it stands to reason Fire Walk With Me is one of the only useful films ever made about abuse and trauma in the family home. It is a grand spectacle of empathy and brutal violence, and Lynch’s most harrowing picture, but it is also his most hopeful.
In the end, the angels were still with Laura. Death was not the end, and she lives on, haunting all those who brought her to life, or bore witness to her story.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is available to watch on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.