Peaks and Valleys: Fire Walk With Me

I’ll see you again in 25 years.

Spoken (backwards!) by the recently murdered Laura Palmer, it seemed just another cryptic sentiment in a show full of codes, but the show’s creators, David Lynch and Mark Frost have once again defied expectations. It took a little more than 25 years, but Twin Peaks is returning to our screens and fulfilling Laura’s promise. The show was a sensation in 1990, fueling water-cooler conversations around the world, but this new “TV Event” isn’t the first televisual addendum to the original show. In 1992 there was Fire Walk With Me, a film that served as a prequel, examining Laura’s final days. It was not readily embraced. Booed at Cannes (though what isn’t?), it was dismissed by critics and, even with an established fanbase, failed to ignite the box office. Some quarter of a century later, it’s still the subject of debate. Some have reclaimed it as the lost gem of Lynch’s career. Others remain unconvinced. Here at Optimism Vaccine, we’re split down the middle. So we decided we’d lay out our best takes, positive and negative, and let you decide…

Jack Eason

It’s impossible to separate discussion of Fire Walk With Me from Twin Peaks, even as one’s timeline precedes the other. The show boasted a large cast and many subplots, but Laura Palmer’s murder served as its anchor. Much was made of the show's “weirdness” but that often missed its purpose. Certainly, Lynch’s talent for unconventional storytelling allowed him to marry multiple layers of meaning - conscious and unconscious - into single scenes, but it also served as a code to keep audiences engaged while he diligently smuggled in controversial content. While audiences sought to process the weirdness, Laura’s story communicated deeply unhappy truths. It’s difficult to imagine, even in today’s “Golden Age” of television, millions tuning in every week for a story about a young woman’s incestuous sexual abuse, her debasement in a patriarchal society that valued her only as a vehicle for its own pleasures, and her ignored cries for help.

The audience talked and speculated, became co-conspirators, often evading the most upsetting, obvious truths to speculate about the romances and sleazy business conspiracies - the “weirdness.” With the benefits of hindsight, the opening scenes form a provocative portrait of evil’s banality. A body is uncovered and identified as Laura Palmer. Laura’s mother finds her daughter’s bed empty. Laura’s seat at school is empty too. News of her death begins to filter through but in the pause we understand that many knew it was coming. Not because they were directly involved, but because they knew something was wrong and could not help. The show would explain their reasons, but those opening minutes astutely convey a dysfunctional society, one whose ills itch the everyday.

It’s well documented that Lynch and Frost had no intention of revealing Laura’s murderer, although they had him chosen from the outset. Their interests lay with examining the “itch” - the ripples caused by abuse that is perceived, but fails to elicit intervention. They were interested in the aftermath, not the initial event. It’s a worthwhile idea, but it’s difficult to disagree that a solution had to eventually be tendered. Resolution contextualizes the show’s ingredients and brings them into relief. Without it, the show risked becoming aimless and repetitive, which is precisely what happened once Laura’s murder was solved. Twin Peaks had no shortage of other tangents but its quick unraveling showed where its strengths lay. Once aware of Laura’s fate, the town’s strangeness fades and we are left with a simulacrum of any quiet place that stood by and allowed something terrible to happen - every quiet place that allowed something terrible to happen. But the unyielding demands of television demanded they march on, even with nowhere to go. So Twin Peaks tried to re-establish its strangeness by doubling down on it, hoping it might point towards a new course. It was not to be and the show was soon cancelled.

Fire Walk With Me offered a new line of attack. The show’s central character was absent from the very first scene. Laura Palmer’s identity was defined in absentia, reconstituted by others. Lynch and Frost now had the opportunity to grant Laura her own voice and that’s a large part of what Fire Walk With Me is. But it is also many other things and they do not mesh well. Lynch was not ready to let go of the world he was trying to save in the second season’s final throes. He and Frost acknowledged they’d hoped the show’s popularity would translate into enough demand for a series of films, allowing a grander re-examination of the show’s mythos. That demand failed to transpire. Isolated, Fire Walk With Me feels like a new false start that furthers, rather than corrects, the stilted gait of the show’s final stretch.

If the film’s creative direction was misguided, or at least, distracted, other production woes took their toll too. Lara Flynn Boyle wouldn’t return to play Donna Hayward, Laura’s best friend and confidante, and Kyle MacLachlan initially refused to headline as Dale Cooper, although he would eventually relent and reprise the role, albeit in a greatly diminished capacity. Re-writes, recasting, and new surrogates were created to bridge the gap but they compounded the dissonance within the film as it developed new mysteries independently of any purpose for having them. Additionally, the film had to contend with the fact that audiences were already intimately aware of the primary plot, flouting most of the traditional footholds of suspense and revelation.

The highlight of the film is what should have been its undivided focus: Sheryl Lee playing Laura Palmer. The role of Laura was an imperfect blessing for Lee. It made her an icon of cult television but she represented the literal absence of a character. Her role is not being there. Finally in Fire Walk With Me, Laura takes center-stage, alive and in motion. Lee’s performance is superb, shifting from schoolgirl pranks to rushed maturity and screaming terror. The film crystalizes Laura as a character of difficult oppositions. She is a girl from whom self-discovery has been robbed. She instead contends with a world of carnal rapacity that has been thrust upon her. Her victimhood is understood but she’s no shrinking violet. Her femme fatale mores are a survival instinct and we gain insight into how she manipulated and alienated friends and sources of help. It’s an important nuance. As a victim of abuse, Laura sought new victims to try and re-assert her autonomy. These insights into Laura’s inner world are the best parts of Fire Walk With Me. Revelations of the damage of a double life and living in terror of a family member. Laura is compelling and Sheryl Lee’s performance remarkable. But both are absent for long stretches.

Leland Palmer, the other major component of Laura’s story, is also reduced to just a few scenes, almost all maniacal. Laura’s mother too, tellingly cast as a tortured, ineffectual background player in the series, gains no new facets here. Casting Leland’s dark urges as a separate malevolent entity, known as Bob, never feels like passing the buck. Perpetrators of abuse are responsible for their actions but Bob becomes a stand-in for the complex cycles of abuse. Leland was a victim of sexual abuse himself and his reprehensible actions do not so much condemn him as reveal him as the product of older horrors. Playing Leland, Ray Wise is predictably great, but there’s nothing here that wasn’t better explored in the television show.

When away from Laura, the film detours into new inhabitants of the mystical “Lodges” and new totems that represent them. These topics are consistent with the story but feel like distractions. This is especially apparent when the new characters are played by flamboyant guest-stars like David Bowie and Chris Isaak. Is this additional obfuscation still useful? We’re no longer toying with network television and trafficking in forbidden subtexts. Nothing is forbidden here and Lynch knows it. He takes full advantage of that. Fire Walk With Me boasts some of the most intensely violent and debauched sequences in his entire oeuvre. No mean feat. But it all comes back to Laura and, for all the sensory overload and cacophony, the most devastating parts of the film are the quiet moments she spends alone or shares with Donna. We see her without her defenses raised. We see her just being Laura, what she was ultimately robbed of forever. These moments are fleeting and outnumbered, scattered amidst a host of oddities and braying antagonisms.

And so I remain unconvinced by Fire Walk With Me. It’s an okay film that teases us with scenes from a great film. Somewhere amidst the screaming, the viscera, and the muffins, Lynch roped off his most powerful character portrait to date, but just like the whole town, he missed her too. Even in her own story, Laura slips away.

Jake Tropila

I find Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me to be one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Fire Walk With Me is by no means an easy film to like, or even an easy film to tolerate. It’s a frequently disturbing, incomprehensible, and oppressive descent into hell, as experienced through the damaged psyche of Laura Palmer during her last days on this mortal coil. Subplots enter and exit the film with abandon; pacing is impossibly slow and languid; and, perhaps most crucially, Fire Walk With Me seems to betray everything that made Twin Peaks so beloved in the first place. It’s agonizing, borderline intolerable work from David Lynch; you would almost feel like a fool if you saw this movie for the first time and didn’t outright hate it immediately. I mean, a phantom David Bowie speaking in an unusual southern accent? Coded FBI messages shared via a dancing woman in a flaming red wig and dress? Creamed corn as the representation of pain and sorrow?! Good grief. Fire Walk With Me is undoubtedly a difficult viewing experience, and yet, it’s one of the very few films that I grow to love more and more with each subsequent viewing, if only because it can articulate that pain so boldly. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Lynch has crafted a true anomaly here: a pure, unadulterated glimpse into his uncompromising vision. And my oh my, how terrifying that vision really is. In a sense, what Lynch has done here is he has crafted the perfect nightmare: you may not like it, but you cannot shake the sensation of seeing it. I hear this term thrown around a lot, but Fire Walk With Me is wholly visceral work, capable of conjuring up an insurmountable amount of dread from the mundane.

Consider, for instance the opening shot of Fire Walk With Me, in which a television set displays images of static while the credits run over it. After David Lynch’s director credit appears on the screen, that television is violently and abruptly smashed in with a sledgehammer. I believe this to be Lynch coming right out and expressing his intentions clearly: everything you know and love about the TV show is dead. While Fire Walk With Me was originally positioned as a prequel to the series (which, it should be noted, was cancelled and ended on a cliffhanger), it’s connection to the series almost seems immaterial; Lynch has no interest in following up with or resolving the fates of many of his characters, most of whom left in precarious life-or-death situations. No, Lynch is interested in Laura Palmer.

It has to be said that the film’s absolute greatest strength lies in the fearless, full-blooded commitment of Sheryl Lee as the doomed high school student. While she does contribute to two of the most iconic images in the television series (as a corpse wrapped in plastic, and in her prom photo), Laura was seldom seen, except in flashbacks, home videos, and Dale Cooper’s increasingly bizarre dream sequences. With Fire Walk With Me, Lynch promotes Lee to leading lady status, and makes Laura Palmer the star of the show. Even the most hard-nosed critics of Fire Walk With Me have to concede that Lee is nothing short of brilliant in this movie, wonderfully adept in communicating the turmoil, anguish, and suffering of Laura Palmer during her final days. It’s exhaustive work, but transcendently so; Lee really brings Laura to life, and deserved to win every single accolade in 1992. Make no mistake about it: her performance does not carry the film; her performance is the film.

Also magnificent? Ray Wise as Laura’s father, Leland Palmer. Perhaps one of the most criminally underrated actors of our time, Wise plays the tormented duality of Leland with aplomb, able to deliver pathos and terror in equal measure. It’s career-best work from the always excellent actor, and together, he and Lee elevate this film to a whole new level, so much so that it’s ridiculous I cannot just write “SHERYL LEE AND RAY WISE” over and over again as to explain why Fire Walk With Me is so damn incredible.

Through the darkness of future past,
The magician longs to see.
Once chants out between both worlds:
Fire, Walk With Me.

As previously mentioned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is not easily approachable work. Rather, it assaults the viewer with a relentless barrage of unusual characters and images until you’re practically begging for it to end (never mind that the first thirty minutes are almost entirely devoted to characters we’ve never seen or heard from before). But underneath all that pain, there is a vast beauty to be behold, and her name is Laura Palmer. Submit yourself to this film, and you'll be rewarded. It is my understanding that knowledge of Fire Walk With Me is important for the revival series. We will not know why until this Sunday, but needless to say I’m excited to see wherever Lynch will take the world of Twin Peaks next. Now, could someone please pass the garmonbozia?

Adam M. Miros

I’m as blank as a fart.

The phrase Fire Walk With Me always conjures a particular scenario in my head. I see a man, we’ll call him David Lynch, throwing out his favorite album because he heard those familiar tunes emanating from a minivan full of khaki wearing suburbanites. Lynch has carved a brilliant and varied forty year career out of depicting nightmares, and I’d posit that Fire Walk With Me is the manifestation of his most potent fear: popularity and the perceived normalcy that accompanies it.

Twin Peaks and the film that followed represent a fascinating crossroads in Lynch’s career. The medium of network television had provided an unlikely pulpit for Lynch’s peculiar brand of subversion and perversion. But with increased visibility came increased scrutiny, restrictions, and compromise. Compromise is not a word at all endemic to Lynch’s oeuvre. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the only two Lynch films I’d consider abject failures feel like a reaction to the polluting influence of mainstream success.

Most would consider Dune an interesting folly at best. Coming off of the raucous underground success of Eraserhead and the critically lauded (to the tune of eight Oscar nominations) The Elephant Man, Lynch seemed poised as one of Hollywood’s next great products. And then there was Dune. Lynch had managed to turn a tentpole science fiction release into an utterly bizarre and impenetrable thing, illustrating that the director would struggle to thrive as a product. Lynch promptly returned to the unorthodox with Blue Velvet, a film that would largely define his artistic motives in the decades to come. The insectile underground of Lumberton proved fertile enough to foster a television revolution.

Sure, the setting had changed, but Twin Peaks was bringing the very adult horrors hidden behind the idyllic facade of Lumberton, North Carolina to television screens across America. Eschewing Blue Velvet’s noir flourishes for an absurdist take on soap opera, Twin Peaks was unlike anything that the medium had previously produced. Its unmistakeable repetitive music beats and outlandish retro stylings became part of the pop culture lexicon. For a brief time in 1990, the question on everyone’s mind was ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ Twin Peaks presented a town that felt at once relatable and cartoonish, a place we wanted to inhabit, if only while the sun was shining, keeping the bogeyman at bay.

Twin Peaks was a magical place, and a magical moment. It’s easy to forget that the show is essentially about the prolonged sexual abuse and eventual murder of a teenager, and the town’s ignorance of that deeply rooted malignance. Sure, Twin Peaks was Agent Dale Cooper. It was Sheriff Harry S. Truman. It was Ben and Audrey Horne. It was The Log Lady and the Man From Another Place. But that rot was always present. It was Leo and Jacques. It was Bob. But most of all, Twin Peaks was the Palmers, with all of their grief, torment, sin, and ugliness.

Fire Walk With Me may have endeavored to tell Laura Palmer’s story, but it neglected to recognize that the story had already been told. Laura Palmer is a beatific picture and a battered corpse wrapped in plastic. As powerful as Sheryl Lee’s portrayal is in the film, Laura’s was a tale best told by her absence. For a film that’s ambition was purportedly to focus on Laura’s last week of life, you’d think it would take the tact of divesting itself of the mysticism that always shrouded Leland’s actions. No longer beholden to the morality of network executives, Lynch is particularly lurid in this film, yet steeps everything in a symbolic stew so thick as to obfuscate motives that seemed particularly clear and resonant by the time Laura’s arc had ended on the show. Bob served as a monstrous manifestation of man’s darkest impulses, and a handy narrative device to draw the mystery out further. He has a place in this story, but the preponderance of owl rings and Phillip Jeffries just serve to dull what should have been a gutting film.

I have a very difficult time believing that David Lynch honestly intended to make several Twin Peaks films as has been reported. He must have known that this film would be abhorred upon release. Laura Palmer’s story had been told, and the show had aimlessly spun about in its aftermath. Audiences had grown weary and apathetic. Then Lynch returned to end the show on a cliffhanger for the ages. Surely audiences expected a continuation of Cooper’s unresolved story. Lynch instead delivered a film that seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the story he had already finished. Twin Peaks, Washington shaped Laura Palmer, and she shaped Twin Peaks. The town’s story is her story. Spending a quarter of the film in Deer Meadow with surly strangers isn’t something you do if you’re seeking to endear yourself to a disenfranchised audience.

Fire Walk With Me is endlessly frustrating and dull. I thought that watching it divested from the series might change my opinion, but it certainly did not. I felt little of the beautiful madness that permeates the majority of his work. I mainly felt impatience. It offered nothing. It felt obligatory. This was David Lynch burning Twin Peaks to the ground. He proceeded to run as far from anything resembling mainstream as he could get, entering the most baldly experimental phase of his celebrated (if divisive) career. He was free from compromise, and his work since has a singularity that few artists can muster.

I do believe that Twin Peaks has more stories to tell. And maybe Lynch is actually interested in telling them this time around. I just hope it's not too popular.

Eric Bayley

First off, it’s silly to say that Fire Walk With Me works as a standalone film. It doesn’t. The film draws upon the lore and narrative of the series so heavily, that it’s nigh impossible to comprehend what’s happening without seeing Twin Peaks first. And even then, you’re still likely to be lost. But I also don’t think it’s fair to say it fails because it’s too different from the show. I think the opening shot/title sequence sums it up perfectly.
 
Credits displayed over a flickering, static filled television screen, ambient jazz on the soundtrack. But this is different from the show’s smooth, finger-snapping lounge jazz. This is slower, melancholy, awash in synths and chord progressions that are reminiscent of some the shows music cues, but stripped of the soapy kitsch and given a tragic twist. Finally, as the credits fade away the television is jarringly smashed, followed by the agonized scream of a terrified woman being beaten to death. David Lynch isn’t exactly a subtle filmmaker, but what he’s trying to say here couldn’t be more obvious: This is still Twin Peaks, but not the side you’ve seen on TV.
 
I suppose I can see why a lot of people not only fail to connect with FWWM, but seem to find it aesthetically and artistically offensive. Most of the criticisms tend to fall into two categories: “It’s Not Like the TV Show” and “It Doesn’t Cohere/Make Any Sense.” It’s easy to point to the opening act as evidence of the films lack of focus. Why do we spend the first 40 minutes with two random FBI agents? But what Lynch is doing here is important, furthering the point made by that opening shot. Think of Agents Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley and how they’re essentially embodiments of Agent Cooper’s most defining characteristics, but flipped on their heads.  Desmond has Cooper’s smooth-operator charisma, investigative prowess, and (mostly) consummate professionalism. But here, it manifests as aloofness. I know Desmond would do his job well, but I wouldn’t exactly be comforted by his presence. And Stanley shares Cooper’s powers of deduction, oddball behavior and naïve curiosity, but those traits only make him seem like a quaint, goofball simpleton who’s unfit to handle such a serious case.
 
Think of the town of Deer Meadow in comparison to Twin Peaks. It’s poverty stricken, filled with citizens so consumed by fear and despair that they “just want to stay where [they are],” unlike Twin Peaks’ eccentric yet charming townsfolk. It’s got a shithole diner where the waitress chain-smokes in your face, in contrast to Norma at the Double R Diner. And Sherriff Cable isn’t exactly as upstanding a lawman as Harry Truman.
 
Lynch is subverting Twin Peaks. He’s showing us that there is a darker side to this world, one that the quirky tone and screwball humor that most fans and critics glommed on to is a mere distraction from. And this time, there’s no charming leading man in a sharp suit to guide through this darkness. Sure, it isn’t necessary if you haven’t seen the series, and maybe the sequence is a bit too long, but most of the films audience is going to have at least a vague cultural awareness of Peaks and its tone, style, and content. It takes some time to undue two seasons worth of baggage and expectations.
 
But even if the film were just what occurred after it cuts to Twin Peaks, the familiar theme music ushering in the story of Laura Palmer’s final week of life, it would still be an exceptional film. For one, it’s an unparalleled cinematic experience. The attention to lighting, music, rhythm, color, and texture is to die for. And Lynch continues to be one of the skilled and creative directors in terms of sound design.
 
But most importantly, it’s one of the few films I’ve ever seen that honestly and respectfully explores the inner life and experience of a victim of sexual abuse. Not to mention it’s one of the most empathetic films I’ve ever seen. I believe I heard someone say once that we don’t experience this descent into darkness with Laura, but as her. This complete identification with another human being is truly rare and, for my money, one of the goals all art should aspire to, no matter the medium. There are many characters in the universe of Twin Peaks, but Laura is the only one who feels real, like I could sit down and have a conversation with her. Notice I called her a human being a moment ago, not a character. I wrote that without thinking. A Freudian slip that speaks volumes, if you ask me. By movie's end, she’s the only denizen of Twin Peaks who I really know. And Sheryl Lee’s magnificently operatic performance is key to understanding this young woman.
 
Yes, the film’s experimental narrative structure and abstract images are confounding and disorienting. But I don’t know if you’ve noticed, that’s kind of Lynch’s thing. His obtuse stories and unnerving manner of telling them are crucial to his goal of unsettling us, shaking the foundations of our cultural and psychological myths, and getting us to see the sickness that lies underneath. All this to better understand our world and ourselves so that the evil his films depict can be dealt with.
 
This is not unlike Laura herself, who is given other-wordly guidance towards understanding the horrible things her father has done to her. This fractures her psyche and seems to remove all sense and logic from the world, like how the film itself feels fractured and senseless. Form and content married boldly and wisely. This knowledge, and the journey to its discovery, is painful and confusing. But it’s necessary in order to transcend the darkness that pervades her world and ours.
 
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is not an easy film to watch, for many reasons. But if you open your mind to its horrors and beauty, it’s one of the most ecstatically overwhelming sensory experiences you’re likely to have, and one of the most profoundly moving stories you’ll ever be told.