Friday, June 23, 2017

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Introduction:

In an interview with director David Lynch he mentioned that 1992 was probably one of his lowest points of his career. The film he spent so much time and effort on completely bombed with critics and audiences. It wasn’t that people didn’t like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. They HATED it. You read some of the reviews from the time and there is some real anger in those words. People took the film very personally. They were angry at the man who forced them to look into a very disturbing and dark place.

Summary:

When a young woman is murdered in the pacific northwest the FBI sends one of their best agents to investigate… but it is not who you think. Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his partner Sam Stanley (Keifer Sutherland) start to investigate the murder but find that it may be tied to some bizarre happenings that the FBI is already aware of. Before Desmond can make obtain a solid lead he vanishes and the case goes cold.

We then jump forward a year to follow Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) through the final days of her life. Laura is a troubled girl, popular at school and friendly to everyone in Twin Peaks. But she is also addicted to cocaine and will often degrades herself sexually. At home she is being raped by a thing she calls BOB (Frank Silva), who has been abusing her since she was twelve. Laura feels her life burning out of control, especially when she makes a horrifying realization about BOB.  We know how the story ends, and we watch as Laura is consumed by darkness leaving only the words Fire Walk with Me behind.

Good Points:
  • Creates a wonderful tone of mystery in the first third and then delves into a dark atmosphere that is filled with dread
  • Two top notch performances by Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise
  • Filled with layers and themes that build on and enhance the television series

Bad Points:
  • Anyone looking for closure to the television series will be disappointed
  • Anyone looking for some of the fun characters from the series will be disappointed
  • This is a deeply tragic and disturbing film – not a fun time here

Overall:

Judged on its own merits this is one of David Lynch’s best films. His focus on Laura Palmer and her final days is a fascinating and yet horrifying journey to take. He infuses the film with a dread and darkness that goes deeper than many other films because he uses his surreal imagery in a way that words alone can’t touch. The film is a masterpiece of using mood and visuals to create those feelings in the viewer. But it strays far from all the light and fun elements of the television series. If you don’t know that going in, the movie may feel unfair or unwanted. That said, it is nightmare journey that you won’t forget, even if you wanted to.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

Laura's final days.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a study of contrasts in nearly all its aspects, including the reaction it elicits in viewers. It is a film that demands that you pay attention to all its details and yet will throw you for a complete loop while you try to make sense of them. It starts one mystery and ends a different one. It delves into horror and despair but ends with Laura smiling and laughing with tears in her eyes. It is familiar and alien together. It is pure David Lynch, but it isn’t what we asked for (even while we were complaining about his absence during season two of the television series).

I could go on like this, but you get the idea.

It is a difficult movie to watch and to examine. But I’m going to give it my best shot and forgive me if I end up rambling or twisting upon myself on a lost highway somewhere. That kind of thing happens when you discuss David Lynch.

Foreshadowing the fate of Laura.
Let’s take a look at the first part of the film, the one that may feel the most like Twin Peaks as we understood it from the television series. The film opens with what looks like a brutal attack and then cuts to a body floating in a river wrapped in plastic. We are immediately reminded of the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body wrapped in plastic and washed up on the shore of a river near Pete Martell’s (Jack Nance) place. But the titles on the screen tell us that this is Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley).

Those with a keen memory to the first episode of the television’s series will remember that the murder of Teresa Banks was the case that Agent Cooper connected to the murder of Laura Palmer, leading him to believe this may be the start of a serial killing.

Sam is skeptical about his coffee.
But Fire Walk with Me gives us Agent Chester Desmond and Sam Stanley as investigators on the case. Desmond seems to be much like Cooper with a more instinctual approach to investigation. But Stanley seems to be the complete opposite Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) who’s acerbic and cynical approach in the television series was a treat. Instead Stanley often seems confused, obsessed with strange details and even a little slow to catch on to what is happening around him.

David Bowie arrives and it gets weird!
This twist continues with the investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks. The town is like a bizarro-world version of Twin Peaks. The Sheriff and his staff are rude, mocking and openly resistant to working with the FBI. Hap’s Diner looks run down and owner is surly compared to the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks, which always looks immaculate, and Norma (Peggy Lipton) was always helpful and had a smile for anyone who walked in.

A dirty callback to the little man in the dream.
In fact there is very little beauty in this first portion of the film. Most of what we see of the small town looks run down, filled with junk heaps and dirt. The R.V. Park where we meet the bitter and angry Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton having a good old time in the part) just looks so damn seedy. It is almost as if Lynch is going out of his way to make this look as far from Twin Peaks as possible.

But there is one element that does fit in the first third of the film, the mystery. Lynch follows Desmond and Stanley on their investigation giving us strange clues and pouring on those atmospheric touches that hint at further twisting paths in the depths of this world. Desmond becomes convinced that a ring that Teresa Banks had in a photo is a key clue. His search for the ring leads directly to his disappearance. And that ring plays a key symbolic role in Fire Walk with Me.

"Don't know where. Don't know when."
The first portion concludes with Agent Cooper discussing a dream with his supervisor Gordon Cole (David Lynch reprising his amusing character form the television series) and partner Rosenfeld. Suddenly a missing agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie in a short cameo) appears and tells a strange tale that we only hear fragments of. Jeffries was investigating something that is tied directly to Banks case (and eventually tied to Laura Palmer’s case as well). Cooper tries to track down Desmond’s last movements and becomes convinced that the killer will strike again.

This first third of the film feels almost like it is coming from another movie or television series focused entirely on the FBI cases surrounding the supernatural events around Twin Peaks. I really like the way it plays out, feeling off kilter enough to be tied to the same world, but also weaving a new mystery and building on a bigger picture. The moods that Lynch captures here are ones of mystery and the uncanny. Watching it now, I kind of wish the move continued along these lines, with Agent Cooper attempting to find out more about these connections and how they play into the mystery of BOB and his unusual pals who live above the convince store.

The lady with the blue rose.
I’ve read that if Fire Walk with Me was a success that Lynch wanted to create more films that followed the FBI cases and delved deeper into these “Blue Rose” cases (what I assume are Agent Coles’ version of the X-files). Sadly the film bombed and Lynch never got a chance to delve into this aspect of the film. But as it stands, it makes for an intriguing 30 minutes of viewing.

But it really is a prelude to the main story: the decay and death of Laura Palmer. That is the black heart of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and something that was also at the heart of the show. It is the portion of the film that remains longest in the memory because of the horror it delves into and the performances by the main characters in this tragic tale.

Can't you just hear the music?
Visually we are back in Twin Peaks proper. All the dust and rust of the first third of the film are replaced by the familiar suburban bliss from the television series. Favorite locales like the high school, the Double R Diner and the street in front of the Palmer home all make appearances. We also glimpse the pressure cooker on the inside of that same home, the foreboding woods outside the town and of course the Red Room where little men dance and speak backwards. It wouldn’t be Twin Peaks without that.

Moira Kelly dopplegangs Donna.
While the familiar strains of Badalamenti’s theme for Twin Peaks plays, and reassures us that we are back in a comfort zone, the film refuses to give us any comfort. The first third of the film had some of that absurd humor that Lynch loves so much, but even that was on the subtle side (for Lynch anyway). Once we get to Twin Peaks itself, the humor is gone. Even when the Log Lady makes an appearance, she is solemn, almost acting as a priestesses giving Laura some kind of absolution.

It is difficult to talk about this portion of the film without some major spoilers so I’m warning you now, going forward I’m going to assume you’ve seen the first two seasons of Twin Peaks and know who killed Laura Palmer. Ok, you still here? Let’s go.

Lounging and daydreaming.
Lynch has said in interviews that what drew him to make Fire Walk with Me was the chance to see Laura Palmer alive, instead of just hearing about her from friends and family and finding out about her secrets through the lens of Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman. The first scenes featuring Laura show us at her most vibrant, meeting up with Donna (now played by Moira Kelly adding a strange surreal twist to the film and visually tying to the doppelganger concept of the final episode of season two) and going to school. In fact almost all those scenes at school show us the fa├žade of Laura Palmer and the cracks showing underneath. Lynch doesn’t waste any time delving into the darkness of Laura as she sneaks into the bathroom for a quick snort of coke.

Laura sees the man who is the mask.
Right there the movie lays the cards on the table. The mystery of Laura Palmer was going to be revealed, all of it in unflinching detail. We see her drug addiction, her sexual debasement, her rape by BOB, and under all of it the young girl who is sinking under all the darkness within her. This is Sheryl Lee’s performance becomes crucial. If she didn’t convince us, then the movie falls apart. But Lee goes all in with her performance. It is hard to watch her at times because the pain and fear look so real. She’s said that she loved the final result of her performance, but that making the film was a very difficult experience. It comes across in this powerful performance, and gets right to the heart of what Lynch wants to explore in the film.

Matching her is Ray Wise playing her father Leland Palmer. Wise did a very fine job in the television series as he took the journey from grieving father, to vengeful killer, to shattered man and finally to a broken wreck of a human begging for absolution from Agent Cooper as he dies knowing that he murdered his own daughter.

Ray Wise makes this scene very uncomfortable.
In Fire Walk with Me Wise captures the two sides of Leland Palmer, the protective but loving father and the predatory beast that controls his house with fear and oppression. There is a powerful scene where Leland verbally abuses and intimidates Laura at the dinner table. Wise is disturbing in this sequence, his eyes burning with a mixture of animal lust and aggression as he berates Laura and manhandles her in front of his wife. In a scene that follows we see him in his bedroom with his wife, and that aggression melts away and the realization of what he did and said comes across his face. The horror and anguish is palatable as he goes to Laura and apologizes to her. Wise’s performance is pitch perfect, and just adds to the horror of the situation.

But what is the situation. You can debate it forever, and Lynch never gives a solid answer. Is Leland Palmer a mentally unstable man, who descends into rages that cause him to rape his daughter and drive him to kill? Was this persona of BOB something that Laura constructed subconsciously so she could deal with the abuse going on at home? Or is Leland a victim too, controlled by the malevolent force that is BOB to do these unspeakable acts?

If a little man from another place offers you a ring...
Do. Not. Take. It!
Lynch has said that BOB and many of the characters like him in his other films (the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, the cowboy in Mulholland Drive to name a couple) are “abstractions”. He doesn’t ever clarify what that means exactly, but I feel that they are physical manifestations of emotions and thoughts projected out from the characters. These abstractions seem to feed on and build more of the same emotions. Are they actual characters in themselves? Hard to say. When it comes to Twin Peaks, it does seem like these abstractions have a life of their own and can exist outside of the human characters.

BOB hangs up his mask.
In the series it is implied that BOB has attached himself to Leland for many years, and we see that dark side very clearly in Fire Walk with Me. It is very possible that BOB saw the potential for these acts in a young Leland and has been nurturing them over time. But the horror is that you can’t have one with out the other. Leland is BOB on some level and BOB is a part of Leland. Yes BOB rapes and murders Laura, but so does Leland. It is up to the viewer to decide if they want to absolve Leland for his actions and blame it all on BOB.

The other piece of the puzzle that comes across several times in the dialogue is that BOB wants to take Laura as his next host. He’s grown tired or indulging Leland’s dark side and he want to taste that darkness as Laura. What we see of Laura in this film we understand how that darkness manifests within her. If BOB was to take and augment that further… I shudder to think.

Last Log Lady Rites.
Laura fears this above everything else. That fear is what drives her in most of the film. It is why she struggles so violently in her life. She tries to do good deeds, like work on the Meals on Wheels project. She’s a model citizen in Twin Peaks and everyone loves her. But in her mind that mask is slipping and once her defenses break she will become BOB’s new toy.

The real sadness of the film is watching her fall further and further into despair. No matter what she does it only seems to make things worse. She falls further and further into the darkness and this only make BOB hunger for her more. Self destruction seems to be the only way to truly escape from all of this.

No angel can save Laura now.
Fire Walk with Me ends as it must, with Laura being brutally murdered by her father/BOB. She won’t let BOB in, and in his rage he destroys her. Laura is hopeless as she dies, with the visual motif of guardian angels vanishing from her sight implying the finality of her fate. It’s a crushing sequence that Lee and Wise play so well, but as with much of the film, it is difficult to watch such a bitter and dark climax.

Then there is the epilogue in the Red Room, with Laura and Agent Cooper talking. She seems to have reached some kind of acceptance of what happened to her, and at that moment the angel reappears before her, and she laughs and cries at the same time. You can read this ending in so many ways, as a final bleak FUCK YOU to Laura or as a bit of hope that her soul and her life were not wasted. I’m sure if you asked Lynch, he’d be more interested in your interpretation of the ending then telling you anything about it himself.

Blue Laura laughing in the Red Room.
I’ve only focused on the main conflict and relationship in Fire Walk with Me, but there are plenty of other interesting elements to dive into. Hell I could write another ten pages or so about the other abstractions in the film, the interplay between Laura and her peers, the way her mother relates to the events in the film and how Teresa Banks plays into the whole thing. I could go into some of the production problems Lynch faced (including cast members that didn’t want to come back and footage that was shot but never used). I could also go into how those production issues forced Lynch to make some very creative and interesting solutions that impact the film overall. But as interesting as all those rabbit holes are (and their fascinating imagery too) they serve to support the focus on Laura’s final desperate battle.

Your abstractions just arrived.
I think that Fire Walk with Me represents a major turning point in David Lynch’s approach to storytelling. In nearly all his films afterward (with the exception being The Straight Story) Lynch tells his stories out of narrative order, allowing the emotions of the characters to dictate the flow of the film and often manifest as abstractions. We see elements of these in his previous films, but Fire Walk with Me feels like the first complete manifestation of this approach to storytelling, and it may be his most approachable of those types of films. It is certainly the least oblique, which is saying something.

"Fire... walk... with... me... ME!"
But I wouldn’t recommend this film to a Lynch neophyte. While it is a prequel to Twin Peaks to really appreciate the full impact of the film, you need to watch the first two seasons of the show. And obviously even those who have watched the series ended up disliking the film.

I can see why. In many ways it feels like a harsh slap in the face. The movie is aggressive in its approach to the darkness of the soul. It is also aggressive in its use of symbolism and abstractions. It never tells its story simply or in clear terms. It focuses on mood and atmosphere as much as narrative. It can feel insane, pretentious and just plain pointless.

Fire Walk with Me is not a fun movie to watch. It is heartbreaking and painful. As you unwrap its secrets you see more darkness in the core, and yet it is still beguiling. That is the magic of Lynch’s skill in the filmmaking. If you are in tune with how he tells stories, then the film is a journey worth taking again and again. It is fascinating and horrifying all together, just like Laura Palmer.

The angel returns.
In the scope of the Twin Peaks saga it is an essential tale, that adds to the world crafted in the television series. If a fan of the television show can get past the initial slap in the face, they will find plenty to explore. In the scope of Lynch’s films, this may be one of his best all around productions. Personally I enjoy the ride along the Lost Highway a bit more, but I can’t deny that the emotional impact of Fire Walk with Me may be his most effective.


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Laura lost.

4 comments:

  1. Just by the odds there always will be people who will see a sequel/prequel/spin-off (in whatever format) without having seen the original. The result varies with the plot/theme dependency on the original. “Aliens”? You’re probably OK without the first. “Serenity”? You can do it, but, oh my, how many strands and nuances you’ll miss. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8” (the comic book)? Don’t. Just don’t. If you don’t know why Willow flayed Warren, why Amy still has mommy issues, and why Riley broke up with Buffy (three minor examples out of a multitude), the comic simply will make no sense at all. This one sounds like “you can but you shouldn’t.”

    Giving abstractions demigod-ish form is rather pagan, isn’t it? That’s not an objection, but an observation. Hey, W.B. Yeats is my favorite poet.

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    1. Yeah "Twin Peaks" is certainly one of those where you need to have seen the whole series to make sense out of what is happening. There is too much going on from a plot point of view that Lynch never explains because the show covered it. When I first saw this, I had only seen the first season, so there were a couple of characters I didn't eve recognize who obviously had an important role in the film, and I was missing.

      It does have a pagan feel to it. I'm not sure if Lynch was into Transcendental Meditation yet, but I know some of his later films are influenced by that. Since the abstractions appear as early as "Eraserhead" I think it is safe to say that these are a film device that Lynch likes to employ. It keeps the viewer off balance and develops a mystery all its own - something Lynch loves to do.

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  2. I'd agree Fire Walk with Me is a rather polarizing film, and that may be part of its problem. I think another part of the problem is that it first establishes itself through the TV series--so really, it is best to watch that first before the film, or at least you'd probably get more out of it that way. Also, irrc, it came out a bit after the initial series, that may not have helped either.

    Secondly, it's still a bit ambiguous (and weird, like the series), and like a lot of Lynch's other films. That's probably a point of contention with a lot of people (I think). I don't mind weird, and I think that's really a part of Lynch's style, also being a bit
    unsettling, vague, and well, arty.

    Third, and this might have been part of it at least for mainstream audiences (and I fit in here too at times), but compare Fire Walk with Me to say the way Breaking Bad ended. That seemed to be a hit with fans of the show. Breaking Bad landed and ended with a definite climax, or at least solid enough that fans of the show felt rewarded after following it for several seasons. On the other hand, there's Lost--and there are probably other examples you could plug in here. For me Lost never wrapped up (and to be honest I lost interest with it for that reason). But I think most audiences want that point of closure. The same might be said of No Country for Old Men. There was a similar uproar over that ending, and might be closer to Fire Walk with Me. It was vague in the ending, though the first two acts were fine. Now I personally still love that film, but I'm just saying there was sort of a backlash to the film due to the way the Coen brothers wrote/directed it and the ending left many scratching their collective heads.

    At any rate, Lynch just may be one of those acquired taste directors or love or hate him directors. I admire him although I haven't enjoyed everything he's done, but he's done enough that I've enjoyed, like the Coens, and other director I like that I'll give him his due, respect, etc.

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    1. Yeah I think you are so right. Viewer expectation was the real killer for this film back in 1992. In some ways it reminds me of the situation with Ridley Scott and "Prometheus". In both cases the director was lured back to a franchise they created. But they were interested in going a direction that the audience was not. The result was a very nasty backlash. Now, "Prometheus" has other problems in its construction. But I think "Fire Walk with Me" is pretty much how Lynch wanted it to be (considering some if the issues he had getting it made).

      But the public didn't want to see what happened to Laura. We already knew most of this story from the clues that Cooper and Truman find in the series and the way Donna, Bobby and James talk about her. But Lynch loves to show, not tell. And he really wanted to see Laura deal with those final days. He has also said that Sheryl Lee was such a good actress that he was sad he couldn't give her a chance to really delve into Laura's character. Lee still thinks the film features her best performance.

      As you said, most fans were hoping for a conclusion to the series. So many cliff hangers at the end of season two, how could they not? And maybe if Lynch's original conception of creating a series based on the Blue Rose cases had panned out, we could have had that conclusion. Sadly (but understandably) the film bombed and we never saw that concept executed.

      But I think that visceral reaction of anger to the film and Lynch also came from the fact that the film is so darn dark and peers into a disturbing place. Watching Laura completely fall apart into a pit of despair is tough viewing. I can see people very angry that Lynch chose to focus on this part of the story, something that the series does a little bit, but has the absurd humor to balance out. Without the humor the film makes us realize how dark the heart of the series really was.

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