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(Don’t) Revisit:

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Dir: David Lynch

1992

(Don’t) Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that shouldn’t deserve a second look.

David Lynch has a telescope to your subconscious – he must. I can’t see how the man does what he does without a direct window into people’s deep, dark fears; the things so disturbing that we have to keep them hidden from our waking minds. More than any cardboard slasher film or cut-and-paste thriller, Lynch’s films are scary – they unfold with a kind of nightmare logic, a sense that’s recognizable from dreams but impossible to recreate, at least for the rest of us.

In Lynch’s finest works like Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, he combines these avant-garde sensibilities with strong characters and stories, grounding his fantasies with recognizable people and places. That was one of the reasons his ground-breaking TV show Twin Peaks was so good: It dealt with a cast of nearly 30 characters, all of them in depth, while mixing in spooky noir, supernatural mystique and absurd comedy. Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost developed something that had never been seen on TV up until then; it was complex, frightening and totally engrossing. Unfortunately, in making Fire Walk With Me the movie based on the Twin Peaks series, it seems Lynch let his freak flag get away with him and forgot what makes his movies interesting instead of just fucking weird.

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Twin Peaks aired on ABC from 1990-91, going through two seasons before being canceled. Mainly, the plot revolves around the search for Laura Palmer’s killer. Laura was a popular high school student in the eponymous northwestern town, and as the investigation into her murder progresses, we discover that things, as they say, are not quite what they seem. Donna and James, Laura’s best friend and secret boyfriend, respectively, know more than they’re letting on, Laura’s mother is having strange visions as her father seems to be losing his grip on sanity, Leo, a sinister trucker married to a former classmate might be the killer, or Laura’s therapist might be the killer, or a wealthy real estate magnate might be the killer, etc. Quirky FBI agent Dale Cooper is dispatched to help the investigation of Sheriff Harry Truman, and things just get more complicated from there. Lynch handles all the character development deftly though, at the same time imbuing the town with a creepy otherworldly ambiance, and the show with a mood that can shift convincingly from goofball humor to soap-opera romance to menacing violence. When his shots linger on a solitary streetlight being rocked by the wind or a certain angle of a dark hallway, they convey as much as the characters’ facial expressions do.

Fire Walk With Me is a prequel to the series, chronicling Laura Palmer’s last few days and showing us how she died (this eventually gets explained in the show, but never shown). Lynch started filming on the feature midway through the Twin Peaks’ second season, once it became clear the show was headed for cancellation and he began to lose interest in it. The show suffered noticeably in his absence, wandering through uninteresting plotlines and poor facsimiles of Lynchian atmospherics. So presumably the movie would recapture some of the magic. Too bad it ended up a complete mess – overlong, plotless and almost totally incomprehensible. I’m a big fan of the series and familiar with all the intricacies, and I have absolutely no idea what is going on in Fire Walk With Me. I pity the fool who gets suckered into watching it without having seen the TV version. Actually, I feel for anyone who gets suckered into watching it.

One of the biggest issues in the film is that the audience already knows the ending, so Lynch ends up flailing about on pointless things for an hour or two before we get to the climax. There’s an inherent lack of suspense since we already know that Laura’s done for, and Lynch doesn’t provide anything new to justify his movie’s existence. When he makes an attempt at something fresh, it’s in the miserable failure of a first act. Here we’re introduced to two FBI agents played by Kiefer Sutherland and Chris Issak, who are investigating the murder of Theresa Banks; a murder also perpetrated by Laura Palmer’s killer. This story gets alluded to in the series, but only as a brief plot point and there’s no further connection revealed here. The two basically recap some details – presumably for the uninitiated – and it seems like a half-hearted attempt at familiarization since nothing else in the film is related. Harry Dean Stanton shows up as a trailer park resident who might have some new info on the suspect, but Lynch cuts out mid-stream and switches focus back to Twin Peaks and Laura. What happens to the earlier guys? They disappear, literally, with no explanation. Hitchcock made a similar bait-and-switch strategy famous with what he called a Macguffin, but this ain’t no Macguffin. It’s just a massive loose end.

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We’re also treated to an extended sequence in the back of a strip club where Laura and Donna writhe around shirtless on the laps of Jacques Renault (noted drug runner/overweight French-Canadian) and some other guy. Lynch takes this as an opportunity to mess with the film’s sound mix so that none of the dialogue is audible, and also lets the scene run on so long that it feels like he got so hot and bothered he forgot the camera was still taping. It’s emblematic of FWWM’s overall problem, namely that nobody, including the director seems to know what’s happening in it.

Additionally, FWWM suffers from the absence of Agent Cooper, who was the most humanizing thing about Twin Peaks the series. His quirkiness helped to contrast the show’s more dour side and brought humor to the proceedings. Kyle MacLachlan’s portrayal was sincere and believable despite Cooper’s more outlandish tendencies (a complete and unerring belief that he could solve murders through his dreams, for example). He was a total boy scout but never naive; basically a nerd but completely capable and charming. Minus a brief cameo, he’s absent from FWWM, along with most of the show’s charisma. Many of the show’s other central characters receive similar brush-off treatment: brief cameos with no payoff, as if just acknowledging them was enough. At one point David Bowie even shows up, banshee-screams his head off for a few seconds, then leaves again. Bowie, in a further example of the film’s cluelessness, receives top billing.

Naturally the movie focuses on Laura Palmer, played by Sheryl Lee, who actually does an admirable job; Laura’s a complicated figure; a troubled teenager prone to self-destruction of the most vigorous sort but still retaining some of her small-town innocence underneath. Lee is asked to convey a lot, and she nails both the wide-eyed insanity and the insecure adolescent, the girl who’s gotten into all this trouble partly because she still doesn’t know any better and partly because it excites her. That dichotomy is where a lot of the horror of Laura’s murder comes from: the corruption of someone innocent by depraved forces bigger than her. With that at stake, Laura’s death scene is the most successful thing in the movie. People like to say that something is never as terrifying as what you imagine in your head, and Laura’s fate was mythologized so much on the show that everyone (including myself) had time to imagine up something really horrific. But of course David Lynch knows exactly what you can imagine in your head, and there it is on screen, surreal, nightmarish and truly terrifying.

I have a feeling that FWWM would have worked better as a painting. It’s really more of a mood than a movie. When Lynch gets everything right, the results are hypnotic and fascinating like nothing else. He comes close in that last scene, and If he’d paid as much attention to character as he did to ambiance the rest of the time then he would have had a whole film. He would have had a living, breathing success on his hands. But it seems like he was flinging a bunch of paint at his canvas, hoping something would stick. Which worked for Jackson Pollock of course, but Jackson Pollock was a drunk.

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