Since I last wrote about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me nearly a year ago, I’ve rewatched it somewhere around ten times. Needless to say this film is an unhealthy obsession of mine. I can’t think of another movie I’ve ever revisited so frequently except perhaps The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King which I had on instant replay for a year or two. The Return of the King is perhaps a more understandable film to become enraptured in over and over again. It is long, violent, and occasionally dark, but at the same time it is thrilling, exciting, and ultimately uplifting. Fire Walk with Me is none of those things. As I said before, it’s probably the saddest movie I’ve ever seen.
I like to compare Fire Walk with Me to The Passion of the Christ (another film I love but revisit nowhere near as frequently). Like The Passion, FWWM is basically the story of someone’s slow but inevitable death strung out over two hours. At the end of both of these epics of misery I always feel like I’ve been beaten up. Fire Walk with Me is relentlessly brutal, almost delighting in the barrage of unpleasantness and perversity which it throws at you. In this respect it is much like Tod Solondz’s Palindromes or David Lynch’s early film Blue Velvet, though lacking the former’s sharp wit and the latter’s happy ending. No, Fire Walk with Me is just bleak from beginning to end. This is especially odd considering the tone of the film’s parent TV series Twin Peaks, which managed to balance darkness and violence with slapstick comedy and whimsy. The film departs therefrom radically to plumb the most disturbing elements of the series while almost never letting the audience come up for air.
I first heard about Twin Peaks because apparently some relatives of mine watched it way back in the day during its 1990-91 run while they lived in New Hampshire. I was further intrigued when I found out it was created partly by Mark Frost, whose books on the history of golf I enjoyed immensely (at the time I was only familiar with co-creator David Lynch from his film The Straight Story, which anyone can tell you is quite unlike the rest of his work). I tracked down the pilot on the YouTube and watched about ten minutes of it before I got distracted. As a side note, Twin Peaks is not the kind of show you can just watch casually on the internet. It does require focus, therefore internet adds and enticing video recommendations are not conducive to the show’s relatively slow pace.
Some time later I bought the 2007 Gold Box DVD release and quickly fell in love. Twin Peaks really is unlike anything you’ll ever see. It is similar to David Lynch’s other work in some ways, but just as often departs from that oeuvre as it sticks to it. Even shows and movies which have attempted in some way to capture the mood and style of Twin Peaks can’t really imitate it successfully. By the time I finished the series’ all-too-brief thirty episodes, I was aware of the prequel film Fire Walk with Me, its title taken from a phrase found in the pilot episode and repeated throughout the series. At this time it did not have a very good reputation even among fans of the television series and I simply dismissed it. Cinematic TV-show spin-offs have a long and troubled history of sucking, so I ignored Fire Walk with Me.
Then I found a video of British film critic Mark Kermode (a critic with whose angle on movies and cinema in general I largely agree) praising the film and calling it one of the greatest horror films of the 1990s. Further investigation discovered that the film was so hated and despised when it came out that it was booed at the Cannes Film Festival and bombed miserably at the box office. Well, now I was intrigued. No movie can be that hated without having something of interest to offer. Also, increasing familiarity with David Lynch’s work told me that none of his films, even the unfortunate ones, can be dismissed out of hand.
And so I hunted it down (this was before the excellent blu-ray release last year) and was absolutely amazed by its beauty, its vision, its horror, and most of all its intensity. That is what I always tell people when trying to describe it. I say, “It’s intense,” because that really is the best way to get across the film’s emotional impact. It’s like speeding down the highway at a hundred miles an hour knowing that at the end you’re going to crash. Indeed, Laura Palmer’s plight and murder are very much like watching a car accident, provided that you know personally the people involved in the crash. This is one reason why I think Fire Walk with Me works better than its closest living relative, the aforementioned Blue Velvet. We have had thirty episodes to get to know these characters and to empathize with them, whereas Blue Velvet is a stand-alone piece. I care way more about Laura and Leland Palmer, Agent Cooper and Donna than I do about Jeffrey Beaumont and Dorothy Vallens.
Going into the movie you know that Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is going to die. Her dead body washing up on riverbank is the first thing that happens in the series. And so Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me plays like a long trek into the abyss, very much along the lines of Heart of Darkness. If you’re invested in her, the film is gut-wrenching at almost every turn. One scene which even people who enjoy the film mock is a scene between Laura and her secret boyfriend James (James Marshall) in which Laura compared herself to a turkey. James tells her she’s nothing like a turkey and she responds with “gobble, gobble, gobble”. This scene is played totally straight by the actors, and hammed up like a soap opera with romantic music.
There is something comical about it in that Mystery Science Theatre, so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. But what makes this scene so poignant to me, who cares more about Laura Palmer than most people, is when James begs Laura, “Don’t ever leave. Laura don’t ever leave.” Of course he means that she shouldn’t leave him, but we all know that despite his protestations she is going to be dead within a week. It’s ironic and heartbreaking, turkeys aside. That might be last scene in film which could even remotely be called funny or whimsical. Thence it is a slog toward disaster. I’m not sure why I keep coming back to it. Like I said before, Fire Walk with Me‘s intensity, and by intensity I mean the sheer range and strength of emotion it evokes in me, is unmatched by hardly any other movie. It’s not the kind of thing you can just put on casually. It requires a certain amount of psychological prepping before jumping into it once again. Many of David Lynch’s movies are like huge, violent waves in the ocean. You have to let them flow over you and thrash you around. You have to get lost in them, soaked in them. Any resistance and they will chew you up and spit you out. Fire Walk with Me is just such a film. You have to be ready for it, and when it comes you have to roll with its many punches or you’ll be repulsed by the absolute horror of the thing. One friend to whom I recommended it told me afterward, “I feel like my eyes have been molested.” Half-psychotic, sick, hypnotic indeed.
At this point I’ve seen it so many times that I’ve stopped just watching on just the surface level and now find myself watching for small details hidden in each scene, or at the behavior of extras or background characters. This is one of those movies like The Shining. There are multiple levels of meaning and there is always something new to notice. It helps to keep an eye open for any small piece of information you may have missed last time. I love this movie. That’s probably not that healthy considering its content, but I can’t help it. I understand why people don’t like it – even why people have a visceral reaction of outright contempt for it. It’s not an easy picture to watch. I’m starting to think this might be the picture that haunts me for the rest of my life, the way The Exorcist haunts Mark Kermode or Sunset Blvd. haunts David Lynch himself.
Here’s to ten more times!! Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Joel Bocko’s Journey Through Twin Peaks (SPOILERS)
Mark Kermode’s review.