In some ways, Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch’s notorious prequel to Twin Peaks, plays as two quite distinct films: the investigation by Special Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) into the disappearance of Teresa Banks; and the last seven days in the life of Laura Palmer. At the same time, to say that Fire Walk With Me constitutes two distinct films also diminishes the way in which the Black Lodge’s strange temporality casts its spell over the screenplay, which works equally as a sequel and a prequel, splitting the difference between present and past to set the characters adrift in a distended dreamscape, in which Special Agent Dale Cooper has already found himself trapped in the Black Lodge before the investigation begins, and everything about Lynch’s sombre finale has already preceded and contained the eccentricity, warmth and cosiness of the series proper.
For that reason, Fire Walk With Me doubles down on the glitchy, static-driven, proto-digital horror that became so prominent in the last few episodes of the series, as the Black Lodge – a “crevice” of time – starts to cause disruptions in the space-time continuum around Twin Peaks that see motifs and characters from every part of the story flitting in and out of these final seven days. Presumably, these disruptions will be ongoing in the third season, since many characters long dead – especially Laura and Leland Palmer – are apparently returning in some way, as if given a new lease on life by Lynch’s embrace of digital cinematography. While Fire Walk With Me may still be shot on traditional film, then, that analog warmth is progressively ruptured by digital disruptions, with the opening credit sequence seeming to quote Blue Velvet only for the camera to gradually zoom out and reveal that we are not looking at a luxurious, theatrical curtain, but the humming static of Teresa Banks’ television.
From there, virtually every critical moment in the narrative is mediated in some uncanny way, and so it feels right that the first person in the film to speak is Special Agent Gordon Cole – played by Lynch himself – whose mouthpiece is amplified by a long distance call in which he instructs Agents Desmond and Stanley, through a primitive car radio, to drop whatever they’re doing and focus on the Banks investigation. We then cut to a careening shot from the cockpit and control panel of a small plane that seems to foreshadow the entire narrative to come in terms of post-human perception, before arriving in Deer Meadow, Oregon. There Desmond and Stanley drop into the local Sheriff’s Department, before heading out to the Fat Trout Trailers Park, where Banks spent her final days, and which Lynch continually anchors in long, looming shots of the surrounding power lines, and a barely audible electric humming that, over the next part of the narrative, crystallises into a full-blown return to the Black Lodge, but a very different iteration of the Lodge from the one we’ve seen before.
Whereas, in Twin Peaks proper, the Lodge was presented as a consummation of its warm, “cinematic” style, here the Lodge is presented more as a digital aberration, superimposed over the real world rather than bracketed off from it, and full of internal glitches and contradictions that are impossible to parse and gratingly abrasive to watch. At the same time, however, there is something more cinematic about this iteration of the Lodge – and the story as a whole – since the cosy, pearl-filtered interiors that were so attuned to the scale of a television screen are now strangely vacant and voided on a movie screen, allowing the glitchiness that was only glimpsed in the series to come more into focus. In some ways, the opening sequence in Deer Meadow – approximately a third of the film – is a way of capturing this new cinematic aesthetic, and the way in which it evacuates the familiar mise-en-scenes of the series, since Deer Meadow presents as a strangely vacant, alternative version of Twin Peaks, to the point where there’s not much discernible difference in tone and atmosphere when we do arrive in Twin Peaks, with both sections of the film feeling as if they were shot in the same general vicinity and, in some cases, in the same exact locations.
In other words, Fire Walk With Me clarifies just how precipitously the original series was poised between televisual and cinematic registers, which is perhaps why the platform for the third season – an eighteen hour long film broken into individual instalments – feels like the ideal way to continue the story. Similarly, one of the main hallmarks of Lynch’s style throughout the series was a recourse to increasingly evacuated, looming, ambient spaces – think the bank vault at the end of “Beyond Life and Death” – and yet the logical conclusion of that approach in Fire Walk With Me is a version of Twin Peaks that is utterly evacuated of anything resembling the atmospherics or even the physical appearance of the original town, with much of the action appearing to be shot in an entirely different location. Add to that the absence of Mark Frost – who had left Lynch to direct his own feature film debut in Storyville – and the soapy sense of place so critical to the original series is utterly displaced by Lynch’s surreal tableaux, which are also divested of much of their warmth and good humour in the process and imbued instead with a manic, anarchic, abrasive edge.
Of course, that abrasiveness is the perfect vehicle for elaborating the relationship between Laura and Leland Palmer – the central romance of Fire Walk With Me – but in the opening scenes at Deer Meadow it results in a series of sequences that recall the original series just enough to feel like they are designed to consciously repel and revolt viewers in the process. That’s not to say that there isn’t a jaunty, upbeat momentum here, but it’s the kind of tone that would ensue if Lynch’s Gordon Cole was the key protagonist – as indeed he is for these first scenes, not least because they’re set Lynch’s own Midwest, in what may be, in its own strange way, one of the most autobiographical segments of his career. Nowhere is that clearer than in the examination of Banks’ body, a brutal, grinding, creaking procedure that epitomises Lynch’s movement to a more industrial aesthetic – both musically and visually – and culminates with a fingernail being ripped, horrifically, off its finger, light years away from the delicate forensic examinations of Agent Cooper, or even the bluntness of Albert Rosenfield.
If I’m honest, I still find this opening part of the film unpleasant to watch, a real assault on the senses, but that doesn’t exactly mean that I don’t like it either, since this prologue contains one of my very favourite sequences in Lynch’s filmography – an extended conversation between Agents Desmond and Stanley with the owner of Deer Meadow’s Hap’s Diner (played by Sandra Kinder), a personification of Lynchian eccentricity at its best and most uncanny, spouting fragments of Americana and pearls of wisdom but in a displaced, distended, offbeat manner. Throughout this incredible tableau it feels as if the “real world” and the Red Room have fused into a single hyperreal space – not unlike some of the sequences in Wild At Heart – in a distant precursor to the amazing scene in Mulholland Drive in which Dan and Herb venture beyond the Twinky’s on Sunset Boulevard to see if their nightmare has actually come true.
For all the investigation into Banks’ murder, this scene in the diner is effectively the climax of this opening section, with Agent Desmond vanishing shortly after and the action shifting to a short sequence between Cole, Cooper and Special Agent Philip Jeffries (David Bowie) at the Bureau. Here, as throughout the film, Cooper evinces the same trance-like state as he does in the Black Lodge, and it’s only enhanced by a Escher-like conceit in which he announces a troubling dream to Cole, and then appears to be actually inside the dream, which starts with him standing in front of the Bureau’s security camera, and then follows him as he moves to the surveillance deck to find that his likeness is still standing in front of the camera, after which Jeffries moves through the background and into the office where Cooper is recounting the dream, before going insane and abruptly disappearing. It’s at this point that the Black Lodge first disrupts the mise-en-scene as a digital effect, rather than a sequestered analog space, collapsing all distinction between present and past, prequel and sequel, in what feels more like a short experimental riff on Twin Peaks than anything that might be expected to be found in a feature-length film, even a feature-length film by David Lynch – in other words, an utterly indecipherable sequence that almost demands another whole series to decipher it, which is presumably part of what the third season will do.
At this point, the action shifts again to Twin Peaks, where it remains for the rest of the film, which focuses on the final days of Laura Palmer. Although most of the cast of characters were included in the screenplay, virtually all of them were edited out to leave the focus squarely on Laura and Leland, while those they do remain rotate as the briefest of cameos, to the point where Lynch has to ceremonially and formally announce the extended cast at the beginning of the film to remind us that they are still there. Even those that remain, however seem wildly out of character, and are actually shot so as to appear physically different (James Hurley, in particular, seems to be wearing a dark pair of contact lenses that utterly denatures his soulful, brooding gaze), with most of the male characters, in particular, simply seeming like surrogates for Leland’s omniscient gaze (and Lynch continually frames Leland from below, standing on the steps of his house with much more authority and presence than he ever displays in his quasi-comic incarnation in the series). From that perspective, the fan fixation with “The Missing Pieces” – the hours of footage that were excised from Fire Walk With Me and subsequently made available on DVD – isn’t simply a matter of basking in the frisson of the last remaining images shot in Twin Peaks. Instead, “The Missing Pieces” offer a continuity – both tonally and visually – with the original series that the prequel/sequel doesn’t really offer, a reassurance that what we are seeing is compatible, in some way, with the space-time continuum and analog coordinates that persisted up until those final fateful episodes before Cooper entered the Lodge.
That said, there is one character who still plays a critical role in Fire Walk With Me, and that’s Donna Hayward. The catch, however, is that Donna is now played by a different actress – Moira Kelly – since Lara Flynn Boyle apparently didn’t want to return to the series after her dissatisfaction with how her narrative arc panned out over the second season. When I first watched Fire Walk With Me on VHS I was utterly scandalised by this fact – scandalised that Lynch would dare to insult fans by casting a different actress as Donna, and doubly scandalised that he would dare to place this new Donna front and centre (actually giving her narrative material that’s incompatible with the original series) while not even bothering to include so many of the other original members of the cast who were part of the original screening schedule. Watching it all these years later, however, there’s something perfect about this new, alternative Donna, and the supreme dissonance and dysphoria of foregrounding her in the first sequence, which follows her and Laura as they walk down their street and through the high school corridors for the entire duration of “Falling.”
In part, I love how beautifully this “new” Donna captures the transformative power of Laura’s death, and the way in which it turned every person in the town into a different person – or, rather, clarified that they had always been a different person all along. At the same time, however, the dysphoria and dissonance of this new Donna serves to emphatically remove Laura and Leland’s narrative from the way in which it was perceived and resolved in the original series, allowing Lynch to tackle the issues of abuse and incest in a manner that wasn’t really possible in a more contained and censorious televisual format. In so many ways, these issues – and the corniness of Leland’s redemption – were the real unfinished business of the series (just as they seem to be the driving force behind the third season), with the convergence of BOB and the Black Lodge – and Leland’s final appearance in the Black Lodge – becoming a way of indirectly registering their repressed ripple as it made its way across the texture of the second season.
As a result, Fire Walk With Me is, at heart, a study of Laura and Leland, with the opening section in Deer Meadow ticking some of the prerequisite prequel boxes but existing largely to estrange us enough from the series for this relationship within the Palmer household to be renewed in a different way – a function that feels even more pronounced in that the opening section was originally written around Dale Cooper but hastily reframed after Kyle MacLachlan decided to minimise his involvement in the film. Before we even get to the relationship with Leland, however, Fire Walk With Me is preoccupied, first and foremost, with the frisson of simply seeing Laura Palmer alive, and while that might have seemed to be addressed, in some ways, by Sheryl Lee’s double performance as Maddy Ferguson in the original series, it’s given a completely new and affecting spin here, while Lee’s performance goes beyond anything that was demanded of her as Maddy.
For much of the first part of the film, then, Lynch simply follows Laura as she goes about her daily business, foreshadowing the stuff with Leland but leaving it until later in the narrative to build to a crisis and climax (and leaving her final night, which would occupy most of a conventional prequel, until the final ten minutes of a film that stretches to nearly two and a half hours). For all the flashbacks, photographs and video footage in the original series, there’s something supremely uncanny about seeing Laura in this way, partly because it also means that we see a lot of her high school life – and, for a series that is all about adolescents, we never really saw much of Twin Peaks High School after the announcement of Laura’s murder in the opening episode. Nor did we really see anything of teenage life more generally, with Laura’s death seeming to have propelled James, Donna and Audrey into a pre-emptive adulthood, and Nadine’s regression to a teenage mindset in the second season becoming something of an inchoate way of returning to the teen milieu that had been so clinically excised from a series that was all about appealing to teenagers
Here, however, Laura is firmly embedded in her teenage self, which of course makes her own pre-emptive adulthood and violation at the hands of BOB even more horrific. Tracking her from one adolescent tableau to the next, Lynch is clearly and utterly entranced by her face, body and haptic presence, to the point where the film almost feels like a solo performance by Sheryl Lee, who is obsessively scrutinised by the camera at every instant, and frequently seems to be improvising some of her more extended, ambient scenes, as if the sheer frisson of witnessing Lee alive were tantamount to that of witnessing Laura alive. Indeed, so unremitting is the camera’s voyeurism that Lee – or Laura – virtually seems to become aware of it, as it draws out the deep, shivering, terror engendered by BOB, who has been crawling through her window and abusing her ever since she was twelve years old. Whereas the series is quite euphemistic and sentimental about this process, Fire Walk With Me refuses to ever desexualise BOB’s advances, partly because Lynch is as brutal and graphic in his depictions of sex as he is with violence and drug use, leaving no doubt that BOB – and Leland’s – violation of Laura was a sexual crime, and motivated by sexual obsession (rather than the more amorphous supernatural possession of the series).
To that end, the presence of the camera draws out an extraordinarily visceral gaze from Sheryl Lee that, along with Leland’s answering gaze, has to be one of the most terrifying I have ever seen on the big screen. It’s a gaze that quickly comes to take over her whole body, forcing her to spend most of the film shaking with intensity or immersing herself in even more abrasive and industrial environments to achieve some kind of calmness by comparison. Much of the film therefore takes place in these environments, and as long anarrative sequences contoured only by the movement of bodies across semi-abstracted voids, and the sheer length of these interludes – which go no small way to padding out the two-hour-plus running time – beautifully capture the sheer extent of the convulsive trauma that has to be repressed or subsumed into something even more convulsive at whatever cost, until it almost feels as if Laura’s fear has turned into a shiver passing through the entire town, deranging, denaturing and abstracting it all into a nightmarish tone poem in the process.
In the process, Lynch simply omits many of the most familiar spaces from the series – the Sheriff’s Department, the Great Northern, the waterfall – and shoots the spaces that do recur – the RR Diner, the Bang Bang Bar – from completely different vantage points, opting for estranging, looming aerial perspectives and establishing shots we have never seen before. If anything, these establishing shots tend to give too much away, jettisoning the cosy insularity of television to firmly embed even the most iconic spaces within their surrounding milieux, until it feels as if Fire Walk With Me is set within the filming locations of Twin Peaks, rather than within Twin Peaks per se – a situation that is only enhanced by Lynch appearing to use completely different streets and houses from the series (and completely different streets for identical locations within the film itself). Not surprisingly, that denudes all the pillow shots and rhythmic vistas that made the original series so haunting, atmospheric and noirish for viewers – wind in the pines, the intersection in the middle of town – not least because so many of these were inflected through the aftermath of Laura’s death as well.
In other words, Twin Peaks here is both more quotidian and more uncanny than in the television series, more like a fragment of suburbia than a small town, and utterly divested of any of the regionalist texture that made it so appealing to Dale Cooper, with rapturous discussions of Douglas Firs seeming utterly out of the question. If anything, Fire Walk With Me makes you realise how much the warm, pearl-filtered style of the series was inflected through Dale’s perspective, since this is our first real vision of the town as an insider, and yet the strange temporality of the film also turns this into a vision of Twin Peaks after Cooper’s disappearance as well, which is perhaps why it feels so continuous with the brief establishing shots and locations we have seen in the elliptical trailers for the third season.
In the midst of it all, both Laura and Leland manage to convey the most skin-shivering, bone-shattering sense of fear, to the point where the spectacle of fear – pure, unadulterated, impotent fear – is what makes the film so terrifying in itself. Nowhere is that clearer than in Laura’s first glimpse of BOB in her bedroom – or the first glimpse we see – as we cut to a close-up of her screaming tonsils that perfectly captures the matrix from which Leland’s heightened mannerisms emerged in the series (since he’s comparatively more naturalistic and transparent here). At its strongest, this fear is so suffocating as to make it feel as if there is nobody else in the film – and nobody else in the town – apart from Leland and Laura. With every scene that passes, the walls seem to close in more and more , even as the spaces around Laura become ever more looming, amorphous and ambient, leaving her with absolutely nowhere to hide in plain sight.
In the original series, the Palmer household was a recurring fixation in Lynch’s episodes, and so that comes to a head here, as Laura and Leland are bound in a series of escalating stares (Sarah Palmer is barely in it) and an ever-intensifying series of close-ups that sees them both shivering, trembling and always on the verge of collapsing under the weight of something too terrible to envisage. So intense is this fear, in fact, that it almost requires an abstract plane to make its impact fully felt, with many of the scenes approximating the more cryptic segments and dissociated identities of Lost Highway and, more distantly, the second half of Mulholland Drive. Incredibly, it’s actually during these moments of abstraction that “Laura Palmer’s Theme” starts to creep back subliminally into the diegesis, recalling the series but also refusing, this time around, to put any real weight on the more soaring, aspirational components of Badalamenti’s iconic refrain.
At these moments, it’s strange to think that what we’re seeing is remotely related, in any way to, say, the James Hurley and Evelyn Marsh subplot, since we’re now in a completely different iteration of the Twin Peaks mythology, to the point where the dissolution of space and time that followed upon Dale Cooper’s entrance into the Black Lodge seems to have fundamentally and unalterably disrupted the tone, texture and chronology of the narrative as well (“Guess what? There’s no tomorrow. Know why? ‘Cause it’ll never get there.”) It feels right, then, when Cooper turns up in one of Laura’s dreams, where he is already with her in the Red Room, and already a part of the story – already a part of the ending – before he has even arrived in Twin Peaks, with Lynch going so far as to have Laura experience a vision of Annie asking her to give Dale a message when they do finally meet. Throughout the series, and throughout Lynch’s final episode in particular, there was a growing sense that Laura was Cooper’s real romantic soulmate – the ultimate amalgam of Audrey, Annie and Carolyn – and that’s taken to its logical conclusion here, with the entire narrative retrospectively recast as a supernatural romance between Laura and her investigator.
Perhaps that’s why it feels as if Laura herself is cast more and more in Cooper’s image, as she finds herself moving in and out of a photograph plastered on her wall just as Cooper found himself moving in and out of the security footage at the Bureau, and her few lines of flight from the Palmer house seeming to recapitulate – or anticipate – some of Cooper’s most iconic moments in Twin Peaks. One of the most haunting and beautiful of these takes place as a reprise of Lynch’s ending to “Lonely Souls,” with Laura drifting into the Bang Bang Bar as Julee Cruise is performing “Questions in a World of Blue,” during which the townsfolk dissolve into a smoky, ambient haze and Laura feels both isolated and targeted by the aching refrains of the song, as if inchoately apprehending not only her own death but the fact of it “happening again” in the death of Maddy Ferguson (who, incidentally, doesn’t figure in Fire Walk With Me in any way).
That abstraction of space reaches its extraordinary conclusion in my single favourite sequence of the film, which follows Laura and Leland as they are driving through Twin Peaks – or what is supposed to be Twin Peaks – only to find themselves caught behind a log truck as an elderly couple take an impossibly long time to cross the road, and then overtaken by MIKE, who doubles around to trap them where they are. As MIKE starts screaming at Leland, and Leland starts screaming at MIKE, Laura starts to scream as well, in a scene whose ostensible narrative function – MIKE recognising BOB in Leland – quickly gives way to an intensification of affect in which every scream somehow seems to intensify the fear and paranoia to an ever more unbearable pitch, until it feels like every character has been totally possessed by their fear – or that BOB is fear, as was suggested in “Miss Twin Peaks” – and that we’re in the process of watching LAURA and LELAND as much as MIKE and BOB, in an affective matrix that feels it must give way under such an onslaught of white noise, but never ever does. It’s the moment in the film at which Laura and Leland’s escalating scream comes full circle to sync up with the glitchy static that suffuses every dream sequence, as something unbearable and inexorable makes its way to the surface – something that won’t be kept down but that can’t be permitted to rise either.
It’s a chilling precursor to the centrepiece of the film – the scene in which BOB brings Laura to climax in bed, only for Laura to emerge from her orgasmic trance and realise that it is Leland on top of her. As the film has progressed, it’s become clearer and clearer that the horror of Leland and Laura’s gazes comes from their sense of inextricability, their awareness of some shared moment too traumatic to be even conceptualised, and even twenty-five years later this moment of final, orgasmic communion is still more traumatic, disturbing and distressing than virtually any other scene I have ever seen on the big screen. As Lynch absorbs the screams into a montage of power lines, static and accelerating glitch, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that, for all the talk of UFOs, Owl Cave and Project Bluebook, the supernatural ripples spreading out across Twin Peaks all emanate from this one traumatic event. As might be expected, that all culminates with the final depiction of Laura’s murder, and what this lacks in length – barely occupying the last ten minutes of the film – it more than makes up for in intensity, as Lynch – somehow – manages to orchestrate a sequence in which there is nothing but screaming, and yet in which that screaming itself escalates into a more terrifying source of horror than virtually anything that has come before as – once again, and finally – it is the spectacle of fear – pure, unadulterated, impotent fear – that proves to be more horrifying than anything else.
In other words, there is virtually no interest in the small details of the night or the forensic minutiae that would becomes so precious to the series, since that investigation has, for all intents and purposes, already been cleared up. Instead, the last ten minutes are an emotional finale, and the crime is emphatically presented as a culmination of Laura’s relationship with Leland, rather than the intricate supernatural explanations and breadcrumb trails of the series. In an incredible series of images, Lynch loops time once again to present Leland, Laura and Cooper all in the Black Lodge – twenty-five years haven’t elapsed so much as simply been displaced – and then cuts to Pete Martell’s discovery of the body, splitting the series itself into two separate timelines and leaving the third season with a fascinating formal challenge in terms of how to remain true to both. At the same time, the imagery of the Black Lodge doesn’t exonerate Leland in quite the same way as the series, since the final note is of his culpability and – really – his inextricability from BOB, whose most extreme mannerisms and hyperbolic body language never come close to rivalling the intensity and fixation of Leland’s predatory stare. At the very least while BOB might be acting through Leland, it’s clearer than ever before that BOB can’t act without Leland, allowing Lynch to finally, inexorably, address the horror of Leland and Laura’s relationship head on.
In the series, by contrast, Leland’s redemption was so sudden, the Palmers were removed from the narrative so abruptly, and the tone of the series shifted so rapidly that Laura’s story was effectively repressed, at least in its most traumatic particulars, making it necessary for Lynch to somewhat estrange us from the series in order to recapture that full horror. In the end, then, Fire Walk With Me is like a return of the repressed, and so it’s not surprising that it ruptured the atmosphere of the original series, nor that it was so profoundly unpopular with fans at the time, even if it did provide Sheryl Lee with the best performance of her career – and, to be honest, the best performance ever to come out of the Twin Peaks universe. And yet, if I’m honest, it’s also much easier to digest and accept Fire Walk With Me knowing that a third season is just around the bend, since there is an abrasive finitude to the film that makes it impossible to really engage with it without being alienated and affronted by it at the same time. For what it’s worth, then, I can’t help but hope that the third season will carry on from “Beyond Life and Death” as much as Fire Walk With Me, leaving Lynch’s prequel/sequel to continue floating in the strange distended temporality that feels like its natural home, and against which its achievement seems so magnificent.