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David Lynch’s Heartbreaking Gift to Laura Palmer

The director’s wild, unwieldy 1992 film, ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,’ is more sympathetic than surreal

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“So you wanna fuck the homecoming queen.”

Laura Palmer, 17, is only a couple of days from the end of her life. Not long from now, her dead body will be found sheathed in plastic on the shore of the local lake, and an FBI agent named Cooper will be called in to solve her murder. Does Laura already know this? You get the feeling she does.

Halfway into Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch’s 1992 prequel and follow-up to the 1990–91 hit TV series he created with Mark Frost, Laura (Sheryl Lee) puts on a black dress, pours herself a drink, and heads out to a bar. A series of strange incidents befalls her. She runs into an older woman known as the Log Lady, who raises a hand to Laura’s forehead and issues her a mystical warning: “When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out.” In the bar, a singer whisper-croons a dream-pop ballad called “Questions in a World of Blue,” which seems to give voice to feelings that have overwhelmed Laura since the start of the film (“How can a heart / That’s filled with love / Start to cry?”). By the time the two men who plan to pay Laura for sex arrive at her table and set down their money, she’s crying. “So you wanna fuck the homecoming queen,” she says, composing herself, hand on the cash.

A pile-on of random, clashing events — premonitions, inexplicable encounters with strangers, steep tonal and emotional swerves — isn’t so foreign to the Twin Peaks universe. This is, in fact, all par for the course: a prevailing sense of symbolic order, but an utter lack of clear narrative logic, is the stuff that kept the TV series afloat for two seasons (though, barely). And so is the abundance of tears. When I think back to the show, I think of the pilot, and of everyone who loved Laura stopping to cry — sometimes, to wail. Her mother, her father, her best friend, her boyfriend, her other boyfriend. In Fire Walk With Me much of that baggage is cleared away. Side stories and characters have been whittled down, and the routine incidents that dominated the show — the after-school mysteries, the romantic triangles, Nadine’s horny amnesia — get minimized or bypassed entirely in order to make room for Laura, who finally gets to cry on her own behalf.

It’s something the TV show never gave her a chance to do. But then, in the show, Laura was less a character than a structure-defining absence: her haunting of the show’s 30 wandering episodes is what held them together. The Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks, the show, is a mere image, or really pairs of images: alive and dead. Beaming with life in her yearbook photo, and dead. Rockette-kicking with her best friend, Donna, on a home video, and dead. The movie gives her a chance to fill in the blanks. Fire Walk With Me played to boos when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1992, but enough good news: when it debuted in the U.S. later that year, it was met with mere indifference — too few of us saw it to make noise either way.

That may change. Just last week, in time for the premiere of the show’s revival after 25 years, Lynch let slip that Fire Walk With Me would be essential viewing for those planning to watch the next leg of the series. That’s great news, I bet, for everyone who hated it the first time — enjoy your broccoli. The true winners, of course, are the people getting around to this wild, unwieldy movie for the first time. Everything you’ve heard about the movie isn’t wrong: Fire Walk With Me, which opens a year and a week before Laura’s murder and then jumps ahead to document her final days, is a flawed film by definition, not least because of the oddly vestigial ties to the show. You notice what’s missing. The movie, with its gutted cast (no Lara Flynn Boyle! No Sherilyn Fenn!) and utter lack of whimsy, can’t help but make you pine for more donut layouts and random crying fits from Officer Andy.

But some part of me — and not just the troll part — finds our collective inability to make heads or tails of the movie refreshing. Knowing, for example, that Quentin Tarantino, who attended the movie’s Cannes premiere in 1992, had by the end of the screening been convinced to never watch a new Lynch movie, only makes me admire the movie more. No shade: I value Tarantino’s taste in movies, and the earnest promiscuity of his many offbeat cinematic loves, perhaps even more than his actual films. But to think that Lynch could make a film too far afield for even this most doggedly eclectic of cinephiles — to think that whatever new ground Lynch had broken had also completely undermined Tarantino’s conception of him as an artist — is, frankly, irresistible.

Tarantino felt that Fire Walk With Me was proof that Lynch had disappeared up his own ass. It plays a little differently for me: Lynch digging deep — up his ass, if need be — to find and exploit new personal and aesthetic territory. We disagree on the film’s merits. But is clear to me that we’re talking about the same thing.

Fire Walk With Me begins by announcing what it is — and what it isn’t. The movie opens with a credit sequence backed by the image of a crackling blue TV screen. We file through all the names — actors, producers, and the like. Then we land on the name David Lynch — and out of nowhere, with a sudden thwack, the TV is destroyed. Then we hear it: the same thud, over and over, this time accompanied by the sound of a woman screaming.

So, right — this isn’t quite your known, beloved Twin Peaks. The first victim is of course a television, because Twin Peaks was no longer (as of 1991) the provenance of the small screen. Then the offing of a second victim with, arguably, a more explicit and unambiguous sense of violence than anything we saw in the TV series, despite us merely being ear witnesses, because violence is essential to understanding what Fire Walk With Me will and will not be. Lynch makes his point successfully, if brutally. Out: whimsy and contained violence. In: realms of terror the show never quite let us see.

This is a prequel, after all; we all know why we’re here. It’s apt, however, that a story we’ve more or less tended to summarize as a “surrealistic nightmare tour of a Pacific Northwest prom queen’s rape and murder” should refuse the comparatively straightforward comforts of the show. The TV series dished out its extreme violence selectively (and effectively). Fire Walk With Me chooses, instead, to immerse us in it. The TV show made room for the quotidian; even as everything had to compete with the overarching mystery, the show’s second season, especially, teemed with distractions that constantly (and sometimes annoyingly) gambled with our attention spans and goodwill. Fire Walk With Me, meanwhile, is as wild and broken up as its struggling heroine.

Thank goodness for that — I’m wary of surrealist nightmares that try to have mass appeal. They can’t: the form is premised on frustrating our conscious interpretations, forcing us to make up our own minds not only as to whether that uncertainty is worthwhile or pleasurable, but also if those are even fair demands. (I don’t think they are.) Art that revels in the muck of the unconscious, as surrealism tries to do, should risk at least a few of us saying, “Fuck this.” That’s the risk Fire Walk With Me, more than even Twin Peaks the show — more than even Season 2! — openly takes. (Your loss, Quentin.)

Then again, this all pretends that discussing Lynch in terms of the surreal isn’t already kind of boring and insufficient — which of course it is. The term is so often deployed in assessments of his work that it’s become shorthand for a bunch of qualities we don’t otherwise seem to have a language for. So we repeat the same words: dream-like soap-opera nightmare noir-procedural. “Surreal” is the most abused descriptor of all (followed by “Lynchian,” another term I hate: it’s redundant when referring to Lynch and embarrassingly generous when referring to anyone else). Even Lynch seems to think the term doesn’t quite hit the mark. “I love the surrealists,” he once told Interview magazine, “and I sort of understand what [people are] saying, but I just think that maybe things aren’t always surreal. To me, a story can be both concrete and abstract, or a concrete story can hold abstractions. And abstractions are things that really can’t be said so well with words. They’re intuited. They’re understood in a different way.”

The problem isn’t that surrealism is an inaccurate read of Lynch’s style; the problem is that “surreal” has become our go-to word for everything in Lynch’s art that can’t be expressed any better or differently than how Lynch has already expressed it himself — in images. Explaining the backward-moving torpor of the Black Lodge, or the terrible wonder of Laura Palmer’s train car murder, can’t approximate experiencing them for oneself — so we say they’re surreal, which in essence means, “I can’t explain it. You had to be there.” We shouldn’t need language, to begin with: Lynch has given us images. He’s given us moods. He’s given us Laura. I finish Lynch’s films confident that some part of me understood what just happened, and certain that that part of me wasn’t my brain. In that regard, Fire Walk With Me is no different. What sets it apart in Lynch’s canon is that it can break your heart.

Fire Walk With Me is best understood as a series of heartbreaking revelations. Viewers of the show know that the story of Laura’s coming of age is a story about sexual violence and its long aftereffects. What Fire Walk With Me deals with is Laura’s own reckoning with that abuse. She finds out that BOB, her assailant, is really her father. She discovers this again and again — and each time, Lynch makes a point of focusing on the terrified expressions of Sheryl Lee. Every close-up of Laura’s terrified face, enlarged to the point of bursting out of the frame, is a throwback to Teresa Banks, whose dead face we see in close-up early on, so deliberately and clinically framed that the head of her corpse has a way of appearing to be severed from her body.

This is the same face Sheryl, as Laura, makes early in her segment of the film. In one remarkable scene, Donna asks, “Do you think that if you were falling in space, that you would slow down after a while or go faster and faster?” “Faster and faster,” Laura says, and the image slowly creeps in on her face. Her gaze goes to a far-off place. Her mouth hangs open between each phrase. “And for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. But then you’d burst into fire — forever. And the angels wouldn’t help you, because they’ve all gone away.” By the end, her head is severed, in the frame, from the rest of her body. She makes a variation of this face again and again — in conflicts with her father, who, as students of the show already know, is her childhood rapist and eventual murderer.

We already know Laura will die, and know how, and even sort of know why, but these constant suggestions of Laura’s impending dead body have a way of steeping the movie in a sense of foreboding, to the point that even Laura seems to feel it’s an inevitability. The movie is overcome by the sense that Laura is descending — sometimes it even seems like she gives into that momentum willingly. Sheryl Lee, it should be said, gives one of the great horror performances in the history of movies, one that mars Laura’s innate goodness with the accumulated effects of everything that’s been done to her body, to say nothing of what has happened to her psychologically.

In Laura’s darker moods you can’t help but notice the slight husk in Lee’s voice, and the severity of expression she brings to her face. Unlike the other characters her age, Laura carries with her the weight of too many experiences had way before her time — and she instills that aura with a sense of implacable fear, and rage. “Open your eyes, James,” she says to her kindhearted biker boyfriend late in the movie. “You don’t even know me … Even Donna doesn’t know me. Your Laura disappeared. It’s just me.”

In the end, in death, Laura Palmer’s life is reduced to a series of disorienting images: the scene of her murder, set in a train car, is marked by rapid, disorienting flashes of light. The murder sequence rises and falls, goes silent and comes back. It’s as long as it is excruciating; Lynch pulls no punches. Yet for all this, and for all the film’s insistence of obfuscating certain specifics, there’s nothing ambiguous about the actual murder.

But the film doesn’t end there. There was perhaps no other way to end Fire Walk With Me than with Laura in tears. But these are tears of relief: after she dies, Laura appears again in the red room of the Black Lodge. Agent Cooper is there, and he’s smiling. Laura is looking down at first — and then she sees it: the angel. In slow motion, and set to exquisite swells of music (written, as always, by Angelo Badalamenti), we see Lynch give Laura, not a chance at transcendence — the film’s violence makes that hard to imagine — but something closer to grace.

In contrast to its reputation for swerving too severely from the moods and attitudes of the series, the film justifies itself as a gift to its tragic heroine — something the show couldn’t quite be, or at the very least never was. For all the ways it doesn’t immediately make sense, or go out of its way to satisfy all of our curiosities, the film amply proves that the endgame, for Lynch, was not death, but life. Not cruelty or violence, but sympathy — a sympathy present throughout the franchise, but never as all-encompassing a force as in this movie.