Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Your Laura disappeared
★★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
1992
Director: 
David Lynch
Starring: 
Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Moira Kelly, Kyle McLachlan
The Setup: 
The last week of Laura Palmer, preceeding the opening of the series.
Discussion: 

I was obsessed with Twin Peaks when it was on, and for a good while it repaid my interest, until the second season tested my patience, then it ended. It still left a wonderful first season [which I've started to re-watch, finding it thankfully still holds up] that opened the doors to the quality television shows we enjoy today. Then came the movie, which had a very different tone from the series, was wayyy too off-the-chart bizarre for most people, and is an all-round massive bummer. Add to that the fact that it helps greatly to be familiar with BOTH seasons of the show to really get the movie [for example, it presupposes that you KNOW who the killer is from the start], and you have the makings of a massive flop, which is exactly what it was. I loved it at the time, but it considered by many to be truly, irredeemably awful and, on this viewing, I can kind of see what they mean.

We have our credits over a fluttery blue-and-black background that I'm going to speculate is bats in flight, before pulling back to reveal a static television screen, which soon gets smashed in. We then see the body of Theresa Banks, wrapped up the same way Laura would be at the beginning of the series. Banks was killed a year before Laura, and get ready folks, because it's going to be forty minutes of stuff that makes almost no sense before you even get to see Laura Palmer!

David Lynch himself shows up as the hard-of-hearing FBI big he played on the show, and calls Chris Isaak as agent Chester Desmond. We first see Desmond in an inexplicable--but hilarious--tableau where two, shall we say, "worldly" young girls are being arrested outside a school bus of screaming kids. Desmond is paired with Keifer Sutherland as dim-witted Sam, and they are told to watch this strange woman in a red dress perform a dance that will, in code, explain the specifics of the case. It is hilarious to imagine high-powered FBI agents using this kind of craziness, which is exactly the joke. Then there is some pure comedy with local yokel cops who don't want to cede investigation of the case to the FBI, then the guys find a small typed letter under the fingernail of the corpse--which requires that they rip her fingernail right off in unwelcome close-up. Up til now, the movie has been almost pure comedy.

Which continues in the next scene, as Desmond and Sam interview the comically hard-edged waitress at the local diner. Then a guy down the counter asks about this case, a comically obtuse question that became a catchphrase with me and a friend of mine at the time. If one of us would be talking about something the other didn't understand, we'd say "Are you talking about that dead girl?" and the other would respond: "Are you talking about that girl that got murdered?" Oh boy, am I a cut-up.

Anyway, their investigation leads then to a trailer park presided oer by Harry Dean Stanton, where the screen suddenly fades out, and the mood abruptly turns very ominous as the camera approaches the same scene from the outside, a spooky old woman looking in. Desmond goes alone to the trailer where Banks lived, and finds a mound of dirt with the famous green ring on top. By now the mood is very strange and menacing. He reaches for the ring--and we fade to black.

Then there's this very strange scene in which Cooper shows up in Lynch's office, having had a strange vision. There's this weird time-shift thing involving David Bowie as an agent missing in the field who suddenly shows up in Lynch's office, there a strange series of Black Lodge images [you have to be familiar with the show even to read this review!] then he vanishes. Like, into thin air. If you are intimately familiar with the show you might vaguely recall the mention of the Bowie character's name, but even then, the whole thing is just inexplicable. If you're not familiar with the show, you'll simply wait through this until the next thing. The only explanation I can come up with is the idea, floated at the time, that Lynch intended this as the first in a series of films. Anyway, after a bit more Cooper, he all but vanishes from the film.

Now, forty minutes in, we see Laura Palmer! She is played by the incomparable Sheryl Lee, who you'll recall had very little to do in the series [she was dead, recall--although she came later to play her identical cousin], and now is asked to completely carry this film on her shoulders--which she does beautifully. Yes she seems four years too old to be in high school, but she NAILS the exact mixture of sweet and innocent and bitter and angry and totally lost that the role requires. In the first few minutes we see her she greets her friends at school, we see her with her boyfriend Bobby and the guy she's seeing on the side, James, and she then dips into the restroom to snort some coke. These scenes have a very bizarre, uneven rhythm, and I recall speculation at the time that this is the result of this film being chopped down from a four-hour cut. I have no evidence that this is true, except that the jerky nature of the scenes feels like it.

After school, Laura is laying around talking with her best friend Donna [Moira Kelley after Lara Flynn Boyle refused to come back]. They're discussing typical teenage girl matters, like if you're falling, do you slow down, or go faster and faster? Laura replies, significantly, that you go faster and faster, then burst into flame, "and the angels won't help you... because they've all gone away." You should keep an ear out for anytime Laura's talking or thinking about angels. If you've seen the film before, you can detect the mild strains of the music from the final scene as Laura talks about angels here.

SPOILERS > > >
Now, like I said, the film assumes that you've seen the show, and thus know who the killer is, but if you don't know, and don't want to know, you're going to have to skip past the spoilers now. If you haven't, here it is in a nutshell: Laura's dad is fucking her. Either because she's in denial or because of real spirits, she sees her rapist as this other figure, Bob. So this whole film is really about Laura's life as an incest rape victim and how that all works into this spiritual happenings in the area--many of which conspire to keep her in denial about what is happening.

Laura goes to see her weird friend from season two [for a while the film is just checking in characters so you see them before they vanish again--hi Shelley!] where she has an effective freak-out complete with black lips and yellow teeth... which is awesome until you realize it doesn't really fit anywhere. Then after a visit from a strange woman [from season two, I think] who tells her someone is in her room, she runs home to find the killer, Bob, behind her dresser--terrifying! This harks back to the ending of the original broadcast pilot, where Laura's mom remembers looking around Laura's room--then sees Bob was there! And at that point I recall pretty much jumping out of my skin. Anyway, Laura runs out of the house and hides under the neighbor's bushes--even if you're a fan you have to kind of step back and see the ridiculousness of this--and she sees her father coming out of the house. She says "Oh no, not him!" because at that moment she realizes that the man who is raping her is her father.

And now that we get that, an extremely creepy scene where Laura comes home and her father is waiting there at the dinner table. He forces her to sit down, then starts getting increasingly agitated that she didn't wash her hands. He comes over to her as she cowers, grabs her hands and says they're filthy, singling out the finger we know he'll end up sticking a small letter under, like Theresa Banks. He grabs her half-heart pendant and asks if it's from her lover. Laura is justly terrified, and frazzled mom supreme Grace Zabriskie starts shreiking for him to stop. And they say family dinners are important for familial harmony! Later that night Leland [that's dad] comes in weeping to tell her he's sorry, which freaks Laura out further. She stares at a picture on her wall, focusing on an angel there, at which we once more hear the strains of the "angel theme" from the final scene.

Then Laura goes out to the road house, where she is intercepted by the Log Lady with a bummer message. The Log Lady never calls to say I love you. Laura goes in to find Julee Cruise on hand, singing "Questions in a World of Blue," an excellent song from the soundtrack asking why God has abandoned her. Laura sits in a booth and cries. This is one of Lynch's successful gambits from the series, contrasting the expected party time of a rural road house with a super somber mood. Maybe I'd go out to more bars if they had an outwardly depressing atmosphere--or that is to say, if they acknowledged how depressing they are!

Next night, Donna wants to hang out and be a tough girl like Laura. She sneaks out to the road house, where Laura has been engaged to entertain two men. Laura vacillates between callously letting Donna degrade herself if she wants to, and suddenly growing freakily protective and rescuing her from one of the men. There is a great final shot to the sequence tracking across a floor littered with cigarette butts and empty beer bottles.

Next morning Laura gets a ride to school from her father, interrupted by the One-Armed Man pulling up alongside and screaming "It's HIM! It's YOUR FATHER!" Then Leland recalls arriving for an assignation with two girls arranged by Theresa Banks, only to find one of them is Laura. We imagine he is enraged--and excited--to learn that she is so sexually active.

There's a whole scene where Laura and Bobby are coked out of their minds and try to conduct a drug deal in the woods, ending up shooting an undercover cop. The next night Laura is at home while Leland drugs her mom and she sees Bob creeping in through her window. She is in the midst of being screwed when she snaps out of it and realizes it's her father. At this point it's a little like "How many times do you need to find this out?" but at the same time it has a psychological accuracy to the level of her denial.

So now it's her last night! As she's dressing to go out, she sees the angel vanish from the picture on her wall. She has an emotional time with James, telling him "Your Laura disappeared." She runs off into the woods and ends up at a small cabin with Jacques and Leo, who tie her up. Leland shows and grabs her and another girl to the train car where we know Laura is murdered. The other girl sees an angel, and is miraculously freed from her bonds. This works to convey that Laura is damned--she doesn't get any help. Her father says "I always thought you knew it was me." And soon after, Laura is killed.

There is a sequence of Leland in the red room, receiving a kind of judgement, some additional creepy stuff, then the final scene: as we have a simple but gorgeous theme by Angelo Badalamenti [the one we've been hearing whenever there's talk of angels throughout] Laura is in the red room in a black dress, looking sad. Cooper stands over her with a protective hand on her shoulder. There are flashes and then Laura sees an angel, looking very much like the one that vanished from her picture. As the music plays without any movie sound, Laura starts to smile and then finally laugh in overjoyed delight.

When I saw this movie in the theater, I found this ending incredibly moving--in fact, I was bawling my eyes out. It is super over-the-top sentimental, but it works because we have seen Laura go through so much torment, and all the content about being abandoned by God and being hopelessly damned, that it is a very moving conclusion--and send-off to the character--that she finally gets her angel and we know she is, as they say, in a better place. Cooper is there because of late season two developments [announced in a quick vision of Heather Graham in Laura's bed], but his presence works, because he has the right mixture of wisdom and sadness to appreciate what Laura's been through.
< < < SPOILERS END

So in retrospect, it's considerably more of a mess than it seemed at first, when I was more generous toward things that are just thrown in to be self-consciously bizarre. And this is in a movie where you need to be ready to accept a number of things that don't make literal sense, but work in an expressionistic manner. Many of them work beautifully, but there are also just as many that seem crammed in whenever Lynch wasn't sure what to do next. There are also just too many of them, for example the scene where Laura visits her confidante and briefly transforms into some hell-beast. Okay, I get it, the evil is inside her, but after a while there's just too many of these, and they begin to seem like a crutch. If you think about the story chronologically, well boy, seems like some crazy vision is happening every few minutes or so! I don't know how people in that town get any work done.

All that said, I don't know of any other film that portrays the horror of family sexual abuse quite this vividly. A straightforward telling would have to be much more pious in a Lifetime Original Film way, portraying Laura as a saint who fearlessly struggles against this evildoer. By putting so much on the level of the metaphorical and expressionistic, Lynch is able to offer a much more shaded characterization that includes Laura's conflicted feelings, including that on some level she enjoys it, and feels special getting all the attention as the town's slutty lost girl. And this whole aspect, the down and dirty look at the emotional state of the incest rape victim, makes this film a harrowing emotional ride and fully justifies its existence--and why one should definitely watch it.

Also on the disc is a documentary catching up with the cast of the show, shot late enough that they can also comment on the film. The doc is trying WAY too hard to be artsy like the show, so it's filled with rapid edits from person to person, often self-consciously not making sense. But what's interesting, in contrast to most documentaries' fawning tone, is that here many of the actors describe their disappointment with the film, the vast change in tone from the show, and how very violent it can seem.

So ultimately, a flawed film that demands an intimate knowledge of the show [but is still bascially comprehensible without it] and is a bit of a trying thing to get through--but is ultimately worth getting through and deserves a special place.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it's a very harrowing emotional experience, the power of which outweighs its flaws.