Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Films of David Lynch: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch & Robert Engels based on the series by Lynch & Mark Frost.
Starring: Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer), Moira Kelly (Donna Hayward), David Bowie (Phillip Jeffries), Chris Isaak (Special Agent Chester Desmond), Harry Dean Stanton (Carl Rodd), Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Kyle MacLachlan (Special Agent Dale Cooper), Mädchen Amick (Shelly Johnson), Dana Ashbrook (Bobby Briggs), Phoebe Augustine (Ronette Pulaski), Frank Silva (Killer BOB), Eric Da Re (Leo Johnson), Miguel Ferrer (Albert Rosenfield), Pamela Gidley (Teresa Banks), Heather Graham (Annie Blackburn), Frances Bay (Mrs. Tremond), Peggy Lipton (Norma Jennings), David Lynch (Gordon Cole), James Marshall (James Hurley), Walter Olkewicz (Jacques Renault), Jürgen Prochnow (Woodsman), Kiefer Sutherland (Agent Sam Stanley), Lenny Von Dohlen (Harold Smith), Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer), Gary Hershberger (Mike Nelson), Al Strobel (Philip Michael Gerard), Gary Bullock (Sheriff Cable).

Spoiler Warning: This post reveals plot details from the TV show Twin Peaks, including its finale.

It is easy to see why seemingly everyone hated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me when it came out. The show had lost almost all of its audience by the time it ended, but those who stuck around were treated to a giant “fuck you” ending to the series. Co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost must have known the show was coming to an end, but rather than crafting a more traditional, wrap-up finale for Season 2, they decided the best way to end the series was to have its hero, Agent Dale Cooper, trapped in the Black Lodge, while his evil doppelganger, now Bob the spirit that had possessed Leland Palmer and killed Laura is running free. When Lynch announced a follow-up feature, fans, naturally, assumed that he would wrap up all their questions. Why else do one? What Lynch did instead was make a prequel to Twin Peaks – focused almost entirely on the final week of Laura Palmer’s life – and while he does clarify what happened to Cooper, he doesn’t really resolve it. Most of the main characters from the series weren’t even in the film at all – or had mere cameos. And perhaps most offensive to all to this crowd, the movie wasn’t just a two hour long episode of the TV series. Free from the confines of network TV, and of co-creator Mark Frost, who Lynch had clashed with in season 2, Lynch could do whatever the hell he wanted – and he did. The TV series, at its best, was a masterful mixture of tone – thriller, noir, parody, comedy, melodrama – but Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me discards almost all the light elements of the show, for its dark, surreal, nightmare tone. Fans wanted a Twin Peaks episode, and Lynch gave them a David Lynch film. They were not happy. The film got booed at Cannes, was decimated by critics and ignored by audiences. Lynch, who had wanted to make this a trilogy of sorts, further exploring the Black Lodge, had killed Twin Peaks. I have to admit, when I first saw the film – after watching the series the first time, I shared some, but not all, of the feelings of its detractors. The first time through it was confusing and disappointing in many way. Watching it the second time though – more than a decade after my first viewing, and after having watched the entirety of the Twin Peaks series again, I have to say this. I was wrong. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me may not rank among Lynch’s masterpieces – but it’s still a great movie. And rather than a fuck you to fans, what Lynch actually does in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is make the whole series better in retrospect – which was already pretty great.

The first half hour of the film concerns the investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), another 17-year old girl whose murder predates Laura’s by a year, and is part of the original series. FBI Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) is assigned the case, alongside Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland). He receives the opposite greeting that Cooper would receive in Twin Peaks – as the local Sheriff doesn’t want him around, and makes no effort to hide his feelings of contempt for the FBI. Desmond doesn’t care, he’s looking into this murder anyway. He seems to be making headway – but what he really needs to know is where Teresa’s ring is – it was clearly on her finger at some point, but has gone missing. The final thing he Desmond does is find the ring underneath Teresa’s trailer – he bends down to pick it up, and then the movie fades out – Desmond is gone.

The rest of the film takes place in Twin Peaks a year later – the final week of Laura Palmer’s life. In the show itself, Laura Palmer was really just a symbol; - a reflection of the town itself, as when Cooper first gets there, he thinks he’s investigating the murder of a complete innocent – the beloved high school homecoming queen, but the further he investigates the more dark secrets about Laura’s past he uncovers. Laura, like the town of Twin Peaks itself, had a perfect exterior that hides unspeakable darkness. What Lynch does in Fire Walk with Me is make Laura much more a human character – this deepens the rest of the series as well, as we are no longer dealing with a symbol, but a human being.

When the movie beings, Laura is already well down the path to self-destruction. She walks into high school alongside her best friend, Donna Hayward (now played by Moira Kelly, as the original Donna, Lara Flynn Boyle either didn’t want to be a part of the show, or had a scheduling conflict, depending on who you believe) – and everything seems fine. They flirt with their boyfriends – Mike and Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), and seem like regular high school girls. Then Laura goes into the bathroom, and takes a couple of bumps of cocaine. From there, her slide gets worse when she comes home from school and sees Bob (Frank Silva), the man she says has been climbing into her window since she was 12 and raping her. But when she runs outside, it isn’t Bob she sees exiting the house – but her father Leland (Ray Wise). Is it possible that it is Leland who has been raping her this whole time? As the movie progresses, Leland’s behavior becomes more erratic, and Laura looks at him differently – trying to figure out if she can trust what she saw. Meanwhile, she’s embroiled in the typical high school love triangle – caught between Bobby and James Hurley (James Marshall), which takes on darker dimensions because of what Bobby is involved with – and she’s also working as a prostitute for Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz).

Like many Lynch films, Twin Parks: Fire Walk with Me plays like a surreal nightmare for much of its running time. Nowhere is there more apparent than in the scene in Renault’s bar, where Laura goes to work as a prostitute, and Donna follows. Donna wants to see what Laura is doing – and wants to help save her – not realizing just how far gone Laura already is. The scene, with its red glow, loud thumping music (which required subtitles) really does play like something out of hell. Donna tries to act tough – she doesn’t want Laura to know she’s scared, and ends up getting herself into trouble. It is Laura how saves her – showing she hasn’t completely lost herself. She may have given up on herself, but she hasn’t given up on Donna. There are other dreams – some set in the Black Lodge, others of visions Laura has (including a disturbing scene with Heather Graham as a bloody Annie Blackburn back for a cameo) that up the nightmare and weirdness quotient.

The movie is dark and disturbing – with none of the lightness of the TV show to offset it. It’s fitting though, as this really is a story about a young girl, traumatized by years of sexual abuse, spiraling out of control, and finally realizing that it was her father who was raping her all along. How can you not make that dark? Sheryl Lee is brilliant in the movie – the movie asks her to go to very dark places, and she does, and delivers a startling performance that makes you wonder how she didn’t become a bigger star. The film is one of the darkest of Lynch’s career, as he offers no humor to offset the darkness, as he just takes us further and further into the dank, depressing existence of Laura’s before she was murdered. The murder itself is also depicted – and is appropriately disturbing and nightmarish. If Lynch offers any hope, it’s in a final scene, where at least we know Laura is no longer suffering.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is not the masterpiece that several Lynch films are – but it is hardly the disaster that many thought it was back in 1992. The film is perhaps a little too episodic, and Lynch tries perhaps a little too hard to cram in scenes with Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, in an extended cameo), and his investigation into Teresa Banks and Agent Desmond, as well as a very strange scene involving David Bowie, as another missing FBI agent, who shows up for a scene, which allows us back into the Black Lodge – alongside Bob, Mike and The Man From Another Place, for some more backwards talking strangeness. The movie doesn’t always flow naturally between these scenes.

Overall though, I found Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me to be a much better experience the second time around – a near great movie that retroactively makes the series better, richer and deeper. It’s every inch a David Lynch movie as well, and one of his darkest. Yes, I know why fans still have a hard time with the movie – it is not the same as a Twin Peaks episode. And I know why non-fans haven’t embraced it either – it is so tied to the convoluted backstory of the TV series, that if you haven’t seen the series, you’ll be lost in the movie. But for those willing to take a dark, disturbing trip, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with me offers a disturbing, graphic descent into hell. It’s a great movie – and deserves a better reputation than it has.

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