*Warning: This article contains spoilers for both the Twin Peaks TV show and the film Fire Walk With Me.*
In May of 1992, nearly a year after the insane and highly ambiguous bombshell of a series finale, David Lynch came to Cannes with a follow-up to his and Mark Frost’s acclaimed Twin Peaks. Written with Robert Engels, and directed by Lynch, Fire Walk With Me wasn’t what fans and critics were expecting. The film was met with boos at Cannes and was despised at the time by critics, as shown by its 28/100 Metacritic score. Other filmmakers also criticised the film, including Quentin Tarantino, who said, “After I saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me at Cannes, David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different. And you know, I loved him. I loved him.” Instead of resolving the (many) unanswered questions from the finale and sticking to the tone of the series, Lynch instead takes us back to a time right before it all began: seven days prior to Laura Palmer’s murder, which he presents in a bleak, depressing tone. Despite abysmal initial reviews, Fire Walk With Me has seen a reappraisal of sorts in the last 25 years, which it completely deserves. While it may not be the film everyone wanted back in 1992, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is the film everyone needed. Lynch gives us a deeper look at the world he was setting up in his short-lived series while taking us through seven days of Hell in Laura’s final living moments through the significant use of colour, sound and performance.
After the film’s initial premiere, many detractors were upset that the film completely goes against the grain of the original series. Mary Sweeney, the film’s editor, said of the film’s initial response: “They so badly wanted it to be like the TV show, and it wasn’t. It was a David Lynch feature. And people were very angry about it. They felt betrayed.” Fire Walk with Me goes in completely different directions in regards to both narrative and tone. Instead of following up on the events of the series finale, the film goes all the way back to the death of 17-year old Teresa Banks, a woman who meets a similar fate to Laura and is mentioned in the show’s pilot, and then follows Laura Palmer a week before her death. While on one hand, it makes sense that fans want a resolution from that finale, this gives Lynch an opportunity to really make Laura’s death emotionally impactful for the audience and fans. Yes, characters make mention of how she died as well as who killed her and we see brief flashbacks of her, but it’s nowhere near as meaningful as getting to know that character for an extended period of time and then watching her fall. With Lynch developing her incredibly well and fans knowing that she will, in fact, die, we start to get attached to her, even though it won’t last. This also gives us a chance to get to know another incredibly significant character: Leland Palmer, her father and, to some extent, her killer. Throughout, we watch Leland struggle as he becomes possessed by Bob, a demonic entity who uses Garmonbozia (the “pain and sorrow” of others in the form of creamed corn) as a form of nourishment. By developing the arc involving Leland’s possession, it serves even more as a metaphor for his severe mental illness in the form of multiple personality disorder, one being the caring father who loves his daughter and the other who has been abusing her since she was 12. If Lynch were to make a sequel to his series, he would never be able to develop Laura and Leland enough to make their tragic falls as impactful as they are here.
Another major point where the film allegedly betrayed the series and alienated many fans was in its tone. The tone of Fire Walk with Me is mostly bleak and cryptic, while the series was only bleak when it needed to be, mostly carrying a whimsical, strange and loose tone with hints of melodrama and comedy. So while the series was wonderfully surreal, the film is just depressingly twisted in comparison. Critics such as Susan Wloszczyna from USA Today have described the film as “a morbidly joyless affair” because of the tone. While the change in tone is jarring in comparison to the series, it still makes a lot of sense because of its subject matter. Lynch is dealing with the murder of Laura Palmer, an incredibly horrifying period in the Twin Peaks timeline. There is no way that he or anyone is going to tackle that period with melodrama, humour or strange whimsy. If anything that would be betraying the series because it would go against the impact of her death and, therefore, the main motivation of the series.
Also, Lynch gives fans a lot of time to adjust to the tonal change starting at the very beginning of the film. During the opening credits, the camera is placed in front of a TV playing nothing but blue static with a sombre piece of Angelo Badalamenti’s score in the background. From here, Lynch gives us the hint that we are in for something different. The static, something that is generally white, represents a blank slate and Lynch’s attempts at something new. The colour, like the music, hints at something more depressing to come. After Lynch warns us of what we’re getting into, he eases us in. In the first portion of the film, dealing with the investigation of Teresa Banks’ murder, the tone is rather close to the original show with more hints of bleakness scattered often enough throughout. Neither extreme clashes with or overpowers one another either. They both coexist and feed off of each other in this portion of the film. As we get further along, Lynch starts to ease us into the darkness some more, with the bleak edge taking over with surreal elements, such as Bobby Briggs dancing his way into the school entrance out of nowhere, until it fully embraces its cryptic darkness. By easing us in, we know what we’re getting into, so we can prepare for it mentally. Also, the cryptic vibe present in the tone does benefit the film overall. The film constantly deals with the theme of uncertainty as an originating place for fear. Through its cryptic nature, the film gives the audience that same feeling of uncertainty, therefore creating that same fear. Without Lynch’s decision to allow the darkness to take over in his story, the subject matter at hand would not work, nor be as effective as it is now.
Critics have also chastised Lynch’s approach to the tone because some claim the film is dark for the sake of being dark. Marjorie Baumgarten of The Austin Chronicle said in her review, “Lynch lost track of his reasons for making this prequel and got hung up on filming the sordid details that TV won’t allow: shots of peeled-back corpse fingernails; close-ups of oscillating uvulas; visions of strange-looking, backward-talking, gyrating weirdos; and uncensored whiffs of sex, cocaine, and families undone.” Taking away the fact that at least much of this is not shown nearly as excessively as she makes it out to be, these moments are also necessary for Lynch to create this scummy environment. The best way to compare Lynch’s world in Fire Walk with Me is to Hell itself. Through only a few cinematic elements, Lynch is able to create that terrifying atmosphere while further developing the narrative.
The first major element is the use of colour and lighting. In dramatic colour theory, white is the colour of “innocence and purity,” black is the tainted colour, representing “death, evil, and mystery,” and red is the “colour of fire and blood,” representing “power… passion, desire, and love.” In the case of Fire Walk with Me, red and white both represent what they usually do, while blue takes over for black, now symbolizing evil and mystery within the tainted soul. The substitution of black for blue to work with red and white is likely Lynch’s way of establishing that this living Hell is purely American because, like the series, and 1986’s Blue Velvet, Lynch wants to show the dark underbelly of modern small town America. The best example of Lynch’s use of colour is the nearly ten-minute scene where Laura, Donna, Jacques and two other men go into the Pink Room. The scene opens in the mostly red room with flickers of blue present as we watch a woman stripping. At this point, we have cut back and forth from the stripper to the group entering the room enough times that we can conclude that the room is covered in this solid red and flickering blue. What this gives off already is that The Pink Room is a tainted, mysterious place of desire. At times, the flickering light looks more white from the distance in which the camera shoots it at, which could be due to Donna’s innocence. However, as the scene goes on and Donna loses that innocence, that’s when we know the light is for sure blue. There’s a shot of Donna picking up Laura’s shirt and as she picks it up, the blue light flickers onto the shirt and her hand. It is now that Donna has become tainted like her best friend. Through this interpretation of colour, it also gives us a whole new perspective on the opening shot of television static. While initially, it hints at a depressing, blank slate, it now becomes the start of a tainted fall as the colour blue lingers along the static. Through the colour and lighting, we get a visual sense of Hell, while developing the characters.
The next major element is Lynch’s use of performance. Critics such as David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor have said that Lynch’s tonal approach “contains not a single moment of genuinely felt emotion.” On one hand, it is a valid argument, as many of the performances are void of much emotion, but on the other, that’s likely the point. Throughout the film, we see two extreme types of performances: extreme static or extreme dynamic. David Bowie, Chris Isaak and Heather Graham are all examples of the extreme static, while Grace Zabriskie, Kyle MacLachlan, Moira Kelly and Kiefer Sutherland are all examples of the extreme dynamic. On the extreme static, we have characters who know what are going on and their actors deliver that feeling in one tone or mood. While the tone or mood itself doesn’t matter, it is mostly calm or one-note. The extreme dynamic includes characters who aren’t sure what’s going on in any situation and their actors deliver that feeling in many different tones or moods. Generally, these moods or tones are those of fright, confusion, stress and frustration. Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise (who play Laura and Leland, respectively) are the only two to switch between extreme static and extreme dynamic. While these two extremes never truly deliver any genuine or realistic emotion, it adds to the Hellish atmosphere due to the common theme of uncertainty as the origin of true fear. Those who are extreme static represent the certain and knowledgeable, therefore showing no fearful emotions. Those who are extreme dynamic represent the uncertain and ignorant, therefore showing many fearful emotions. In the cases of Lee and Wise, their characters are both certain and uncertain at the same time. Laura is certain that something bad is going to eventually happen after all these years of abuse, however, she is uncertain of what that will be. Leland is certain only when he is “possessed by Bob,” however he is uncertain when he is his “normal self,” which really enhances the mental illness metaphor. While this never conveys real emotion, the performances help bring certain themes and ideas to a better light.
Lynch’s final element in order to create this atmosphere is in his use of sound design and editing. Throughout Fire Walk with Me, there are certain scenes where the sound design and the editing are stylistically over-amplified in order to make situations and moments more tense or significant. One of the best instances of that in the film is a scene where Leland and Laura are driving through town and a man who represents The Man From Another Place stops them essentially to warn Laura about who Bob really is by confronting Leland about stolen corn (garmonbozia), and how threads will be torn. What makes this scene essential to not just the audience, but especially Laura, is how the sound design is used to full effect. As the confrontation begins, we hear the ominous score, screeching tires and car engines. However, as it goes on, we start to hear horns honking, dogs barking, engines revving and Leland screaming before ending with Laura screaming in fear after the man says, “It’s him, it’s your father” to her. The editing also plays an effect as it constantly cuts back and forth from Leland to Laura to the man and occasionally to the dog barking. The use of sound and editing never truly furthers the narrative, but it connects to the theme of uncertainty by creating such a cryptic atmosphere. While it definitely creates uncertainty for the characters, it especially creates uncertainty for audience members. While this is such a risk because it’s unclear how all audience members will react to the sound and editing, it had the potential to truly terrify them; and for many, it worked.
Even though critics, filmmakers and fans all found a way to tear apart David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me when it was released in 1992, the film has gained a significant following and a reappraisal in the last 25 years, as seen in its current 60% Rotten Tomatoes score. Lynch’s film, while different from the show, is still essential viewing to truly understand the horrors that Laura Palmer went through before she died, as well as how Lynch depicts that horror on screen. For those who have never seen the series or the film, start with the series, and if you have seen the series but not the film, give it a chance. It may not be what everyone wanted, but it was the film everyone needed.
Audiences in Edmonton can view the film at a Metro Cinema screening on Thursday, May 18 at 9:30 p.m.
(Featured Image: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, New Line Cinema)