[Completely obvious editor’s note, if you need it: This article contains spoilers about Twin Peaks.]
A soapy, surreal, serial drama co-created by Hill Street Blues veteran Mark Frost and film director David Lynch, Twin Peaks arrived on network television like an atom bomb, debuting April 8, 1990, and putting the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” on the lips of tens of millions of people. Almost inconceivably, 14 months later the show went out with a whimper, euthanized by ABC with a bundled two-episode send-off following a shuffling of time-slots and a hiatus of nearly two months. The series was a supernova, and it left the medium of television changed forever.
Why, then, did Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, arriving in theaters less than two and a half years (a mere blink of the eye in the pre-internet era) after its progenitor’s unlikely takeover of mainstream culture, land with such a thud—commercially, and especially critically?
The brilliant, ahead-of-its-time film, celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, has taken a long and winding road to redemption, both within Lynch’s larger canon and among fans of Twin Peaks, which of course was continued with 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return. The movie’s initial failure, though, is rooted in two factors—one an active choice, and another wholly beyond its control.
Arriving on the heels of the show’s stupendous finale, Fire Walk With Me offers no payoff to numerous cliffhangers—indeed, audiences don’t learn the fate of intrepid Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), much less the answer to the question, “How’s Annie?” Instead, the film revisits a mystery already “solved,” in the definitional sense. It is a prequel, released at a time before those were en vogue.
Famously, the movie’s co-creators had a philosophical difference of opinion. Frost wanted to move Twin Peaks forward. Lynch, gripped by the Laura Palmer plotline, wanted to explore the last week of her life, plus use those events to set up a narrative that spanned time across other films. In the end, Lynch co-wrote Fire Walk With Me with series scribe Robert Engels, and Frost took an executive producer credit but wasn’t creatively involved.
The movie opens with an investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), an itinerant young woman tangentially connected to Laura. This portion of the film takes place in Deer Meadow, a nearby town whose openly hostile local law enforcement serves as a counterpoint to the openness and cooperation shown in Twin Peaks. FBI Special Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) heads up this inquiry; when he disappears, Cooper pays a visit.
Cut to one year later. Homecoming queen Laura (Sheryl Lee) finds herself in a doomed spiral. Cheating on boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) with James Hurley (James Marshall) and others, she numbs herself with drugs and pushes away best friend Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly, replacing Lara Flynn Boyle). In the last week of her life, Laura comes to the realization that her father Leland (Ray Wise), under the sway of a malevolent spirit named Bob, is in fact her longtime sexual abuser. Laura succumbs to darkness and is murdered.
The lived details of this period, many uncovered by Agent Cooper during the original run of the series, lend the movie—a literal death march—a sense of grim foreboding. Or, for those only interested in storytelling through plot, tedium. If Twin Peaks was all about secrets, big and small, Fire Walk With Me makes explicit (in both senses of the word) that it is about the evil men do, and all that flows from that (a concept which would be explored more in The Return). This dovetails with the second big reason for the film’s rejection.
Fire Walk With Me centers on Laura’s story—and by necessity her suffering—taking viewers into deeper, darker waters, without much in the way of the lighter counterbalancing tonality that would satiate the “coffee and donuts” crowd from its small screen iteration. Supernatural-adjacent elements and coded symbolism are still quite present, and in several respects even amplified (at a certain point, we can talk about Judy). But the sense of humor so frequently used to leaven weighty topics in Twin Peaks is largely absent.
The quirky and uncanny became full-on disquieting; this would decidedly not be a film for casual fans. (For perceptive viewers, its opening credit sequence, ending with the destruction of a TV set, tips its hand.) This isn’t a soap opera, it’s an aria of despair.
Fire Walk With Me is about the shame, guilt, loneliness, self-concealment, and overpowering confusion that exist within a victim of incest. This fact, while part of the narrative DNA of Twin Peaks, was certainly not at the core of its mainstream appeal. Laura’s actions—her acting out, the messy contradictions—were largely described, not shown. She was, after all, dead.
Lynch’s film brings Laura to life—something for which viewers at the time were decidedly not ready. Contemporary reviews back up this reading. The Washington Post dinged the film as pretentious and “profoundly self-indulgent,” stating, “Laura Palmer is exhumed most cruelly.” The New York Times called it “an undifferentiated mess of storylines and hallucinations.” People Magazine deemed it a “nauseating bucket of slop.”
In a somewhat more measured, mixed-negative review, Variety stated, “Another significant setback is that Laura Palmer, after all the talk, is not a very interesting or compelling character, and long before the climax has become a tiresome teenager.”
Quite apart from popular disinterest (the film grossed only $4.2 million in theaters), it’s interesting to sift through this mixture of critical rejection, offense, and outright disgust aimed at the mere depiction of one young girl’s hell (again, a completely known commodity going in, given two seasons of television, not to mention Jennifer Lynch’s superb companion book The Secret Diary Of Laura Palmer). Many critics seemed to harbor hostility over the story the film is attempting to tell. Of the reviews at the time that did engage directly with incest, almost all expressed degrees of bewilderment over the self-destructiveness of Laura’s behavior.
This underscores just how wildly ahead of its time Fire Walk With Me was in its deployment and embrace of modes of expression which centered the victim’s experience. The film, and particularly Sheryl Lee’s virtuoso performance, courses with whiplash impulsivity, a type of behavior not uncommon among sufferers of serial abuse.
Laura’s recognition of her father as her molester also comes in fragmentary fashion. A strange encounter leads Laura to rush home midday, and when she sees her father leaving the house following a vision of Bob, Laura unravels, overcome by hysterical denial. At night, Leland emotionally terrorizes his daughter at the dinner table, excoriating her for having dirty hands. Later that evening, a grief-stricken Leland visits his daughter’s room, tearfully telling her how much he loves her. Frozen, Laura recognizes her “real” father, a genuinely loving side of him, but still asks the portrait of a winged angel on her wall, “Is it true?”
Revisiting Fire Walk With Me, it’s hard not to be struck by moments like this, and the mesmerizing manner in which Lynch, almost like a double-helix, repeatedly interweaves the tender and terrifying, the quiet and emotionally heightened. There is a streamlined purity of intent to the movie and its construction, and even its few compromises (the creation of Isaak’s character to accommodate less participation by MacLachlan, for example) arguably expand its borders in interesting ways.
Among the most heartbreaking scenes are some of Laura’s interactions with the two people closest to her—a living room chat with Donna, and a late-night motorcycle ride with James on the night of her death. Equally heartrending, however, is a chance encounter Laura has outside of the Roadhouse, where the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson) stops her, places her hand on Laura’s forehead as if checking her temperature, and says, “When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises. And then all goodness is in jeopardy.”
This evocative moment, which leads into a striking performance of “Questions In A World Of Blue” by Julee Cruise, is quintessential Lynch—highly emotional, but from an unusual angle. It speaks to an intuitive knowledge of the hidden, and also the notion that the tragedy of this single story has larger, deeper reverberations that we can barely comprehend.
In the years since its release, Fire Walk With Me has enjoyed a significant reappraisal, and even embrace by younger fans—bolstered by the film’s excellent 2017 Criterion home video release, which includes the so-called “Missing Pieces” (over 90 minutes of material shot but excised from the theatrical cut of the movie), alongside new interviews with Lee and composer Angelo Badalamenti, among other special features. There is also no small amount of excellent scholarship on the film, including the books Laura’s Ghost, by Courtenay Stallings, and Fire Walk With Me: Your Laura Disappeared, by Scott Ryan.
Individually and collectively, these works (plus many more) speak to a greater readiness and willingness to meet the demanding Fire Walk With Me where it actually exists, rather than on a less formidable plane of serviced nostalgia, whose drama creates no lingering discomfort. Our culture is now more aware than ever of the effects of trauma, and how people cope in different fashions with some of the long shadows it casts. If the topics of incest and rape are not completely destigmatized, there is at least an openness, particularly post-#MeToo, to both survivors sharing these stories and others bearing witness to them.
Fire Walk With Me illustrates how sometimes society catches up to art. Thirty years after its release, its full weight and resonance can now be appreciated.