Looking back at Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Feature James Peaty 27 Feb 2013 - 06:35

A box-office failure, David Lynch's Fire Walk With Me divided critics in 1992. James looks back at a surreal cult film...

When Vincent Canby famously described Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) as "…not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be," the renowned US critic was merely reflecting the overwhelming response to David Lynch’s big-screen prequel to his recently cancelled TV show.

Audibly jeered by the notoriously fickle festival crowd at its unveiling in Cannes, even fellow filmmakers joined the chorus of disapproval against Lynch.

At the festival for the first time with his debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, director Quentin Tarantino went so far as to say: "I’m not ragging on other people, but after I saw FWWM […] David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to watch another […] Lynch film until I hear something different. "  

And yet, even while the film was being excoriated critically and rejected by both mainstream audiences and fans of the show, there was a small group of devotees who were hailing Lynch’s film as a horror classic. Writer and reviewer Kim Newman was a declared fan, and claimed that: "…the film's many moments of horror […] demonstrate just how tidy, conventional and domesticated the generic horror movie of the 1980s and 1990s has become."

Also hailing the film as one of the best horror movies of the 1990s was Mark Kermode. The ever voluble critic even went so far as to declare FWWM a ‘masterpiece’ and his personal favourite of Lynch’s films. 

So what’s the truth? Is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me an unmitigated disaster or an underappreciated classic?

Moving through time

In keeping with so much of David Lynch’s career, the path to FWWM was anything but straightforward. Part of a three-picture deal that the recent Palme d’Or winner had made with French production company CIBY 2000, Lynch announced the film in July 1991, one month after the TV show aired its final episode.

Cancelled amid plummeting ratings and creative tension between both cast, crew and co-creators Lynch and Mark Frost, it was widely felt that the end of Twin Peaks was a mercy killing.

The quality control that had been evident during the first series plummeted dramatically during the second. Central to this slump was the early season revelation of Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) as the killer of his daughter, Laura (Sheryl Lee). A decision seemingly forced on Lynch and Frost by the network, this revelation not only robbed the show of key cast members Wise and Lee, but also of its central mystery and narrative drive.  

With ratings falling and both Lynch and Frost’s attention wandering to other projects, the show limped along until ABC officially pulled the plug as the second season drew to a close.

However, despite its imminent demise, the show's final episode, once more directed by Lynch and nominally scripted by Frost and co-producers Harley Peyton and Robert Engels, saw the show go out on something approaching top form. Ignoring much of what Frost and co. had written, Lynch instead famously improvised a much more elaborate and logic-defying descent into the mysterious Black Lodge for Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).  

Furnished with a haunting new Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti song, Sycamore Trees, return performances from actors Wise and Lee and dizzyingly disturbing sound and visuals, Twin Peaks’ final broadcast hour was like watching something beamed in from the seventh circle of hell.

As television it was bracing, uncompromising and defiantly unforgettable, but it was also a pretty clear two-fingers up to the people who had been running the show in Lynch’s absence. Unsurprisingly, given the maverick director’s rather cavalier attitude to his co-creator's script, this episode would be the last time Lynch and Frost would officially collaborate.

Feeling that the way the show had been run during the second series was ‘incorrect’, Lynch therefore took it upon himself to shepherd the planned big-screen resurrection of the TV show into production.

Planned as a trilogy of films, which would ultimately close the story of Twin Peaks, the opening installment was to serve as both a prequel to the show, while also setting up future movies that would take place after the series’ conclusion.  

But this plan was dealt an almost fatal blow when Kyle MacLachlan initially turned down the opportunity to return as Special Agent Dale Cooper. Seeming to set the tone for the project to come, he was soon followed out of the door by cast members Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn and Richard Beymer, who also declined to reappear.

While Beymer and Fenn’s no-show meant that the characters of Audrey and Benjamin Horne would simply not appear in the film, Flynn Boyle’s exit was more problematic. Her role of Donna Hayward was a crucial part of the story, and so her role was recast with actress Moira Kelly stepping into the bobby socks of Laura Palmer’s best friend.

As expendable as some cast members may have been, Cooper wasn’t, and in true Hollywood fashion, a deal was eventually made for MacLachlan to reprise the role, albeit in a much more limited capacity. 

Enlisting series writer and co-producer Engels to help him on the feature, Lynch and Engels set about reworking their initial plan around a reduced cast and the limited availability of the series’ most recognizable character.

(Under the) sycamore trees

Shooting for roughly two months with a schedule split between four weeks of location work in and around Seattle and another four of studio material back in LA, the physical production of FWWM was relatively straightforward.

Photographed by original Peaks director of photography Ron Garcia, Lynch was once again able to capture the authentic Pacific Northwestern light and mood that had been key to the look of the series pilot, but which had been lost when production on the series proper had relocated to Hollywood.

With Lynch’s regular editor, Duwayne Dunham, heading off to helm his own directorial debut, Lynch instead promoted Dunham’s assistant, Mary Sweeney, to the role of editor. An assistant editor on Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart, Sweeney was already part of Lynch’s creative family thanks to her connection with Dunham and had previously edited the Lynch directed seventh episode of Twin Peaks’ second season.

The relationship with Sweeney would be a defining one for Lynch over the next decade, as she would not only become his partner, but also the producer of all his subsequent features, as well as co-writer of The Straight Story.

However, despite the undoubted quality of the work the pair would later deliver – and together they would deliver some of the true highlights of Lynch’s career – this initial collaboration was a far less assured piece of work.

The black dog runs at night

Certainly the strongest continuous stretch of the film is the opening 25 minutes where we follow Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) as they enter Deer Meadow to investigate the murder of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley).

Playing out like a dark reflection of the original Twin Peaks pilot, with Desmond filling the Cooper role, Deer Meadow is an ugly town devoid of the beauty, warmth and whimsy of Twin Peaks. Here the coffee isn’t ‘damn fine’, but rather three days old, while the locals are anything but hospitable and the police are up to their necks in corruption.

Peppered with hints about the secret agenda of FBI chief Gordon Cole (David Lynch), his ‘Blue Rose’ cases and links to the mysterious Black Lodge, the mood in this section is dark and sadistic, but the mystery is compelling and the pacing certain.

As a result, Cooper and co are hardly missed and it seems more like an afterthought than an essential turn of events when the familiar FBI man finally appears and picks up the baton on the Banks case.

However, the scenes with Cooper, especially his interaction with a seemingly time displaced David Bowie, are good fun, and you do end up feeling a pang of nostalgia for the film that might have been if MacLachlan had agreed to reprise his role in full. 

After Cooper rounds out this opening section with his obligatory dictaphone message to ‘Diane’, the action finally switches to Twin Peaks, and it’s here that the film begins to lose both its shape and the jars in tone and intent become apparent.

While Sheryl Lee is excellent as the doomed Laura Palmer, the events in Twin Peaks have a schematic feel to them, and there’s a sense that the familiar curse of the prequel, where any unique identity the film might have developed is sacrificed in favour of hitting pre-established plot points, is upon us.

This is made clear by the decision in the final theatrical cut to excise virtually all of the planned cameos by the returning series cast and instead throw focus solely on Laura Palmer and her descent into hell. 

While this certainly makes sense from a strict narrative point of view, what this decision also did was rob the film of its sense of place, and by extension, make the movie version of Twin Peaks feel far smaller and less ‘alive’ than its small screen counterpart. This is a problem on two fronts.

Firstly, the narrow focus on Laura’s troubles means that the picture suffers from a distinct lack of humour. While references to damn fine cherry pie and stray fish in Pete Martell’s percolator aren’t essential ingredients in and of themselves, losing that type of material en masse means that the film becomes unremittingly grim.

A second, and possibly more damaging, effect of this narrowed focus is that downplaying the broader cast, and by definition the geography of Twin Peaks, Lynch ultimately lessens the impact of Laura’s death. By not showing Laura interact in a wider sense, we not only fail to see how important she was to the town at large, we’re also robbed of the chance to see her doing much that isn’t fundamentally venal and self-obsessed.

As Variety reporter Todd McCarthy said in his review at the time: “Laura Palmer, after all the talk, is not a very interesting or compelling character.” Based solely on the evidence of the movie, McCarthy has a point.

However, these criticisms shouldn’t detract from the quality of Sheryl Lee’s work in the title role, which was described by former Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus as "(possibly) the most bottomless female film performance of the latter days of the twentieth century.”

Certainly, the scenes inside the Palmer home, which bristle with real menace and have an almost Polanski like sense of tension, give Lee and Ray Wise the best opportunity to show off their talents as Lynch successfully manages to turn the sanctity of the family home into the most dangerous place on earth. 

Lee in particular manages to overcome the potential weaknesses in the material to deliver a mercilessly dark, sexually decadent and yet deceptively vulnerable portrayal of the doomed prom queen.

Ultimately, it’s the performances of Lee and Wise that anchor the listing ship that is FWWM, and not only enable it to rise above its inherent flaws, but also allow it to be appreciated for what it really is: a flawed, yet fascinating transitional work in David Lynch’s filmography.

Many of the elements and ideas Lynch plays with in FWWM would resurface during the director’s work over the subsequent decade. Certainly the notion of a linear narrative literally rupturing itself at a certain point and becoming something else entirely would be a trope Lynch would use again in both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, albeit with far more success and style.  

FWWM also finds Lynch, probably for the first time since The Elephant Man, pushing the envelope in terms of his film's sound design. Creating and overseeing the soundscape himself, Lynch deftly manipulates the mood throughout by using every weapon in his aural arsenal to generate a palpable sense of discomfort.

Also deserving of high praise is Angelo Badalamenti’s score. Among the very best of the composer’s career, the opening theme to FWWM in particular is a magnificent composition and, while perhaps not as iconic as his theme for the TV show, for my money, it’s a far superior piece of work. But despite these notable high points and the few sequences  – such as the infamous ‘Pink Room’ scene – where the sound, performances and imagery combine to stunning effect, FWWM never manages to truly become more than the sum of its conflicting parts.

At its worst, FWWM lumbers from one preordained plot point to the next in a curiously bloodless fashion, while at its best Lynch conjures up individual sequences that are as sublime as anything in his canon.

Neither the outright failure nor the underappreciated masterpiece its critics and supporters claim, FWWM instead stands as a fascinating, frustrating, but ultimately unnecessary footnote to one of the most influential TV shows of all time, while also serving as a key entry in the developing career of one of America’s finest post-war filmmakers.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the truth lies somewhere between Canby and Kermode.

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