Review: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

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Between its sordid soap opera antics and wholesome small town sensibility; Twin Peaks felt like a sprawling Jungian collective unconscious of Americana that was always shifting to understand its heritage and legacy. In one of the most interesting and eccentric storylines of the series, Benjamin Horne (played with smarmy effervescence by Richard Beymer) regresses to a warped mindset where he believes he is the Confederate General Robert E. Lee who is valiantly leading the South in a victorious campaign against the Union. Faced with this alarming behaviour, his psychiatrist advises the local tycoon’s family and friends to stage a faux surrender of the Northern forces to quicken the recovery of a man who has lapsed into depression after losing his business and livelihood.

The plot felt like a truthful cathartic acknowledgement of America’s historical racial tendencies and the attempt to make amends for this clear sub-conscious declaration, which Horne undertakes in the second half of season two.

In the cinematic prequel, Fire Walk With Me, which chronicles the last week of Laura Palmer, (the young woman’s murder was the central mystery of the first half of the series) director David Lynch replaces the revered cheery quirkiness of the show with a powerfully sobering and bleakly tragic picture.

Throughout his oeuvre, the acclaimed auteur has showcased the deterministic desires and forces that have shaped his characters’ predicaments. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey Beaumont’s youthful yearning of new experiences fuels his actions. In Eraserhead, a man in the sky pulls a lever resulting in Harry Spencer’s sudden responsibility of fatherhood. In Fire Walk With Me, Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) death is a foreboding inevitably. In the series, the film’s subtitle functioned as a potent poem that evoked the surrealism and supernatural antagonist of the series. In the film, it’s a stark statement of Laura’s demons and illicit lifestyle, which will eventually catch up with her and result in death.

Moreover, Lynch’s fascination with 1950s Hollywood shines in the film as Laura Palmer’s descent into drugs, revelry and fever-laden mood swings feel like the director is channelling the devastating youthful deaths of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Sheryl Lee’s performance as the young woman is powerfully operatic and heartbreaking in its scope. Like Monroe, Palmer presents a pristine public persona that carries within it the perceived ideals of flawless desirability. Lee conveys this with a casual and effortless ease with her physicality, facial expressions and vocal inclinations that can vary between erotic and innocent. However, the actress’ most striking moments are in her scenes with Donna. (Moira Kelly) The standout being an intimate moment where her best friend asks, “Do you think if you were falling in space that you would slow down after a while or go faster and faster?”

With Lee’s face in full frame, the actress delivers her lines as though she is witnessing herself in a dream state, forever striving to cover up a deep-seated pain she masks. Her response varies from contemplation, exhilaration and bitter resentment as the scene encapsulates Laura’s character; a highly attuned young woman whose metaphysical hankering, charitable acts and illegal nocturnal activities cannot save her from a grim truth.

The bitter pill is that Laura’s father under the guise of Bob (the primary mystical villain of the series) has been sexually assaulting her from an early age. Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) represents the fifties ideal of a father whose strong, stern and warm paternal outpouring keep the nuclear family unit together. And Wise’s performance turns these seemingly innocent expressions of fatherly love into malevolent acts of irony. But it’s the conflicted moments of shame and sexual longing that make Wise sublime. In one scene where a series of pressuring external events cause the middle-aged man to crack and sombrely reminisce, Wise’s expressions simultaneously carry the weight of guilt and nefarious intent.

Fire Walk With Me’s staggering masterstroke comes from Lynch’s subversion of the central location in Twin Peaks. No longer does the idealistic and painterly small town with its inviting diners, quaint lumber mills and awe-inspiring lush greeny feel like a safe and embracing place. Instead, it feels harsh, cold and secluded. Lynch’s sound design of natural and mundane sounds such as the bird song and crickets chirping combine to create an unfeeling portrait of nature that watches humanity with an unsentimental eye. Even Laura’s house becomes a source of dizzying horror as low angles shots of the outside and interior fan covered ceiling make the place seem imposing. Additionally, the free-roaming camera evokes the feeling of an entity who is watching Laura’s steps as it lurks through the upstairs area with swift movements.

In its cinematic form, Twin Peaks has not lost its sublime ability to deal with long-standing events that have pervaded the American psyche. However, at times Lynch proves to be his own worst enemy.

In his protracted framing, leisurely pace and casually deadpan exchanges, Lynch’s television doppelganger has proven to have a sharper sense of humour. Even the grim spectre of the television show presides over the film like a squawking crow as an occasional static punctuates certain moments and in so doing awkwardly reminds the viewer of the picture’s origin. To this end, one does wonder if the film can truly engage beyond the ardent Peakers. Moreover, the images in the director’s other films have stirred the senses and imagination with far more immediacy and grandiosity.

Nevertheless, Fire Walks With Me burns with an emotionally resonating universality, which comes from a truism in Laura Palmer’s plight. Even amongst the ones we hold dear, we cannot be ourselves, and the internal pain inside us all can eventually engulf us.

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About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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