15 May 2007

Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch & Robert Engels

Grade: A

When Twin Peaks, the popular '90s television series on ABC, was about to be cancelled due to declining ratings (and, arguably, quality), David Lynch returned, after a long hiatus from the show he had co-created, to direct its final episode. And what a cruel episode it is, packed with cliffhangers, leaving many beloved characters for dead or seemingly possessed by evil spirits, as well as featuring interminable—and hilarious—passages in which nearly literally nothing happens. (For example, there's a shot that lasts several minutes of an old man slowly walking back and forth across a room.) Fiercely loyal fans, who had coalesced into what you could call a "cult following", understandably wanted more, and it looked like they were going to get it: David Lynch announced he would be revisiting the world of Twin Peaks, later saying, "I couldn't get myself to leave [it]." The resulting film, Fire Walk with Me, is a prequel of sorts, taking its name from the line in a quatrain oft-repeated in the television series:

Through the darkness of future past,
The magician longs to see
Once chants out between two worlds:
Fire, walk with me.

That poem is about as obscure as the film itself, which was met at the time of its release by unanimous critical and popular contempt, unsurprisingly. (It was booed at Cannes, where Lynch had won the Palme d'Or two years earlier for Wild at Heart.) Fire Walk with Me is as mean-spirited a "fuck you" to the show's fans as the final episode was, Lynch bitterly purging the show and its characters from his psyche. Appropriately, then, the film opens with the smashing of a television set. Its opening thirty minutes focus on the investigation into the disappearance of Teresa Banks from Deer Meadow, ND, and introduces almost entirely new characters, most prominently Special Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his Capote-esque partner, played with a blinking problem by Kiefer Sutherland. Deer Meadow is, consciously, the anti-Twin Peaks, a small town entirely devoid of charm: the sheriff's station is uncooperative, hostile and downright rude, as are the patrons and proprietor of a nearby diner, contrasting sharply to Agent Cooper's (Kyle Maclachlan) reception in the first season of the show and Twin Peaks' corresponding characters. "You wanna hear about our specials?" the anti-Norma diner owner asks through her rotting teeth, between puffs of smoke, adding, after a beat, "We don't have any."

Though what starts off as a surreal procedural changes gears a few reels in, becoming a character drama concerning that familiar Lynch theme—a woman in trouble. Lynch, and the film, finally get to Twin Peaks, and as the theme song blares from the speakers any fan of the show's heart jumps—Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is alive, and beautiful as she strolls down the gorgeous tree-lined streets. She meets Donna (Moira Kelly), unfortunately not played by Lara Flynn Boyle due to a scheduling conflict, and the two walk to school together. It's an idyllic sequence, the soft beauty of the suburbs shot in a dreamy haze, reflecting the innocence of its high-school aged characters. When they arrive at school, Laura bids adieu to Donna as she enters the ladies room, where she flops into a stall for a bump of cocaine. Suddenly you have the feeling, this isn't going to go as well as I may have hoped.

Like a lot of Lynch's other work, most notably Blue Velvet with its macrolens shot of nasty black beetles beneath the surface of the green lawngrass, Fire Walk with Me exposes the dark underside of the American small town, stripping it of its typical romantic regard. (The intention is announced right from the start, as fans will notice that the credits roll over blue static, blatantly recalling the blue velvet backdrop of Blue Velvet's opening credits.) Chet Desmond is introduced searching and arresting people outside a schoolbus while the children scream and cry inside, thusly reinventing a familiar icon of Americana as a symbol of pain and fear, or "garmonbozia" in Lynchspeak.

(Spoilers follow; while I believe, unpopularly, that Fire Walk with Me can still function as a stand alone film, seeing it before one goes through the two seasons of Twin Peaks spoils the show's central mystery of who killed Laura Palmer.)

Fire Walk with Me drops most of the television series' beloved humor for a far darker tone; but that only makes sense, because a whimsical quirkiness would be inappropriate for a movie about rape, incest, and filicide. Laura Palmer, homecoming queen, is rapidly unravelling psychologically; consider the following exchange:
Donna: "If you were falling in space, do you think you'd slow down after a while or go faster and faster?"
Laura: "Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn't feel anything. And then you'd burst into fire."

It's essentially a quick rundown of Laura's emotional progression; deeply involved in dangerous drug deals and salacious exploits, her freefall's spinning out of control, and she's about to be set ablaze. Laura's leading a double life and can't sustain it much longer; as she says to one of her lovers, James, "your Laura is dead." Pretty soon, everybody's Laura will be dead, in a less figurative and far more literal sense.

When she realizes pages from her diary have been torn out, she rushes tearfully to her friend Harold and explains that BOB must've taken them. "But BOB isn't real," Harold assures her. "BOB is real," Laura explains, "he's been having me since I was twelve." She then reveals that BOB has informed her that he wants to be her, or he'll kill her.

BOB is the central villain in Twin Peaks' mythos, but it's unclear what or who exactly BOB is. Is BOB an evil spirit? A poetic personification of the evil that men do? It depends how you want to read it, but what's certain is that, at least for the time being, BOB is Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Laura's father; and though one supposes Laura has always subconsciously understood this, when she comes to realize it for certain it's a devestating, disgusting and terrifying scene. Sheryl Lee, who was a "local girl from Seattle" (according to Wikipedia) before being cast to play a dead body on Twin Peaks, shows off an impressive range in an incredible performance that goes through a plethora of emotions and mental states, often within a single scene, from hysterical high school girl to sultry sextress. One moment she is as frail as a sixteen year old, the other as self-assured as though in her late thirties. At times it could be argued that she's a little over the top, but given the nature of the story and the style of the film and its director, her performance is a perfect complement to the material.

Lynch's standard surrealist style is also a perfect fit to the story, a depraved tale of brutality, fear and torment. How else to express the psychological breakdown of a young girl being sexually abused by her father, other than in a dreamlike and abstract style? How can one begin to make literal sense of such aberrant behavior and the toll it takes on its victims? (Look to any Lifetime original movie for the answer.) Fire Walk with Me is an impressionistic nightmare, and features many frightening scenes, of which Leland demanding that his daughter wash her filthy hands, and a traffic jam in which Mike, the one-armed man and BOB's archnemesis, screams at Laura, "it's him! It's your father!" as a deafening cacophony of honking horns sound stand-out the most. "What's the world coming to?" Leland asks rhetorically after the incident. Indeed, sir!

"There's no tomorrow," Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz) tells Laura at a strobelit sex club. "Know why, baby? 'Cos it'll never get here." Sadly, that's true for Laura, who ends the film as dead as she was in Twin Peaks' pilot. While the TV show ordinarily kept its violence subtle and off-screen, Fire Walk with Me brings it unabashedly to the forefront, just one more way in which it seems like Lynch is angrily challening Peaks fans. "You want to see more Twin Peaks? How about Leland fucking his daughter?" A man is seen shot in the skull during a drug deal with greusomeness worthy of Croenenberg; Agent Desmond resorts to violence against a Deer Meadow deputy; Leo smacks Shelly in the face; Laura hits James in the face; Heidi has a bloody-nose; a microscope examines the flesh hanging to an excoriated fingernail. Some of those scenes, though not all, are actually pretty funny, but they're symptomatic of the violent vision Lynch has for the film, which culminates, in the unsparing final reel, in Laura's brutal, bloody murder in the traincar at the hands of her (jealous?) father/BOB, after a violent sexual encounter with Jacques and Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe).

Fire Walk with Me does however, thankfully, end on as positive a note as it could, with Laura Palmer crying tears of joy; however, earlier Agent Cooper is describing to his colleague Albert (Miguel Ferrer) the vision of Laura Palmer he has before she's killed (and before he knows who she is.) Albert asks Cooper to describe her: "She's sexually active...she's using drugs...she's crying out for help."

"Damn Coop," Albert responds, "that's half the high school girls in America!" It's a hilarious line, but one that nonetheless indicates the darkness of the film doesn't end when the final reel passes through the projector; the violent debauchery of Fire Walk with Me is Reagan/Bush's America, and we all have our own Laura Palmer.


Clayton L. White said...

You are really one of only a few critics that I have read that truly understood this movie. I saw this film without seeing the entire series, that may have ruined the series for me, but it only added to the hypnotic effect of the film. I have always been amazed at the negative reaction to this film. Wild at Heart, which I think is Lynch's worst film (besides Dune of course) wins the Palme D'or, but this one gets booed, I don't understand that. I think this is a horror film of the highest order, and you really hit the nail on the head in your review. By the way, the scene in the sex club is one of the most heartbreaking and terrifying scenes I've ever seen in any film.

Clayton L. White said...

And Sheryl Lee is phenomenal. It's sad she hasn't had much of a career since.

Anonymous said...

I could understand how this movie might confuse people or turn them off or cause them to write it off as pretentious (though of course I disagree), but the vehement contempt it spawned is surprising and definitely unwarranted. I guess the show was just that popular. Glad we agree on this one! Unfortunately, I think you're wrong about Wild at Heart; maybe, for a director whose body of work is so strong, it's the weakest entry in his canon, but it's still very good!

Clayton L. White said...

"Worst film" may have been the wrong way to put it, but I really have never been able to get into Wild at Heart. I've seen it a couple times, but something about it really turned me off. That being said, I've loved every other movie he's made (except Dune, which doesn't really count anyway).