Revisiting the Nightmarish Twin Peaks Movie

Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch’s film version of his hit series, was derided upon release. Today, it might offer a glimpse of what’s to come in his Showtime revival.

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Even watching it today, 25 years after it premiered at Cannes to a chorus of boos, it’s hard not to think of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as an intentional act of sabotage by David Lynch. The film was based on the TV series that the director had co-created with Mark Frost in 1990; it was canceled the following year when ratings plummeted and critics turned on it. But Lynch, who had largely stepped away from the show in its second season, said he couldn’t resist returning to the story with the film. He wanted to explore the final days of Laura Palmer, whose murder was the show’s central mystery, and dig into the contradiction of the beloved prom queen wrestling with unspoken darkness.

What Lynch ended up making was enough to destroy any notion that Twin Peaks could still appeal to the kind of broad audience it had captured on ABC when it debuted. Fire Walk With Me is abrasively surreal, includes scenes of shocking sex and violence, and barely devotes any time to the TV show’s core cast outside of Sheryl Lee (who played Laura) and Ray Wise (her father Leland). It was a box-office bomb and a critical disaster, one that signaled Lynch’s definitive move away from his slightly more accessible, narratively focused ’80s output (including The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet) into more overtly bizarre territory (Lost Highway, Inland Empire). But according to Lynch, who is now reviving Twin Peaks for Showtime, Fire Walk With Me is also the most important key to understanding what comes next.

That Twin Peaks is returning to television feels both entirely predictable and yet completely surprising. On one hand, its brand is as recognizable as ever: New generations of fans have discovered it on Netflix, and the show practically invented the “auteurist” idea of creator-driven TV that now pervades every premium network. On the other, Twin Peaks never could have returned without the involvement of Lynch, and after Fire Walk With Me, he’s rarely worked in Hollywood. All of his films since were financed with European money (the exception being 1999’s The Straight Story, a lovely G-rated oddity that was financed by Disney). His one effort to return to television production was Mulholland Dr., and the pilot episode he delivered was too strange for ABC (he later turned it into a film with $7 million in French funding).

It’s difficult to imagine Lynch making a straightforward season in the highly structured, note-heavy world of U.S. television production. So it’s reasonable to think Showtime’s Twin Peaks, premiering on May 21 and running for 18 episodes (all written by Lynch and Frost and directed by Lynch), could be as unusual and jarring as Fire Walk With Me. Critics aren’t getting screeners in advance, and even Showtime’s president, David Nevins, has allowed that the new show will be different than the ABC series. “I think he’s evolved to an even more extreme version of himself, but all of the [Lynch] themes are visible,” he told Variety of the director. “He has certain ideas about the ideal of America. Not to relate it too much to the present, but he has certain ideas about Midwestern American wholesomeness. But I think he’s also incredibly aware of the flip side of it.”

Lynch has long examined the underpinnings of that wholesomeness, from the quiet charm of The Straight Story to the disturbing Blue Velvet, but the world of Twin Peaks served as his biggest playground. It wasn’t just the outwardly friendly mountain town that Lynch so delighted in picking apart, but also the soapy construction of television itself. The show often bordered on the satirical with its many plot twists, including a litany of affairs, various bouts of amnesia and personality-swapping, and ludicrously sprawling criminal enterprises. But all that melodrama was driven by something ugly and perverse, and the revelation of Laura Palmer’s murderer remains one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen broadcast on network TV.

When her father Leland, possessed by the evil entity Bob (Frank Silva), attacks Laura’s cousin Maddy (also played by Lee) in the Season 2 episode “Lonely Souls” (directed by Lynch), the show shifts into super slow-motion, with a spotlight aimed at the pair as Leland grabs Maddy and beats her to death, her screams warped by the reduced speed into something more guttural. 1992’s Fire Walk With Me takes the mood of that scene, and the similarly upsetting series finale (which Lynch also directed), and runs with it. Suddenly, the darkness underlying the world of the show is entirely in the foreground, and all the strange whimsy that drew in huge audiences mostly falls away.

Fire Walk With Me actually starts out with a decent heaping of that idiosyncratic humor, with the first half-hour following Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) as they investigate a murder case similar to Laura Palmer’s, a year before she died. After that segment comes a weird interlude featuring Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, who had become increasingly wary of the show’s sway over his career) and a former FBI colleague played by David Bowie. But Lynch then quickly gets to the real story he wants to tell—the last days of Laura Palmer.

Lynch had cast Lee in the role of Twin Peaks’ murder victim based on a headshot; he grew so fond of her brief performance in the pilot episode (which amounted to little more than a home-video clip) that he wrote her the role of Maddy (Laura’s exact double) just to keep her around. In Fire Walk With Me, she finally gets to flesh out the bundle of contradictions that Laura had become in the TV show—a popular, pretty, well-liked high school student who was also a cocaine addict, part-time prostitute, and, it’s eventually revealed, a victim of abuse at the hands of her father, who eventually murdered her.

Lee’s work in Fire Walk With Me is astounding, flitting between childlike horror and world-weary depression with ease, and somehow managing to emotionally ground Laura’s realizations about what is happening to her, even as Lynch portrays it with his usual impressionistic flair. Fire Walk With Me has plenty of the hallmarks people remembered and loved from Twin Peaks—the mysterious Black Lodge, the supernatural beings like Bob and The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson), Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting score. But its mood is one of such pervasive dread, as Laura realizes (in between scenes of debauchery and horrifying visions of the future) that she is going to die.

Maybe the strangest thing about Fire Walk With Me is that it does, essentially, answer the questions about Laura’s death that had been left dangling by Twin Peaks’ untimely cancellation. But those answers, as The Atlantic’s James Parker recently noted, were as confusing as many of Lynch’s stories often are. Laura’s murder revolved around a substance called “garmonbozia,” some mythical synthesis of human pain and suffering; the creatures of the Black Lodge, including the demonic Bob, crave it as sustenance, using Leland as a vessel to extract it.

That revelation is one part of Fire Walk With Me’s denouement: a vision of outstretched hands, cradling a pile of creamed corn (the garmonbozia), created from the blood Leland shed in the murder of his daughter. But the other part of that denouement is the murder itself, a terrifying spectacle in which Lynch re-uses his visual motif of a blinding white spotlight, flashing it across Laura and Leland’s faces as she meets her grisly end. Lee plays Laura’s fear as devastatingly real in a whirlwind of nightmares, and it’s all credit to her and Lynch that the film still feels frightening in a human, rather than an abstract, way.

When Twin Peaks returns this Sunday, it will surely harken back to the weirdness, and even the horror, of Fire Walk With Me. Showtime’s comfort with darker, more violent content, and Lynch’s later-career swerve towards the macabre, should guarantee that, along with his insistence that his 1992 film is crucial to the series’s future. The bigger challenge for Lynch will be harkening back to the movie’s humanity—and rediscovering his compassion for Twin Peaks’ characters amid all the surreal wonder.