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.