‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’: David Lynch’s American Nightmare
“When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy.” ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’
David Lynch’s mind is a labyrinth I’d never want to enter, but when I watch his films, I wish they’d never end. At once foreign and familiar, his films take us to realms that are instantly recognizable, so long as we abandon all reason upon arrival.
Some auteurs start off in the mainstream and gradually become more avant-garde as their careers progress. Lynch is not one of them. His debut feature film Erasorhead (1977), about a couple that gives birth to a lizard-like creature, catapulted him to the center of the Midnight Movie scene. It’s not even his strangest concept.
Each film is more bonkers than the next, but they can’t be dismissed. The artistry on display demands our attention and admiration. Even The Straight Story (1999) is bizarre for where it sits within Lynch’s body of work. It’s undoubtedly Lynch’s sweetest and most straight-forward tale, and comes right after Lost Highway (1997), his darkest and most disorienting. Surely that counts for something.
The Lynch film that fascinates me the most is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Maligned when it premiered at Cannes in 1992 (Quentin Tarantino famously quipped: “David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different”), the film was considered a critical and commercial disaster. In his harsh review for The New York Times, Vincent Camby captured the consensus at the time: “It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be.”
The polarizing reception alone is very Lynch. For an uncompromising auteur who pushes cinematic boundaries as far as he can, it makes sense that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me would be perceived as a betrayal. At the time it challenged viewers too much and they simply weren’t ready for it.
Martyn Conterio explains:
“The show’s rabid fanbase were feverishly expecting another slice of quirky cherry pie on a bigger canvas, with all their favourite characters back and as adorably odd as ever. Instead, they were presented with an intense, sordid, phantasmagorical tragedy about sexual abuse and loneliness, filled with bizarre sequences and wacky details.”
In 2013, Marsh made a bold proclamation: “In its own singular, deeply strange way, ‘Fire Walk with Me’ is David Lynch’s masterpiece.” To anger detractors even more, the film was given the Criterion Collection treatment in 2017, as if to reaffirm Marsh’s claim and reposition the film as a significant, if not the significant, entry in Lynch’s canon.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is the purest distillation of Lynch’s nightmarish vision, what writer David Foster Wallace once defined as Lynchian.
For Wallace, the term Lynchian refers to “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” When pressed by Charlie Rose to explain why Lynch is so unique, Wallace said, “The number of film directors who get national distribution in [the United States] who are truly interesting as artists is very, very small, and Lynch is one of them.”
More than any other Lynch film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me balances that line between the macabre and the mundane. It infuses scenes of ordinary suburban life with off-kilter sounds and images. Nothing is ever as it appears to be. Beyond the surface of the serene American dream is a sinister American nightmare.
In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the dream is the picture-perfect life Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) seems to lead in the small suburban town of Twin Peaks. The nightmare is what’s really happening behind the white picket fence, namely, years of sexual abuse at the hands of her psychotic father Leland (Ray Wise). Laura harbors this secret and the shame it causes her. To cope, she creates fantasies. She claims a spirit named BOB sneaks into her window every night to attack her. In one horrifying scene, we see it happen as she describes it, but then BOB becomes Leland and the horror of her plight is rendered all too real.
High school homecoming queen by day, promiscuous drug addict by night, Laura is the quintessential Lynchian heroine. As viewers, we’re never quite sure what’s really happening to her and what’s in her head. Are all the spirits just symbols meant to embody an internal trauma, or do they actually exist as external forces in the town itself? Can it be both?
The biggest mistake people make is trying to interpret Lynch’s films. The desire to uncover what it all means is understandable, but it’s a futile undertaking. The distorted sounds and disjointed images deliberately counter classical continuity logic. What we’re left with, instead, is a surreal logic. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me isn’t meant to be analyzed for some deeper meaning. It’s meant to be experienced, as a nightmare would, and leave us with a deeper feeling.
And what feelings! The two stand-out sequences that resonate are likely what caused such an uproar at Cannes. The first, an extended sequence at a bar, is familiar terrain for those who’ve seen a Lynch film. When the sun goes down, characters convene in seedy, neon-soaked spots on the edge of town where all the creatures of the night come out to play. In Blue Velvet (1986), it’s the Slow Room. In Mulholland Dr. (2001), it’s Club Silencio. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, it’s the Roadhouse, a local bar where Laura and her friend Donna (Moira Kelly) meet their drug connections.
The sequence casts a hypnotic spell. When Laura first walks into the Roadhouse and watches Julee Cruise sing “Questions in a World of Blue,” she breaks down and cries. This is similar to the sequence at Club Silencio in Mulholland Dr., when Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring) break down and cry after watching Rebekah Del Rio perform “Llorando,” an a cappella rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”
Why does Lynch like to spend so much time at sad bars, and why do the sad songs always seem to move his characters to tears? The lure, I think, both for Lynch as an auteur and for us as the audience, is that these sequences are purely cinematic.
The mood at the Roadhouse is at first wistful and melancholy, but it quickly becomes wild and manic when Laura and Donna go with the men to the Pink Room. Lynch cranks up Angelo Badalamenti’s score and fills the screen with smoke and flashing neon lights. Laura and Donna let loose and start taking off their clothes and dancing with the men. At one point, the camera spins around the room, mirroring Donna’s confused state.
Throughout the sequence, we never forget that we’re observing old men prey upon vulnerable teenage girls. To be sickened is the point. When we watch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, we don’t feel like we’re lost in a story about characters, waiting to get from point A to B. We feel like we’re lost in a hallucinatory nightmare, waiting to get from one harrowing moment to the next.
If the Roadhouse shows us Laura’s potential destroyed by drug use and promiscuity, the final sequence reminds us how she got to that place of hopelessness. Laura is ultimately killed by her father Leland, the same man who stripped away her innocence years ago when he started sexually assaulting her. In his finest moment, Lynch pulls no punches. This is a brutal sequence that conveys the terror of sexual assault and trauma and the evil that causes it through grueling sounds and grotesque images. As difficult as it is to witness, Lynch’s bravura filmmaking makes it worthwhile.
Laura is last seen laughing in the Red Room next to Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), her symbolic guardian angel, while a literal guardian angel is hovering above her. What’s real and what’s imagined? As with any Lynch film, the more you try to understand Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the less you know.
Lynch challenges us to confront the monsters that dwell in the dark. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a pitch black vision of evil that can only come from cinema, or in Lynch’s case, the cinema of our nightmares. Fortunately for us, this is one nightmare from which we don’t want to wake.