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We could spend all day talking about how Fire Walk With Me relates to the current return of Twin Peaks but it’s more interesting to consider it as something of a watershed moment in Lynch’s filmography: from this film on his output got stranger, less linear, more experimental. Fire Walk With Me is the transition point between Lynch’s more ‘traditional’ (an oxymoron, I know) phase and the far more out-there brand of film-making he’s consistently indulged in since. This is likely a major factor in the film’s poor reception upon its initial release; people were expecting the regular Twin Peaks they’d become used to from the show but were instead treated to what Lynch truly envisioned for the property when not shackled to network television and its limits. Which, amusingly, is what’s happening again with The Return, people are decrying it as not being the Twin Peaks they wanted but not quite understanding that this is the Twin Peaks Lynch needs to put out there.
The film, especially with the addition of the ‘Missing Pieces’ released a few years ago, plays like an exact blueprint of the current series. The whimsy of the original seasons is massively played down, the tone is darker and more oppressive and while old faces will show up for – narratively pointless – cameos, its main focus is on new or previously underdeveloped characters. The ticking clock nature of its narrative – this being Laura’s final few days – is all that really gives the film a sense of structure. Without that, the film is just as nebulously plotted as the likes of Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway, though not quite the truly anarchic anti-narrative of Inland Empire which remains peak Lynch. It’s closer to a loosely connected series of vignettes showing us the various facets of Laura’s life; her friendships, her substance abuse, her terror, her self-loathing. It’s less of an A-to-B story – we all know where it’s going – and more of a character portrait, an attempt to more fully contextualise a character key to the Twin Peaks mythos but only barely referenced in the show’s initial run.
Like most of Lynch’s films, this is a story about a woman in trouble. However, Laura’s tale is significantly more tragic than any of the others and one without easy redemption or release, death ultimately being her only escape. Sheryl Lee’s commitment to her performance remains laudable to this day, high on melodrama and emotional vulnerability. In just over two hours she manages to imbue Laura with a sense of a full and damaged life in a way the show could only hint at. The visceral nature of the abuse and the implication that Leland was more complicit in BOB’s actions than the show alluded to makes for some truly harrowing sequences. Lynch and Lee have talked since about abuse survivors telling them how authentic the depiction felt. While the scares come from the strange and disconcerting visuals and soundscapes, the horror’s source is undoubtedly this young woman’s self-destructive spiral once she learns what her father’s been doing to her.
The more ancillary elements, while distinctly Lynchian, do distract from the strong dramatic core of Laura’s story. Had Lynch had his way and gotten his three-and a-half-plus hour movie there may have been a better flow to the contrast between the A-plot and the more fragmentary micro-narratives showing us the various residents of the town and lodges. As is though, the film could only have benefited from an even harsher edit, possibly a total excising of the non-vital subplots concerning the returning characters. While the mythos building is deceptively dense, unless you’re willing to read some fan blogs after, the actual content is mercilessly oblique in its presentation. That said, if you’re a fan the extended version of these sequences from the ‘Missing Pieces’ are worth watching especially in the context of the current season and especially-especially because it means another little bit of Bowie.
It’s neither impossible, nor uncommon to watch this even without seeing the show. In fact, if you’ve any interest in Lynch as an artist this is perhaps one of the fullest, most accessible and clearest delineations of a thematic preoccupation that’s permeated the majority his cinematic output. The corruption of innocence by the malignant darkness that lies below the surface of (most often small-town) America – here going even further by Laura’s own father being the face of it – where transcending it is possible but only through death. Unlike Mulholland Drive, which swims in similar waters, here death is not the end as Laura achieves peace and freedom eternally (trapped) in the lodge. It’s among the closest to something resembling unambiguous optimism as you’re likely to get from Lynch and certainly less bleak than the aforementioned Mulholland Drive or the aurally hopeful but ultimately impenetrable ending to Inland Empire.
Regardless of anything else about this film, even the very act of watching it, if you are a human that enjoys good things then you owe it to yourself to pour a glass of wine, light some candles and with your device of choice let those sweet, smooth Badalamenti tunes pour into your earholes. The long-time Lynch collaborator has yet to turn in a bad score but his efforts for this film remain some of his most bold, textured and absorbing. It may seem at odds with the dark subject matter and bleak tone but the, often relaxing, melancholy of the soundscape he’s created is both part of the intentional contrast and in keeping with the film’s mission to take the familiar Twin Peaks and twist it into a more contemplative and emotionally-devouring shape.