David Lynch’s feature prequel to his cult TV show Twin Peaks remains his most controversial film. It was famously met with boos at its Cannes premiere and went on flop massively at the box office – viewers who hadn’t seen the show were left baffled, and even those who had some trouble making sense of its more surreal moments. Of course, watched now in the wake of the equally obtuse Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive it merely seems typically ‘Lynchian’. Fire Walk with Me is not his best film and even at 129 minutes seems incomplete, but as an exercise in sustained menace it has few peers.
The film concentrates on the week leading up to Laura Palmer’s brutal murder, but begins with a thirty minute prologue set a year earlier, as FBI agents Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) investigate the murder of another girl called Teresa Banks. Desmond disappears during the course of the inquiry, and agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is assigned to continue the investigation. One year later in the town of Twin Peaks, high school bad girl Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is set on a self-destructive road of drugs and dangerous sex, and is continually menaced by the terrifying man known only as Bob.
The prologue is more reminiscent of the TV show than anything that follows, from the quivering xylophones on the soundtrack to enigmatic dialogue and a tone pitched somewhere between campy spoof and gritty noir. Isaak and Sutherland are suitably deadpan, while Lynch himself pops up as deaf-as-a-post FBI chief Gordon Cole. The following 90 minutes are infinitely darker however, as Lynch, freed from the constraints of network TV, takes us on a disturbing tour of Laura’s final days. Teresa Banks was killed by Laura’s father Leland (a scary Ray Wise) while possessed by the evil spirit Bob (an even scarier Frank Silva), and it’s the realisation that Bob and Leland are the same man that sends her into a downward spiral – snorting coke, getting banged by strangers in a nightmarish club and generally losing her mind. Sheryl Lee, who only ever really appeared in the series as Laura’s demure cousin Maddy, throws herself fully into the role, constantly on the verge of over-the-top but always staying the right side of it.
Deciphering the numerous references to the TV show relies on a knowledge of the whole thing – especially the programme's end – and not just the better known first series. Most of the cast filmed scenes, but many ended up on the cutting room floor – left in are crazy Bobby and sensible James, the two men in Laura’s life, her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly replacing Lara Flynn Boyle), waitress Shelly and her abusive husband Leo, dodgy bar owner Jaques, Laura’s agrophobic confidant Harold, plus the programme’s surreal regulars The Log Lady, backwards-talking Man From Another Place and Philip Gerard, The One Armed Man. Surreal, unnerving sequences abound – David Bowie as a ranting man in a Hawaiian shirt who marches into FBI offices then promptly disappears, a white horse in Laura’s bedroom, Laura waking next to a bloodied Heather Graham, a creepy kid muttering behind a white mask, the One-Armed Man screaming just inaudible dialogue to Leland at a traffic light, and a variety of freaky scenes set inside the red-curtained Black Lodge.
Most of these make little narrative sense within the context of the film, but do serve do create a mounting sense of dreamlike horror that culminates in Laura’s horrific murder. The sound design is outstanding, Angelo Badalamenti’s ominous score and Lynch’s ambient noises providing a chilling counterpoint to the idyllic appearance of the town itself, as do the haunting songs of Julee Cruise. In the end, how much you like the film depends very much on the level of patience you have for Lynch at his most inpenetrable, but unlike the self-parodying Lost Highway, you do get the sense that there is a sort of logic at work here. Fire Walk with Me is frequently maddening, but undeniably compelling.
One-of-a-kind American writer-director and artist. His low budget debut Eraserhead set the trends for his work: surreal, unnerving but with a unique sense of humour. After Mel Brooks offered him The Elephant Man, Dino De Laurentiis gave Lynch Dune to direct, but it was an unhappy experience for him.
Luckily, despite the failure of Dune, De Laurentiis was prepared to produce Lynch's script for Blue Velvet, which has since become regarded as a classic. He moved into television with Twin Peaks and On the Air, but it was with film that he was most comfortable: Cannes winner Wild at Heart, prequel/sequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, plot-twisting Lost Highway, the out of character but sweet-natured The Straight Story, the mysterious Mulholland Drive and the rambling, willfully obscure Inland Empire. His return to directing after a long gap with the revival of Twin Peaks on television was regarded as a triumph.