Retrospective

30 years ago, David Lynch’s biggest flop ever redefined the crime thriller movie

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me rewound the clock on television's most iconic small town.

When David Lynch and Mark Frost reached beyond the veil of dreams to reveal the town of Twin Peaks in 1990, television was a different place. At the time, TV screens were alight with soap operas and sitcoms, and while there’s a lot of hand-wringing about how Twin Peaks “challenged” television norms, it’s also important to recognize how enamored its creators were with the tropes of the medium.

From the structure of the police procedural to the unbridled absurdity of soap storytelling, no convention was above reinvention. But if there’s a single archetype that exists primarily because Twin Peaks breathed life into it, it’s the tragedy of the Beautiful Dead Girl.

A horrific and tragic echo of real life, fictional storytelling is populated with missing or murdered young women, often as the catalyst for separate stories that chronicle the investigations into their demises. A frustrating number of these stories revel in the sensationalism and salaciousness of the crimes — a phenomenon that isn’t confined to fiction.

Pop culture’s insatiable appetite for true crime often strips away the grief left in the wake of horrific acts and replaces it with spectacle. And while Twin Peaks does use Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) gruesome demise as a narrative lynchpin, it never forgets her either. 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in particular, forces audiences to live in Laura’s despair and understand her complexity more intimately than ever.

“One cries out from between two worlds…”

Twin Peaks was unceremoniously canceled by ABC shortly following the Season 2 finale. However, only one month after the cancelation, Lynch and the show’s production company, Aaron Spelling Productions, decided to wrap up the narrative of the series with a trilogy of movies. The first of these films, Fire Walk With Me, was a prequel that follows the final days of Laura Palmer and the secrets she carried with her to the grave — secrets that were intended to stretch across the next two films to deliver a non-linear conclusion to the show’s original shocking cliffhanger.

But when the movie first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, the initial reception unceremoniously quashed any chances of the second two films happening. A long-standing, unverified rumor says the room erupted into boos and jeers after the movie was over — a moment film co-writer Robert Engels says never happened.

Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.New Line Cinema

Many people felt that Lynch, a filmmaker who already had a reputation for pushing the boundaries of taste and sensibility, had simply chased his own pretension off the deep end. Even Quentin Tarantino (also at Cannes that year screening his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs) claimed Lynch had “disappeared so far up his own ass” that he famously stated he would never watch another Lynch film until he heard otherwise. The box office was the final nail in the coffin, with the movie grossing only $4.2 million on a budget of $10 million.

In David Hughes' 2002 book The Complete Lynch, Fire Walk With Me editor Mary Sweeney said the reason the film was met with such vitriol is because of one simple fact: it wasn’t the show. Part of the brilliance of the movie is how eager Lynch seems to take a sledgehammer to preconceived notions of what Twin Peaks was. Whereas the series’ first two seasons mix the foreboding supernatural with levity and humor, Fire Walk With Me toils in its own anguish, providing no easy answers or simple solutions to the show’s many mysteries.

The show’s iconic main theme doesn’t come until over 30 minutes into the movie, and it’s accompanied by a sharp visual contrast: Laura Palmer, a symbol of the show’s repeated theme of innocence lost, snorting cocaine in her high school bathroom. Fire Walk With Me, like many of Lynch’s films, seems intent on examining the contrast between the outside and the inside, and how the private strife of individuals can sour a community from within. Not only is Laura suffering internally, but Twin Peaks as a place is also rotting from the inside out — a fact none of the characters who live there are particularly keen on accepting.

At every turn, the movie draws a purposeful line between Laura’s desperate cries for help and the deaf ears they fall upon, emphasizing the tragedy of how she was ultimately failed by those who didn’t know or those who didn’t care enough to help.

Laura Palmer snorts cocaine in a scene from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.New Line Cinema

When talking to interviewer Chris Rodley about his decision to return to Twin Peaks for a prequel, Lynch responded: “I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside.” In Fire Walk With Me, actress Lee is given the space to inhabit those contradictions with heartbreaking rawness. Unlike the TV series, Laura is front and center to live through her own narrative — and to provide audiences with a front-row seat to her crucible.

In what is undeniably one of the greatest performances of all time, Lee embodies Laura in all of her rough edges, bringing humanity and depth to her cocaine addiction, her illicit sex work, and her complicated relationships with her many lovers and friends. Despite the sexual abuse and visceral terrorization she experiences on the regular, Lee never allows Laura to feel one-note in her despair.

Instead, the performer emphasizes the strength of will required to reject the supernatural presence corrupting her father, as well as the compassion she carries for those around her. Even in her darkest moments, fully in the sway of the vices she uses to escape the horrors of her waking life, Laura forges a legacy of light and warmth. Not even the cruelty of her circumstance can rob her of that.

Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.New Line Cinema

It might be easy to see Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as indulgent, pretentious, or impenetrable. The film refuses to hold your hand, and while it mimics something akin to a traditional narrative structure, it also rejects comfortable classification and purposefully crawls under your skin. Others may see the film as brutal for brutality’s sake, as it has one of the most soul-rending depictions of violence ever put to screen.

But where it differs from its contemporaries is in the empathy it has for its central figurehead. In our contemporary media landscape, so much of the TV and film that revolves around acts of violence forgets to center those most affected by it. Fire Walk With Me not only commits to intimately understanding the complexities of TV’s most famous Dead Girl, but its ending also provides a beautiful catharsis by sanctifying Laura in the face of her pain.

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