“When this kind of fire starts it’s 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
Following hot on the heels of David Lynch’s cult television series Twin Peaks came the feature-length (and then some) follow up, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), released just a year after the series ended disorientingly and divisively in 1991. Many hoped it would wrap up some of the unsolved mysteries and unresolved issues of season two, but instead, Fire Walk with Me is a prequel rather than a sequel. Focused on the final days of the life of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee)—whose dead body opens season one of the show for those who have spent the last 25 years living under a rock—the film steers clear of the plucky Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and the eccentric citizens of Twin Peaks to focus solely on Laura’s torment and abuse at the hands of the entity known as BOB. (Be forewarned, there will be some spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen the series and especially for anyone who hasn’t seen Fire Walk with Me).
Received with a mixed, if not outright hostile critical reception, Fire Walk with Me marks Lynch’s turning point from the surrealistic, if straight forward narratives of his earlier films like Blue Velvet (1986) and towards the nightmarish, psychological terror that has dominated the second half of his career through Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). As a result, it’s one of his least appreciated films, though it’s one of my personal favorites, but it seems to have a resurgence in popularity thanks to the release of Twin Peaks: The Return and a “complete” version of Fire Walk with Me that restores cut footage for a much bulkier narrative.
Thus Maura McHugh’s Fire Walk with Me comes at just the perfect time, when the film is ripe for an all new in depth analysis. Released as part of the Midnight Movie Monograph series from the UK, McHugh’s book is a dense, narrowly focused 100 pages. McHugh, author of Twisted Fairy Tales and Twisted Myths, does a blend of analysis and close reading: she begins with an introduction to Lynch’s life and work before moving on to pick Fire Walk with Me apart, scene by scene. The book is loosely divided into three sections. First comes the aforementioned intro, which will be helpful for anyone not already well-versed in Lynch, but it’s more than just a cursory discussion of the man and the director; this section lays the groundwork for a later exploration of certain themes, such as the role of wilderness in Twin Peaks and Lynch’s obsession with the dark side of idyllic, suburban America.
The second section explores the first part of the film, where FBI agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) investigate the unusual murder of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), which audiences may remember hearing about in the first episodes of Twin Peaks. These early scenes of Fire Walk with Me are utterly unlike Twin Peaks, for all its strangeness, and it actually helps to have this moment-by-moment breakdown by McHugh. As a critical writer, I’ve always lived in a world where these plot heavy discussions are frowned up and, I have to admit, at first I found this early chapter a bit frustrating, because my personal preference is for an academic style of writing that assumes the reader has a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. But there is no one way to get to know these early scenes and understand what Lynch could have meant by them. McHugh frequently (and helpfully) returns to Lynch’s mistrust of language and dialogue, and her very close reading of these early scenes helps put them into perspective—the blue rose, after all, is not just nonsense but is symbolic of a highly coded language.
But the real meat of the book is its final chapters, which offer up an analysis of Laura Palmer herself and her numerous, often painful scenes in Fire Walk with Me. And if I could only pick one reason to recommend McHugh’s monograph, it’s that she clearly understands the heart and soul of Laura’s character—or at least agrees with I believe to be true about Laura, and about Sheryl Lee’s heart-wrenching portrayal of Laura. Some were critical of Lee’s shifting levels of prominence throughout Twin Peaks’ short years: first as a body wrapped in plastic and a portrait of a prom queen to a side role as Laura’s cousin Maddy. But in Fire Walk with Me, Lee was the film’s protagonist and was thrust into the starring role—where I feel Laura truly comes to life (pun not really intended). McHugh writes, “Lee’s performance is first rate here: Laura’s expression shifts from cruel to wheedling in moments. It’s a disturbing, mercurial transformation because it demonstrates her ability to switch personality depending on the demands of her audience. It’s a skill honed by many children who grow up in traumatic environments. It’s a worrying indicator that Laura does not have an intact central identity: she is too busy holding up whatever fractured aspect of herself that others demand in any given situation.”
And it is this type of insight about Laura in Fire Walk with Me where McHugh especially excels. Fire Walk with Me has always been a deeply personal film for me and one that I struggle to talk about in any critically meaningful fashion. For me, Fire Walk with Me and Lynch and Lee’s construction of Laura is the most affecting (and effective) portrait of abuse I’ve come across on screen. To say it’s meant a lot to me would be an understatement, so it’s refreshing to see a book that not only celebrates the film and regards it as an important part of Lynch’s canon, but that adroitly gets to the heart of Laura’s divided nature—and the violent cause of that division: child abuse.
The two worlds that Laura inhabits—the quirky town of Twin Peaks and the hellish domain of the Black Lodge—represents this internal rupture. While there are some chilling moments in the original series (and many more such instances in Twin Peaks: The Return), the most terrifying scenes of Fire Walk with Me are not in the Black Lodge, but in the Palmer family home. McHugh writes of a particular scene where Laura sits down to dinner and is psychologically tormented by her father: “With all the extraordinary scenes of horror and weirdness in FWWM this scene at the Palmer family dinner table is one of the most uncomfortable and difficult to watch, because it is couched in the everyday power dynamics of an unstable household in which no one will speak the truth. There is no need for red curtains or demonic entities.” This is the kind of scene that, if you’ve lived it, makes the film difficult to watch.
Yesterday, I happened to read a personal essay on a blog, “To All the Grown Up Lauras,” which gets at the crux of this in quite a different way than McHugh’s book, though the two share the same ultimate message. In the essay, the author writes of revealing her personal affinity to Laura (and a similar life of abuse) in a chatroom, where she mentioned that she felt lucky to have survived her ordeal. A stranger responded to her, saying, “If you are a Laura, and are still here and are okay, you saved yourself. You were the hero of your story and I applaud you.”
And this is the true wonder of Fire Walk with Me, a conclusion McHugh also reaches by the end of her book: Laura retroactively becomes the hero of her story, the hero of the Twin Peaks universe, eclipsing even Dale Cooper. McHugh writes, “Perhaps another reason for the antagonistic, negative reaction to the film is that it challenges the people who loved the TV show for its charm and kookiness, by reminding them of the genuine horror at its centre. It underlines that rape, incest, and two gruesome deaths were the inciting incidents for their entertainment. By giving Teresa and Laura personality and life the film disrupts the conventional narrative in which murdered women are quiescent and silent, and it is up to clever men to solve their deaths. Detectives in FWWM are wholly useless.”
In short, the book comes recommended, particularly for: anyone new to Fire Walk with Me who is struggling to understand this shift in the Twin Peaks universe; to anyone who has seen the film but is skeptical of its value; to anyone about to watch Twin Peaks: The Return who is confused about the vast jump in tone from the original series; and, most of all, to all the other grown up Lauras wanting more insight into this truly singular character.